On Friday, December 16, 2022, one of the co-authors of this article, Efrem Zelony-Mindell, was arrested and charged by the FBI for the attempted enticement of one minor boy in Manhattan, New York, and possession and distribution of child pornography. I mean, Jesus Christ. The case is so viscerally revolting that we can barely read it ourselves, given we thought we knew this person. So, we here at Filthy Dreams were faced with a decision: What are we supposed to do?! Pretend this never happened?! Delete all the articles? That felt cowardly and not exposing how he was able to embed himself into the arts community. So we’re adding this warning to the articles because it also didn’t feel right to ignore it completely:
Why hello there, dearest Filthy Dreams readers! Are you ready for a scare? Or just some nonsensical artspeak straight from the mouth of a cut and campy Jake Gyllenhaal? Us too! As some of you may know, the art worlds are all a-flutter with talk of Netflix’s recently released art world/horror flick Velvet Buzzsaw, directed by Dan Gilroy. And, of course, we wanted to put our two cents into the mix of divisive criticism about this trash classic. So we gathered together contributors Deborah Krieger and Efrem Zelony-Mindell and your faithful co-founder Emily Colucci together for a threeway…I mean, a threeway conversation about the film! (What did you think that meant?!). We’re covering everything from the quality of both the art and the deaths in the film to why The Square is a better and more biting satire of the art world to the lap-searing perils of naked art criticism, as well as everything in between (Also word of warning: Spoilers within!):
Emily: You ready to do some criticism?
Deborah: OKAY, none of us look like that doing criticism.
Efrem: Not generally no.
Emily: What? That’s exactly how I am right now. In my fancy mid-century-filled home with a pool, naked.
Deborah: Notwithstanding the discomfort I assume that comes of keeping a laptop on a naked lap….
Efrem: That’s how I dream of doing criticism, though that would be rather warm.
Emily: I think a lot of the art world has been viewing the film through the lens of whether it is realistic or not. So the big question is: what did you think of the depiction of the art world?
Efrem: 50% satire, 50% surprisingly accurate actually.
Deborah: I’ve worked in a few galleries as an intern. I guess it came across as surface-level accurate in terms of what the spaces look like, the attitudes, etc., but it didn’t seem to be populated by real people. It seems as though people who have watched it who AREN’T in the art world seem to think it’s more accurate? Most of what Rene Russo’s Rhodora said in terms of discussing the art proper felt like word salad to me, as if it was written by someone who is writing artspeak learned phonetically, rather than using ten-dollar words knowing what they mean.
Emily: In some parts, it reminded me of that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia episode in which Frank pretends to be an art collector. He even had the same wig as Gretchen.
Efrem: I think a lot of the personalities were like real people, but on steroids. But in between, things felt surprisingly on point. Though I really didn’t understand the purpose of John Malkovich’s character, I think he surprisingly grounded things.
Emily: John Malkovich as Damien Hirst/Jeff Koons.
Deborah: I think Malkovich was sort of meant to be a future of who Daveed Diggs’s character Damrish could have become if he stayed with Rhodora’s gallery. I got a Pollock vibe from him if only because of the mentions of his alcoholism?
I wonder what Ruben Ostlund [director of The Square] and Dan Gilroy [director of Velvet Buzzsaw] did in terms of researching for accuracy, because the satire in The Square felt way more pointed and sharp in its targets, whereas Buzzsaw was like “LOOK AT THIS STRANGENESS” in general.
Efrem: The Square feels a lot more real.
Emily: The Square captures just how mundane the art world really is. It’s not as glamorous as in Velvet Buzzsaw.
Efrem: Is the art world glamorous? Or just parading to be?
Emily: It’s not glamorous, which is why I think Velvet Buzzsaw wasn’t so accurate. The Dease opening, for example, people were drinking fancy flutes of rose champagne. That’s not what openings are like. They’re with trashy Trader Joe’s two buck chuck.
Deborah: I think that was the point of The Square: the glamorousness is contrived, and only accessible for the privileged few.
Efrem: Whereas in Buzzsaw everyone just seems to be privileged.
Deborah: I was confused as to how Buzzsaw thinks the art world works. Like. What publication does Gyllenhaal write for that he’s SO POWERFUL? It’s never mentioned. Is he just a famous guy with a blog?
Emily: It is mentioned! He works for Artweb, which I think is so funny.They’re giving a writer from an online publication that much clout? No way…
Deborah: Oh! Is that supposed to be Artnet?
Efrem: Definitely sounds like a stab at Artnet. I liked all those stabs. Like LAMA. On the floor!
Emily: I wonder like you said before, Deborah, about the research that was done. Some of it feels so spot-on, like how the art handler character kept insisting that he was more than a manual laborer.
Efrem: The preparator and Coco [the gallerina] made the movie I think. Spot-on humans and figures in the art world.
Emily: Coco is my favorite. I have an alternate theory that it wasn’t Dease’s paintings killing everyone, but the repressed rage of Coco. But that’s just my own interpretation. Why is she finding all the bodies, huh?
Efrem: PLOT TWIST!
Deborah: I like that, but then how did Josephina die? And how did Rhodora die?
Emily: Josephina is an outlier, but let me have my alternate interpretation.
Deborah: It seems like the idea was that the greedy eyes, through which they view art as a commodity, makes it a kind of poison, so that all visual art things turn toxic? Because the buzzsaw tattoo kills Rhodora. Coco doesn’t die because she’s not obsessed with turning a profit and becoming famous. She wants to work, even if Fancy Earring Gallery Man won’t hire her.
Efrem: Maybe a little off topic at this current part in our chat, but who in the hell thought the name of Rhodora’s band was a good idea for the name of the movie?
Deborah: I wonder if they were trying to catch the tailwinds of campiness since it makes me think of Velvet Goldmine. That’s my immediate association. Y’all, what if the velvet buzzsaw was the friends we made along the way? What if ART is the velvet buzzsaw? Beautiful but violent.
Efrem: Oh hey! Have we hit a deeper metaphor here?
Emily: Doesn’t Rhodora say all art is dangerous at some point?
Efrem: I can’t believe that movie has that kind of power. I agree with that though. It’s moments like that which really drew me in.
Deborah: What did you all think of the ACTUAL ART in the movie?
Emily: Oh, Dease’s art was godawful. I loved it. It looked like something haunted you’d buy at a thrift store, which I guess that was the look they were going for.
Deborah: Some of it was genuinely creepy. Some of paint handling was almost Hals/Bacon-y. Super meaty and fleshy and visceral.
Efrem: His studio was exactly Bacon. The paintings felt impressionistic. Something Robert Henri would teach folks to paint.
Deborah: He was clearly of the Ashcan School. I love how the horror trait of having pictures and sketches clumped on a wall doesn’t translate well to art because… it’s not weird to have a wall filled with sketches. Like, the reveal of the sketches kind of cites the “murder stalker wall” cliché in horror, but it’s not weird for an artist to have all that, which I think indicates a limitation of combining art and horror. It’s creepy for a horror movie, but totally not weird for an artist to have this on his wall.
Emily: I guess they were going for an art-related episode of Hoarders aesthetic. That’s not actually threatening in real life in a studio.
Efrem: Again, another pretty accurate touch.
Deborah: Accurate in portrayal, but perhaps less accurate in connotation. Also the robot was SO CREEPY.
Emily: That robot was terrifying, but also terrible art…”Once, I built a railroad”
Deborah: The best scary visual moment was the graffiti art killing Josephina. That was genuinely a good use of the materials of the art being frightening.
Efrem: The whole thing is this collision of touches of thoughtfulness with all personalities and possibilities turned up to 100% camp. I did enjoy how Josephina’s death was handled. Seeing it come after her was genuinely terrifying..
Deborah: I really liked how Josephina’s death scene played out, with the Dease stuck on her screen as a sort of Weeping Angel type of thing and then, she’s stuck in place BY THE ART that she had scorned until it kills her.
The weird orb thing felt like a parody of the Kusama Infinity Room but like, inverted.
Efrem: Somehow mashed with Kapoor.
Deborah: I think the museum/gallery differences are a weak point. Like, museums plan out shows so far in advance.
Efrem: I loved that Gretchen went into her buyer’s desire for a tax cut as a way to legitimize having a show so soon. There were so many things that I actually found myself rolling my eyes at in a genuine way.
Deborah: How did Gretchen ever get a job in the nonprofit museum sector when her eyes are made of dollar signs? Most of what Morf said registered as overpretentious artspeak I swear I’ve read before.
Emily: I did like Gretchen and Morf’s friendship, because I think it really typified how un-objective criticism really is. He’s yelling about the purity of his vision, while he’s BFFs with all these gallerists and consultants.
Deborah: Do you think that that’s how it is when you have a Famous Critic? Is that a byproduct?
Emily: Yes, that is 100% what happens when you’re a famous critic. I don’t think you can go to the dinners and benefits, and also be a good critic.
Efrem: There’s one thing that Morf said that I wanted to ask us. Do you think critics are the actual gods of the art world? It seems like the words that are said hold a lot of power and artists seem beholden sometimes to the wants of those words.
Deborah: I don’t think so. I think maybe they were when Clement Greenberg was kicking, but I don’t think so at all in 2018-9.
Emily: I think that’s one of the things the film fundamentally gets wrong. Nobody cares about criticism anymore.
Efrem: When everyone thinks that being the artist is the tippy top. It seems like artists look up at critics.
Emily: I think anymore it’s a closed circuit system between the galleries and the collectors. Mega collectors buy work because it’s at the biggest blue chip galleries like David Zwirner. I think the place of art criticism, like all publishing right now, is in such flux. Artists look up to art critics, but I’m not sure galleries see it as anything other than free advertising.
Efrem: I definitely agree that galleries see it as free publicity.
Deborah: I do think that movie criticism has become much more powerful, because of things like Rotten Tomatoes where some movies can be totally killed at the box office by an influx of bad notices.
Efrem: But it seems strange sometimes that there is always someone else on top of what seems like the top.
Emily: Yeah, I don’t think a bad review holds much weight in the art world much anymore. Mostly because, who writes bad reviews?
Efrem: Any press is good press.
Deborah: But is it a symptom of the art world being so disconnected from people’s lives that art critics aren’t these godlike voices, or a symptom of collectors and galleries not caring? Who are critics writing for, then? Other critics.
Efrem: Is it naive to think that what it means to the artist is more important? Maybe I’m making it too personal.
Deborah: Which I think is a weakness of the film, in that you’d think Morf would have more interactions with other critics than with artists, but that might just be me.
Efrem: This is the most interaction with other critics I’ve had probably ever. HAHA!
Emily: Well, like Morf, I pretty much avoid all our fellow art critics as much as I can.
Deborah: If critical views aren’t going to change who buys what, and if the art world is so disconnected from the rest of society that people don’t read art criticism, then who is the audience of art criticism?
Efrem: The movie kind of touches on that. It seems like the gallerists are the only ones reading. Get it in the right publication and it launches the work. But what of the words?
Deborah: But does it?
Emily: That question is my constant existential crisis. For me, I like to support and give context to art I really love, while criticizing particularly powerful institutions that could do better. But in terms of the Artweb types, I cannot figure it out. Proximity to power, I assume.
Efrem: I know Morf is a ridiculous over the top dreamer, but can he really say something that anyone hears?
Deborah: I mean, he’s clearly just word salading here:
Emily: Especially about that piece–Go-Pro Kindergarten! I want to know what his Artweb salary was.
Deborah: Why did Morf have a flip phone?
Efrem: Smashed it when he yelled at Gretchen. Smashed his smartphone, I mean.
Deborah: But why didn’t he buy another one? Why was it an Adele Flip Phone?
Emily: He’s old school.
Deborah: What did we think of Josephina’s character? I couldn’t figure out if she originally had a conscience and then smothered it, or didn’t really have one to begin with.
Efrem: The movie started and was over too quick to tell. The whole thing moved so fast. Confession: I actually thought this was a series when I started watching. Only after an hour in did I realize it was a movie.
Emily: Her character was pretty poorly developed. She wasn’t an over-the-top stereotype like Gretchen, so she needed to be developed more. And I’d watch the series!
Efrem: SAME! I was a little disappointed. I really enjoyed Buzzsaw, I have to say. Car crashes are great.
Emily: I also feel like Josephina’s relationship with Rhodora was interesting. Nobody has those talks with their gallery owner/boss:
Deborah: Rhodora was interesting because she’d once been an artist-musician and very, very consciously went for the cash instead, and you can tell that she has those twinges of conscience. Velvet Buzzsaw went commercial, but she also clearly was interested in the art aspect of the business.
Efrem: I liked her best. She felt quite genuine actually.
Deborah: I’m more familiar with galleries in LA by virtue of having grown up there. Do you think that there’s any actual reason this movie was set in LA versus NYC? I know Gilroy loves LA. Did the mechanics/plot feel necessarily LA to you?
Emily: Not particularly to me. I was wondering though about an LA perspective because I know NYC better.
Efrem: Do you think the flamboyance of it was better suited for LA?
Deborah: I don’t think super creepy art would sell as well in LA, to be honest. There’d be more celebrities from Hollywood everywhere buying things. I’m thinking of what I see being sold at Bergamot Station gallery complex in Santa Monica. It’s just not as creepy and weird as the work in the movie, generally.
Efrem: There were so many things left unsaid. Who was Gretchen’s buyer? There was a lot missing. I was really aggravated by that.
Deborah: Well, if it’s LA…. the big names are Broad, Geffen, Annenberg, but they wouldn’t be anonymous about it.
Emily: Yeah, it was interesting that client was left anonymous. Of course, that probably happens, but the film didn’t show collectors much even though its central critique was against the commodification of art.
Deborah: I think LA is much more ruled by film/Hollywood than the art world, so to have it excised from Buzzsaw felt kind of weird to me, like it’s a fantasy LA where Art is king, rather than Hollywood. Kind of like it was consciously not mentioning any traces of celebrities and actors buying things, Hollywood people showing up to openings, or the things I’ve observed first/second hand. It feels like a conscious choice, but it makes the LA-ness feel less real.
Emily: I wonder why that is? Would it take people out of the claustrophobic nature of the film?
Efrem: Or would that just add another dimensions that would take away from the story?
Deborah: I think it could have enhanced the movie if we had the element of celebrities dropping huge amounts of cash because the artist is popular with no art knowledge. It’s an LA where art is more powerful than the film industry, which felt really weird to me. Almost surreal. If this movie had been set in NYC, what would have changed?
Efrem: Less sky in the shots.
Emily: According to the film, it seems as if there are three gallerists–Rhodora, that one Asian gallerist who keeps bothering Morf with the robot, and that douche Jon Dondon, who is tangentially related to my favorite scene in the entire film: his funeral. To me, that was the most realistic art world representation. A funeral in which everyone is still criticizing the casket and networking. I went to one of the Dear Ivanka protests right after the election, and everyone was air-kissing and asking who was going to Miami. It was precisely that scene in the film done in front of Kushner’s offices.
Efrem: Definitely agreed. I’ve been to an artist’s funeral. Highly accurate.
Deborah: Yikes. Is it because of the people being callous and selfish, or uncomfortable or opportunistic?
Efrem: I mean, the drive to take any opportunity when you’re all in a room together is so high.
Emily: I think there’s a certain segment of the art world that cannot self-interrogate and consider this may not be the time or place. It’s just a default position.
Efrem: There’s no turning off that motor. Do you think it’s possible to bring some humanity back?
Deborah: As someone whose passion is about arts and humanities as public goods and tools of communication, I hope so?
Emily: I feel like it’s possible, but it means not being a part of that very high-rolling, blue chip part of the art world where these characters exist. Not going completely Dease, but also not dealing with these vipers.
Deborah: Like, if you’re an artist networking at a funeral, it’s not about your art or your belief in your art having a purpose, but about You as a personality. So…being Billy Magnussen, the art handler?
Efrem: I’d rather be Coco.
Deborah: Being Daveed Diggs? I didn’t understand the purpose of his character. I understood that he was a foil to Malkovich as the next big thing. But then like… The Dease convinced him to drop Rhodora? To eschew the life Rhodora was promising that also clearly has left Malkovich empty?
Emily: I guess he was supposed to be the “pure” artist. He chose his collective over profit. It’s an authenticity argument, which I’m not sure I buy.
Deborah: His murder graffiti collective. I guess we don’t get to see why he chose it because he’s not even a character.
Emily: Also, I like how they had him showing on the street because all Black artists are Basquiat.
Deborah: I’m screaming. Very New York, considering Basquiat had Gagosian when he came to LA.
Efrem: I’m not sure I understood Malkovich’s character either. They both seemed like total story tools and I couldn’t tell you who they actually were in the story. And Malkovich in the credits with his stick on the beach…that’s what it all comes down to: white guy finding himself.
Emily: At the end, we get a successful white male artist doing “art for art’s sake” because he’s in his rich gallerist’s summer home.
Deborah: So…moral of the story…
Emily: Be an old white dude and you too can draw on a beach?
Efrem: Is that the moral or just one last jab?
Emily: It felt like a moral, but I hope it’s a jab.
Deborah: I wonder if he knew everyone had been murdered?
Emily: I feel like Piers wouldn’t have given a shit in the first place. He seemed over everyone.
Deborah: Did Morf deserve to die? Like, the people who got murdered were using Dease for profit. Morf… wrote petty things for bad reasons? The scene with the voices was quite interesting where the guilt of the things he wrote overwhelmed him.
Emily: He was using Dease for his book deal? And critiqued hobo robot, which you DO NOT DO.
Deborah: I just felt so bad, being murdered by a scary railroad hobo robot.
Emily: I thought that was the scariest death.
Efrem: It was the most thrilling. Some of the reviews I saw compared Buzzsaw to the Final Destination movies and I have to say, I frankly agree. I’d kill for a reboot of this where it’s genuinely scary.
Deborah: So, ranked: Josephina’s is the most artistic/visual, Morf is the scariest, Rhodora’s is the most “WAIT WHAT THE”…
Emily: I like Gretchen’s because the effects were so terrible it reminded me of the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Deborah: YES! THE SPURTING ARM–very Black Knight.
Efrem: Just a flesh wound!
Deborah: Was it…supposed to be funny?
Emily: I feel like the whole film was supposed to be funny–it’s pure camp.
Efrem: I think so. I am a huge horror buff. This was practically grindhouse.
Deborah: I guess I preferred The Square because it was funnier and also more serious about the topic, which is why I encouraged y’all to watch it in concert with Buzzsaw. The Square also has a clearer target.
Emily: I feel like if we want to talk about the differences in those films, it all boils down to America’s form of satire and critique versus European cinema. The Square isn’t afraid of realism.
Efrem: The Square is funnier because it seems more believable. I feel a lot more invested. It’s not as fun as it is real. But can we talk about the equally ridiculous sex scenes in both these films? They did have that in common. And the women are portrayed as crazy afterwards in opposite ways.
Deborah: I think the sex scene in The Square was also a huge character moment for Claes Bang, the curator man. Like, his arrogance and control coming out in a sexual context as it does in every other area of his life.
Emily: I don’t believe for a second Josephina would let that queen Morf anywhere near her.
Efrem: From one queen to another, I don’t think queen Morf would know what to do with Josephina.
Deborah: Was Morf supposed to be bi?
Efrem: “You make me . . . confused.”
Deborah: Hashtag representation. I wonder if Jake felt it was important to his character to be super buff like… are most art critics secretly ripped? The nudity was apparently his idea?
Efrem: JERRY! SHOW US YOUR BODY!
Emily: Do you think Jake has ever met an art critic? I feel like the jury’s out. I also like the random butt shot of his boyfriend who we see once and never again.
Efrem: It was so classic horror nude. For the sake of excitement. No real purpose.
Deborah: I didn’t quite understand what the boyfriend did. Rhodora was paying him to give her Morf’s pieces before they ran?
Efrem: That’s what it sounded like. Another pretty useless twist at the last moment for drama.
Deborah: Morf… so powerful….no one can get close to him. He’s too powerful…. they just want to use him…. for his power…Apparently.
Emily: I feel like Morf is what certain art critics think they are.
Efrem: I loved that they played that out. He was sooooo hurt. He realized the bed he had made–another strangely genuine moment.
Deborah: “You USED ME… for my influence as a critic!!!” A sentence no one ever said.
Emily: Coco had the dirt on everyone.
Deborah: She was so ready to work so hard–part-time job where she has to show up at 10pm at the drop of a hat.
Efrem: I want Coco’s movie!
Deborah: Coco’s Revenge.
Efrem: The Cattening
Deborah: Okay, so, the cats. What…. is the meaning…… of the cats? Having the sphinx cat is very perfectionist and fits in with Rhodora’s house and aesthetic–no hair left anywhere.
Emily: That fluffy kitty did not like seeing Dease’s art sold by street vendors.
Deborah: That fluffy kitty… was us. “NOOOOO”–us, and the kitty. Do you think Dease’s art was going to kill the random people who bought it on the street though? They didn’t want it for the “wrong reasons.”
Emily: I think it was meant to be sort of a twist, like more people will die!
Efrem: Total total Final Destination post twist ending. The classic “The End” question mark moment. There will be a Buzzsaw 2. I’d put money on it.
Deborah: In the sequel, Coco comes back as a detective who must track down the paintings. “I thought I got out, but the art world pulled me back in.”
Emily: So relatable.
Efrem: I’m curious, though. Simplifying. Who liked this movie? Because I am a huge fan. Gotta say. Into its awfulness.
Emily: I did. I think it’s a fun piece of trash and I loved it.
Deborah: I would be giving it a meh to a thumbs down if I were writing a review. I guess I would have wanted the critique to be sharper. I did like the concept, and I liked Jake. He should always do this much ACTING. You could actually tell there were lots of different thoughts in the character’s head.
Emily: I wish art critics were this outrageously campy:
Deborah: Goals, except the part where he dies.
Efrem: I was half thinking what if we did this chat as versions of these characters:
Oh ladies. Kiss kiss kiss, SO excited to be doing this. Have you seen this Velvet Buzzsaw? So revealing. It truly spoke to me.
Deborah: So semiotically effervescently countervalent.
Efrem: Maddeningly contemporary.
Emily: Here’s my review:
Deborah: That document bothered me–who formats their writing on the screen like that?
Emily: Like, is that what Artweb looks like?
Deborah: Does he not have an editor?
Efrem: ArtWeb needs some design help–this looks like a layout for a brochure in InDesign.
Emily: It reminds me of how in Law & Order, their websites on the show all have the aesthetic of 90s Internet.
Deborah: They should have created a fake Artweb to promote this movie with multiple outrageous fake reviews by fake critics.
Emily: I want to write for Artweb!
Efrem: Same! Let’s make this sequel happen!
Deborah Krieger is the curatorial assistant as the the Delaware Art Museum and an arts and culture writer based in Philadelphia. She has written for BUST Magazine, Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art, the Philly Artblog, the Humble Arts Foundation, the LA Review of Books, and more. She can be found on her website http://www.i-on-the-arts.com/ and on Twitter and Instagram @debonthearts.
Efrem Zelony-Mindell is an independent curator, writer, and artist. His curatorial endeavors include shows in New York City: n e w f l e s h, Are You Loathsome, Familiar Strange, and This Is Not Here. He writes about art for DEAR DAVE, VICE, Unseen SPOT, Musée Magazine, Rocket Science Magazine and many more. He received his BFA from the School of Visual Arts.
And Emily Colucci is your faithful Filthy Dreams co-founder, obviously.