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“Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child,” The Story of a Bright Light and its Dark End

“Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child,” The Story of a Bright Light and its Dark End (photo)

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Jean-Michel Basquiat gave the world thousands of pieces of art but very few interviews. His friend, filmmaker Tamra Davis (director of the cult films “CB4” and “Half Baked), recorded one of the rare ones in a room at the L’Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills in June 1986. Basquiat died two years later of a heroin overdose and Davis, worried she might be taking advantage of her friend’s legacy for personal gain, left the footage in a drawer for over 20 years. She was finally convinced to share it with the world, first in a 20-minute short film and now as part of the new feature documentary, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child.”

Davis’ candid interview with Basquiat is only a small (albeit crucial) element of her 93-minute film. The rest is a mixture of archival footage of late ’70s, early ’80s New York and reflections from Basquiat’s friends, collaborators, contemporaries, clients, and lovers. Collectively, they paint a portrait of the artist as a young, brilliant, and fragile young man with an almost uncontrollable need to create, an uncanny ability to filter history and culture through his unique perspective, and a precipitous fall from grace. “The Radiant Child” also features glimpses of many pieces from Basquiat’s prodigious catalog, but they’re just that: glimpses that rarely last longer than a second or two. The film is more interested in appreciating Basquiat’s legacy than any of his individual pieces.

The Basquiat conjured by his associates in “The Radiant Child” excelled at everything (well, almost everything; he never was great at talking about his work on camera). He was a suave dancer, a good friend, an ingenious self-promoter and, of course, a natural artist with a tireless work ethic and a rich sense of his medium’s history. Davis effectively places us right in the middle of the era’s hipster parties, couch surfing, and basement studios, but I wish she’d asked the question “Why?” a bit more.

Why did Basquiat have the sudden and epochal impact that he did? If he became such an enormous overnight success, then why did the biggest galleries and dealers suddenly refuse to work with him? The film’s tendency to favor rosy recollections from Basquiat insiders over probing analysis from art critics might make it play better for aficionados (who can fill in the details) than neophytes (who, like me, were left asking a couple questions).

07212010_radiant2.jpgSince I’m more familiar with the modern independent film world than the Lower Manhattan art scene of the 1980s, I found myself repeatedly drawing comparisons between Basquiat and “The Radiant Child” and another documentary about the art world from earlier this year, Banksy’s “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” Basquiat first rose to prominence as a graffiti artist with the handle SAMO (for “Same Ol’ Shit”) but like Banksy, Basquiat’s street art was a lot more than simple vandalism: it ran the gamut from pop aburdism to political statement to dry observational humor.

The art world of “Exit Through the Gift Shop” — money-hungry, star-fucking — hasn’t changed much since Basquiat’s days, though in making his own film to satirize it, at least Banksy’s gotten a modicum of revenge against the people who’ve exploited his work. Basquiat, on the other hand, was exploited and then discarded then exploited again once his death made his work that much more of a commodity.

Davis doesn’t necessarily hold the art world responsible for Basquiat’s premature death, but she also doesn’t paint it in a particularly flattering light either. Her view seems to line up with Bansky’s. At best, it’s a necessary evil. At worst, it’s a toxic mix of wannabes and parasites who attach themselves like leeches to genuine talents.

But despite the tragic ending, what lingers about “The Radiant Child” after it’s over is the amazing legacy that its subject left behind. Though it could have used a bit more critical context, the film offers exactly what it promises: a warm and intimate look at a talent who burned brightly, and all too quickly.

“Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” is now playing in New York.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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