Tuesday, June 05, 2012
Much of the buzz associated with High Art on its release (and since) tends to focus on it as a vehicle for Ally Sheedy, for whom it is frequently touted as a kind of comeback bid. It's true that she's good here as a disaffected art photographer of some talent who is able to live an undemanding life because she comes from a family of means.
What interests me more is the story it tells of Syd, played by Radha Mitchell. Syd is a smart, ambitious twenty-something just entering the rarefied world of New York art business via a magazine internship that has lately developed into a career opportunity. She is capable of throwing around a familiarity with Barthes, Derrida, and the usual suspects without appearing pretentious about it (unlike other characters here). When she connects with the Sheedy character, who is her upstairs neighbor somewhere in lower Manhattan, she is almost immediately in over her head—the drugs, the sexualities, the personalities, and the lifestyle afforded by the mostly unseen (and unacknowledged, as that would not be cool) resources of wealth.
It's not hard to make a case against High Art. In many ways it falls into the same trap as most of its characters, slaves to a fashionable art scene, nearly always for the wrong reasons. And it's altogether too easy to be distracted by the terms of the love story at its center. I'm almost prepared to call it a guilty pleasure now that it appears to have sunk so thoroughly out of sight (probably the reason why the best clip I could find is a trailer with foreign subtitles).
Its continuing appeal for me is in how much I identify with Syd's plight, drawn to a world I'm hardly any better prepared than she is to cope with, but powerfully drawn nonetheless. In that regard, it's closely observed and nicely done. The soundtrack by Shudder to Think is a wonder of moody suggestion. And Patricia Clarkson, as a lovely junkie who lives off her past as a bit player in German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's troupe, is as fully capable of stealing scenes as she is in any picture in which she appears.
Phil #32: American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999) (scroll down)
Steven #32: Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972)
I like this one a lot and will have more to say about it probably in a few weeks. Not sure it deserves to be quite this high, but at least I'm pretty sure it deserves whatever attention it might win from such high placements, if that even makes sense—I guess part of the fun of these exercises is the eccentric picks, and the higher often the more interesting. It can feel positively like taking a stand.
Phil meanwhile attempts to rescue a movie that has paid dearly for how popular it was in its moment. If American Beauty ever was overrated (overly Oscared, more like, which is a different matter) it's certainly underrated now. I think Steven gets Cabaret about right (says the guy who had it at #43).