High Art (1998) from Tuna and Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I don't know if we have ever had a more dramatic split on a film, except maybe The Harrad Experiment. Tuna offers a thumb way up, and Scoop thrusts his thumb down to Hades or below.

Tuna's comments in white:

High Art (1998) is a tragic Lesbian love story, set in Manhattan. Radha Mitchell plays Syd, a newly promoted assistant editor at a photography magazine. She is eager and full of ambition and the wonder of youth, and currently living with her yuppie boyfriend. When she discovers a leak in her ceiling, she goes to the apartment upstairs, and meets Lucy Berliner (former brat packer Ally Sheedy), once considered a great photographer, now just a heroin addict in a long term relationship with a failed German actress and fellow addict named Greta, played by Patricia Clarkson in a brilliant portrayal. The two of them live with a collection of other addicts who wonder in and out of the apartment. The mutual attraction between the assistant editor and the photographer is immediate and palpable through the entire film. The editor wants to bring the photographer out of retirement to do a cover for her magazine, both as an excuse to be around her, and to further her own career at the magazine. The photographer agrees to do the comeback, on the condition that the young editor be assigned as her personal editor for the project.

The editor's boyfriend, and the photographer's actress girlfriend are both quickly suspicious and jealous. The boyfriend soon bows out of the competition, but Greta proves to be a formidable rival for the photographer's affections. The editor and photographer soon go upstate for the weekend, where the photographer creates her overdue layout by shooting her new lover, and the two finally become intimate. In comparing her life's choices, the photographer realizes that holding on to Greta would mean jealousy and the doomed world of heroin, while moving on to the vibrant Syd could lead her back to health, but once the lovers return to the city, Greta tries sex, guilt, and finally drugs to keep her hold on Lucy.

Although the lust is not very explicit, I thought the obvious attraction between Sheedy and Mitchell to be very hot throughout. In addition, the performances were outstanding, and the story line was true to life. They didn't even cop out on the inevitable ending to a heroin-based relationship.


Radha Mitchell and a very gaunt Ally Sheedy show brief breasts.

Scoop's comments in yellow:

If you want to be a filmmaker, I can tell you exactly how to get good reviews for your first movie.

Mind you, you won't make a penny as a result of it. Your film will probably never make it to the box office at all. If it does, it will play in about three theaters in New York and California. And even those few small theaters will be deserted. But you will get good reviews.

Here is how:

Find a halfway decent, sensitive, unproduced script about a tragic love triangle between a man and two women - the kind of sincere film from a first-time screenwriter that would pull in a 5.5 or a 6.0 at IMDb if it could ever get made. Buy the rights from the author, who has certainly despaired of ever seeing his script produced, and will sell to you willingly and cheaply, just to get the exposure. Change the man to a woman and make it a lesbian love triangle. Do not change one word of the script, except the necessary personal pronouns. Do not even change the name of the male character. It if was a guy named Hank, it is now a lesbian named Hank. No problem. Voila! Instant lesbian classic.

In fact, some people may rave that it is the greatest gay movie ever made. Think about it. What is the competition? Have you ever seen a really great movie with a central gay romance? Your script would seem mediocre, probably on the low side of mediocre, if you directed it as the author wrote it, but in comparison to other gay films, it will seem to be genius.

But your situation is even better than that. Because you didn't change one word from the original script (excepting "him", "his" and "he", of course), people will praise the fact that you avoided all the gay stereotypes and showed gay people simply to be people, with problems and dreams indistinguishable from anyone else's. You will not be guilty of casting the bad characters in a condescendingly good light, nor will you be guilty of creating a halo effect around your sympathetic characters. You will have a subtle, nuanced, portrayal of gay life that shows how similar we all really are. You will pick up some great reviews and possibly win some film festival awards. As I mentioned earlier, you will not make one cent on the film, so pinch your pennies. Your hope is that somebody with money will be impressed, will recognize your genius, and will hire you to direct another movie. That's where you will make your money if you eventually prove to have some sense of what is marketable. Just getting a chance like that is a great accomplishment, because there are about a gazillion people wandering around the film industry who simply want a such a chance to show what they can do. While they struggle, you have found a short cut.

So it is with High Art. The director here wrote her own script rather than buying an unproduced one, but the Ally Sheedy character, a photographer, could have been cast with a man without changing one word of dialogue except the personal pronouns. If the director had done so, however, it would not even be a watchable film. You would find it to be a typically pretentious NYU/Columbia-style bit of indulgent pseudo-intellectual New York Bohemianism. Most of the main characters spend their time wasted on heroin. If you've ever been around nodders, you know that their actions do not make for much of a spectator event. To make matters worse, the characters who are not on heroin also seem to have the same low energy level.

In fact, this entire project is even a cut below a film school project, because nobody involved in the set bothered to check some simple things which were necessary for the characters to stay in character, and which good film school students would probably have caught. For example, a German woman is speaking on the phone and mispronounces a German word! It is a place that ends in - platz. She pronounces it to rhyme with "bats", the way a native New Yorker would pronounce "Blatz" beer. For another example, two of the supposed intellectuals in the film - not one, mind you, but two - mispronounce the word "sycophant" - pronouncing it "psycho-phant", as if it represented not a hanger-on or a self-seeking flatterer, but rather a very disturbed pachyderm.

Frankly, if you overlook the lesbian hook, which was simply matter of casting a women in the role and nothing more, it just isn't that good a movie. By using the technique of making the central character a woman, however, the film garnered some solid praise from the many critics who review films by assessing their political correctness rather than their quality or entertainment value.

DVD info from Amazon

  • widescreen anamorphic.

  • full-length director's commentary.

To be honest, the film did have one very strong redeeming factor. In the center of it all, Ally Sheedy, the nexus of the love triangle, was gritty and real and multi-dimensional, and turned in a powerful performance as the doomed artist. She was strong enough to carry the film to a high enough level that it could at times be both effective and affective, so many critics overlooked the endless, boring, drugged-out scenes and one-dimensional minor characters, choosing to talk instead about the things that moved them.

I found those good moments to occur too infrequently, and was waiting for the film to end after I was only about twenty minutes into it.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus three stars. James Berardinelli 2.5/4, Roger Ebert 3.5/4.

The People Vote ...

  • The film opened on four screens, and ended up grossing about two million dollars in a twelve week mini-arthouse run.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, Tuna says, "On the star system, I would be close to Ebert's three and a half, but this film is also not for everyone, and is probably a high C+." Scoop rebuts, "It is an ugly, low-energy film filled with heroin addicts nodding off - a typical critic's film, and certainly not an audience pleaser. If one simply changes Lucy to a man without altering a word of dialogue (which would make no difference to the script), it would be a routine and somewhat below average festival-type film of no particular merit. It is very well acted by some of the best performers in independent film, however, and that gives the film some decent moments. It's obviously a C-. You'll like it if you're into the good and bad elements of the pseudo-intellectual art scene, or if you're really into tragic lesbian love stories. If neither of those particularly appeal to you, you'll undoubtedly hate it as much as I did."

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