Velvet Buzzsaw: profit over passion

Jake Gyllenhaal in promo poster for Velvet Buzzsaw Credit: Netflix

I spend an embarrassing amount of time on Netflix aimlessly scrolling, adding new films to my list or rewatching the same series I have already seen a thousand times (I’m looking at you, Drag Race). So when I saw the trailer for Velvet Buzzsaw I was super excited – a genre-bending, Jake Gyllenhaal-led satire film written and directed by Dan Gilroy – what’s not to love? I’m a massive fan of Nightcrawler so naturally, I had high hopes for this release.

*Spoilers ahead*

Velvet Buzzsaw follows various characters in the contemporary world of art in Los Angeles, including art critique Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), an intriguing man with a great deal of influence in his field and Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), owner of the Haze Gallery. Morf feels unsatisfied in his relationship with his current boyfriend Ed (Sedale Threatt Jr.), and rekindles his previous attachment to Josephina (Zawe Ashton), who works for Rhodora.

Everyone seems to be discontent with present collections and are on the hunt for the next big thing. This is when Josephina discovers a man called Vetril Dease who lived in her building has died – she enters his home to discover thousands of paintings. As Josephina begins to release his work to the eye’s of the public, strange things start happening. Anyone that attempts to profit from or act greedy in any way due to Dease’ work ends up dying under mysterious circumstances – the art starts to come to life to kill anyone who has done wrong morally, sometimes causing all evidence of the person’s death to disappear.

A piece from Dease’s collection of work Credit: Netflix

Pretty cool concept, right? All in all, it follows the classic horror narrative of being punished for sin, making it fairly predictable. Dease’s ‘spirit’ acts as the force that deems the guilty few to be punished and decides their fate. One by one, the profit-hunters are picked off by Dease’s art (or his ‘spirit’ seems to embody other artwork such as the Sphere and the Hoboman) – even when Morf realises the danger and warns everyone.

Morf after sensing a presence in Dease’s work Credit: Netflix

Morf starts to head towards a mental breakdown and becomes haunted by the negative reviews he’s written and how he has harshly critiqued these different artists’ work. He becomes more aware of the damage he has caused and feels guilty, although is still deemed sinful and he is killed when the Hoboman is brought to life by Dease’s ‘spirit’. Rhodora seems to narrowly avoid death, however, just before the credits her tattoo of her old band ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ comes to life and kills her, taking his final victim. Is the ‘spirit’ finally satisfied?

Rhodora’s Velvet Buzzsaw tattoo Credit: Netflix

These underlying themes of greed and paying the price for acting in a selfish manner, especially displayed in the world of art, strongly shone through, working to subtly comment on how artforms and creative expressions that are so pure and passionate are drained for profit and celebrated for all the wrong reasons. Originally created as a outlet to reflect on Dease’s abuse-filled childhood and bad mental health struggles, his artwork was always meant to be destroyed and was never intended to be sold for fame or fortune. His ‘spirit’ seems set on punishing those who have forgotten the purity and hard work that goes into artistic expression – Dease literally painted with his own blood. If that doesn’t prove a point (and make you feel a little uncomfortable) I don’t know what will. His legacy and body of work act a symbol for the passionate artist, unfit and too vulnerable for such a superficial world. John Malkovich’s character Piers also symbolises this belief. An artist who hasn’t created anything ‘show-stopping’ in years and is now seen as less important and less worthy of attention because of this – expression should be for the self. This is amplified during the credits where we see him on the beach drawing patterns in the sand only for them to be washed away – he is creating simply to create, not to be observed.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Morf Vandewalt in Velvet Buzzsaw Credit: Netflix

Also, the role of the critic is touched upon with Morf’s character. I can only assume this stems from Gilroy’s own experiences in the public eye, having your work torn apart (whoops, sorry) without true thought of its consequences. Through this I can sense the drive for celebrating the creation of art simply just to create and not to be analysed and placed value on. I find this take and exploration about expression truly intriguing and powerful, however, part of me feels as though more could have been done to really push the message within the narrative. Using such a limiting skeleton for the plot I believe hindered the impact this film could’ve truly had.

Josephina covered in paint and colour Credit: Netflix

To describe my viewing in one word? Underwhelmed. Some of the characterisation was enticing and the general concept was edgy, however, the weight of the narrative didn’t pull it over the finish line for me. Some themes that were touch upon like greed and harsh critiquing (which is now hilariously ironic) I enjoyed but it just felt as though something was missing. My understanding with Dan Gilroy, from this piece and Nightcrawler is that he enjoys a darker side to realism, where the events and chaos that have occurred suddenly seems to disappear as life all around us continues and I can see that through his work. I just wish he’d taken the surrealist elements that step further to amplify the message.

Velvet Buzzsaw is available to stream on Netflix now

Bandersnatch: the illusion of free will

Bandersnatch loading screen Credit: Netflix / Bandersnatch

*Spoilers throughout*

I’ve been intrigued by Black Mirror and its themes since it began. Through the topics discussed within the show it invites us (or somewhat forces us) to look inward at ourselves, our morals and our behaviour. Each episode is a stand-alone story, reflecting on the society humanity has created and the dangers that lie ahead if we utilise technology in a perilous way.

Choice screen when Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) is offered a job at Tuckersoft Credit: Netflix / Bandersnatch

Their first ever interactive film, Bandersnatch, has caught a large amount of attention from the public due to this new concept that allows you to choose your own fate. Every few minutes you get given two choices (e.g. Frosties or Sugar Puffs) and ten seconds to click a choice – the path your storyline goes down is solely up to the choices made by the viewer, some choices having larger significance than others. There are over five main endings and at every dead end there is the chance to revisit the last important choice or to restart completely. The variety of these choices makes us question how much free will is given regarding the viewer and the protagonist’s actions – we’ll be looking more at that later.

The film follows Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), a young video game programmer in 1984, who is undergoing the creation of a choose-your-own-adventure game ‘Bandersnatch’, based off a book of the same name. The book is written by Jerome F. Davies whose detoreation of sanity results in him cutting his wife’s head off. Something is telling me this isn’t going to end well…

Stefan visits Tuckersoft, a successful video game company to pitch his idea where he meets Colin Ritman (Will Poulter), his favourite programmer. At face value we are presented with an oddball video game programmer but he seems to become a mentor of Stefan’s from the second he meets him. He seeks to understand Stefan and give him advice – if the viewer declines the offer to work at Tuckersoft Colin agrees that working alone is more beneficial.

Colin Ritman (Will Poulter) showing Stefan and Moham Thakur (Asim Chaudhry) his new video game Credit: Netflix / Bandersnatch

He also has this all-knowing presence as well – if Stefan chooses to accept the offer straight away, Colin says “wrong path” and the story loops back to the previous decision again. He appears to be aware of the parallel realities and existing within the loop – every time the story restarts the clip of Stefan meeting Colin now shows him saying “we’ve met before” which is untrue other than through the looping of the story.

Stefan is presented as a rather passive character and seems to hate feeling watched and reviewed. His uncertainty and lack of sense of self is evident from the start, as he mentions talking to his therapist (Alice Lowe) that he feels ‘monitored’ and out of control of his choices (I wonder why). This portrayal of anxiety and low self esteem makes us sympathise with Stefan, and his self aware nature begins to change the tone of the film, making the viewer feel more uncomfortable and concerned as to whether he will discover the audience.

In Stefan’s first session with his therapist is where we discover (if you choose to talk about it) what happened to his mother and this leads to the only opportunity where you don’t get given a choice – (possibly due to it being a flashback) this immediately takes away this idea of free will and choice. Stefan’s five year old self’s stubborn decision has dire consequences – is this why he can’t trust his own judgement? This loss has led to a life of uncertainty over his choices and actions – perhaps this is why he is so intrigued by Bandersnatch and being able to have control over other people’s choices and storylines (ironically, but hey, that’s Black Mirror for you). His mother ends up getting on a later train than originally planned (that derails) because Stefan can’t find his beloved rabbit toy that his father (Craig Parkinson) has hidden – his whole life he blames his dad due to his own overwhelming guilt.

After deciding to work from home to create Bandersnatch, Stefan slowly becomes overwhelmed with programming. This, of course being a Black Mirror piece, acts as a warning of technology and its capabilities – the new innovative software causes Stefan’s mental health to deteriorate. He begins to disconnect from the real world and focuses on nothing but completing the Bandersnatch game. He becomes so consumed in the story and the structure that he starts to believe that he too is on a set path. He begins to lose all sense of control and self.

Stefan’s medication Credit: Netflix / Bandersnatch

There is the choice to go back to Colin’s house to seek support and advice where he offers Stefan a tab of acid – if the viewer decides against taking the tab Colin slips it into his cup of tea anyway and remarks that he ‘chose for him’. During their trip Colin discusses a ‘spirit’ controlling us and how PAC man is a reflection of society – he is ‘programmed and controlled’ and can only consume looping round and round in small circuits, pursued by demons. Stefan is living his life in the format of a video game, a never-ending loop that he is trapped in.

Jerome F. Davies’ office after deterioration of sanity Credit: Netflix / Bandersnatch

Colin gifts Stefan a taped documentary to watch on Jerome F. Davies’ life and his spiral into insanity – Stefan becomes paranoid, as Davies did, that he is being controlled and drugged and begins to question his own free will. The documentary explains how Davies believed he had no control over his fate therefore suggesting his actions were guilt-free if his fate was dictated for him. Stefan, having always been haunted by guilt since he was five ends up (if the viewer chooses to) killing his father – the choice is perceived as not his to choose. He obeys but appears to do so with restraint, yelling that he’s “not in control”.

One of the endings shows Stefan talking about the finished result of Bandersnatch, discussing the stripping back of loads of choice giving the illusion of free will and stresses how he gets to decide the ending – does this suggest a switch around in power play? We, the viewer, have been perceived as the more authoritative part of the game, however the illusion of free will is being reflected onto us, giving the whole experience and story a deeper level to it. Did Stefan always have the intention to kill? Is the whole film a piece of video game software that he has created?

Whether Stefan decided his fate or not, it doesn’t have a happy ending.

Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch is available to stream on Netflix now