High Art
Director: Lisa Cholodenko. Cast: Radha Mitchell, Ally Sheedy, Patricia Clarkson, Gabriel Mann, Anh Duong, David Thornton, Bill Sage, Tammy Grimes. Screenplay: Lisa Cholodenko.

High Art, the new film from first-time writer-director Lisa Cholodenko, certainly aims high but still isn't quite art. In fact, who knows what to make of a film whose primary virtue, together with the quality of its acting, is the scale of its ambitions, yet whose plot and theme turn on a forceful critique of ambition itself? This seeming contradiction, rather than weakening Cholodenko's film, actually gives it structure and drive, sustaining High Art through occasional lapses in its storytelling and making it a hugely intriguing if not a wholly successful picture.

The central figure in High Art is Syd (Radha Mitchell), a newly-promoted assistant editor at a modish New York photography magazine called Frame. Syd is a hard worker and has a keen eye, but because her superiors have yet to fill the intern position she vacated for her editorship, she is currently working absurd hours trying to do both jobs. Her boyfriend James (Gabriel Mann) laments what he considers her exploitation by the Frame staff, but Syd, confident that her dedication will push her up through the editorial ranks, has no complaints. "I'm trying to stick up for you," James insists. "Why?" Syd asks. "No one's bullying me."

Cut to Syd, after another late night at the office, lounging in her bathtub and noticing that a pipe from the apartment immediately upstairs has sprung a leak through her ceiling. Cholodenko, whose script won the Screenwriting Award at this spring's Sundance Film Festival, is nonetheless more than willing to throw in a few unlikely convolutions—the landlord doesn't answer his phone (apparently for days), and Syd is one of the few critical-theory majors known to man who also has a way with a wrench and some duct tape. These particular conceits allow Cholodenko to shuttle her protagonist into the upstairs den of debauched sophistication where her story takes off. And if you've ever heard a coarse joke or a cultural stereotype about the kind of woman who's handy with a toolkit, you're not far off from where High Art is headed.

The combination flop-house/apartment that Syd discovers upstairs houses two women who once gave themselves entirely over to art: Greta (Patricia Clarkson), a German actress whose career took a dive after the death of Fassbinder, and Lucy (Ally Sheedy), a photographer of stunning, decadent portraits who abandoned her promising career to accompany Greta further and further into their shared black forest of drugs and sex. The women are still attached to each other, lustful and desperate but also still, on some level, inspired by each other's sensitive nature and past artistic achievements. Unfortunately, both women invested so much of themselves in their craft, and both have flushed so much of their residual income on booze and narcotics, that the reserve of vitality or feeling left in either woman is too depleted to carry the relationship much longer. Right away, High Art at least couches these themes away from an obvious moralism, and it's almost comical how contented Lucy and Greta are to pass their days in coffee shops, diners, and their own broody living room, with Greta especially prone to falling asleep mid-meal or mid-sex. Lucy courts exasperation on a few of these occasions, but she either won't do anything about it or is scared to. The more time we spend with these two, and especially with Lucy, the more we sense that the fruits of Lucy's past ambition never made her happy, and if anything they bonded her to the mercenary desires of people who fed off her talent. As a result, Lucy has turned the path of least resistance into an entire way of life, with Greta perfectly willing to shuffle along beside her.

Thus, Cholodenko has situated Greta and Lucy precariously in an amiable but rather listless relationship when Syd comes knocking, wrench in hand, asking to tinker with Lucy's pipes. "Are you running a bath?" Syd asks Lucy as the latter opens the door. "Nobody here has taken a bath recently," Lucy confesses, paying witty tribute to the vie de bohème and the ballad of sexual dependency forever playing out inside her (improbably huge) apartment. Syd, however, is so instantly fascinated by the photographs hung around Lucy's walls, many of them snapshots of Greta, that she doesn't seem to notice most of the hangers-on snorting and smoking in Lucy's living room, nor is she put off by Lucy's own sluggish demeanor. She enthuses about the spontaneity of Lucy's photos, not immediately recognizing that Lucy is the photographer, and therefore quickly embarassed by her own florid appraisals. "Am I going off?" she nervously asks her neighbor. "No," Lucy answers, "I just haven't been deconstructed in a while." As anyone who has ever seen a movie already knows, Syd's attraction to Lucy will prove to have far more facets than mere aesthetic appreciation. Cinema, as proven in other recent releases like Alan Rudolph's Afterglow and the Wachowski Brothers' Bound, is perhaps the last cultural realm where working as a plumber guarantees immediate and intense sexual gratification; this unfailing phenomenon is even more surprising when one considers sitcom plumbers, who mostly appear as overweight white guys begging cheap laughs when their butts poke out from the waistlines of their jeans.

High Art doesn't pack all the humor or the steely self-assurance of Bound, a razor-sharp thriller/campfest that acknowledged the clichéd phoniness of short-handing a woman's skill with bathroom pipes as an instant flag of lesbian sexuality. High Art, by contrast, scores aces for slinky atmosphere but overdoes the seriousness, offering a somber, compellingly seedy, but occasionally lethargic story where the sexual roundabouts that "shock" its various characters are rarely if ever shocking to us. By the time Lucy gets saddled with a cartoonish Jewish mother, Cholodenko seems as starved for inspiration as Greta and Lucy are demonstrated to be.

All of that said, however, High Art grabs our interest early and holds it throughout; we are more than patient with its frustrated pace because the scenery and the personalities we meet along the way are improbably fascinating. The almost hypnotic effect of the picture springs partly from the rich, percussive soundtrack composed by Shudder To Think and the dreamily wandering photography of Tami Reiker, blearily drinking in the surroundings and aestheticizing the milieu without quite romanticizing it. Still, most of the credit belongs to the trio of actresses at the center of the narrative. Mitchell has the largest role, and she nicely manages the bewilderment of an innocent drawn so far into this circle of sirens. (It is one of Cholodenko's more felicitous screenwriting decisions to make the demimonde as unnerved and intimidated by Syd as she is by them.) Patricia Clarkson, meanwhile, impresses mightily as Greta, whose mordant wit is an obvious retort to a life and a lover she feels have abandoned her. One can only wonder where Cholodenko found a player daring enough to make so many of her strung-out lines unintelligible, and to make that unintelligibility hilarious and even ingratiating without ever softening the basic sadness of the woman she's playing. Greta is so much fun to be around, provided you are an audience member and not her actual roommate, that she could easily swamp the picture; I could feel myself getting antsy for, to put it as High Art might put it, my next fix of this tantalizing, totally unique character and performance.

Impressively, however, it's Sheedy—and who ever thought this sentence was possible?—who holds the picture together. The one-time co-star of The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo's Fire reads on paper as the one recognizable name in a sea of relative unknowns (and even some total unknowns), but so soundly and unflamboyantly does she shatter her John Hughes image that she seems as unfamiliar as her colleagues. Sheedy centers her performance in the depth and movement of her eyes, a savvy decision when playing a top-flight photographer, but also an apt register of how carefully Lucy tries to be in negotiating the re-entry into fame that Syd keeps promising her, via some combination of stalwart admiration, sexual attraction, and privately nursed ambition. Is Syd romancing Lucy merely to secure a career coup, or is it vice versa—the magazine deal as a decorative bait for what is fundamentally an erotic seduction?

Sheedy's performance maintains an incredible level of focus and emotion, a feat that High Art itself does not manage to copy, at least in its climactic sequences. The last chapter of the film involves a descent into sentiment that nothing in the rest of the picture prepares us for. Moreover, Cholodenko falls into her own writerly trap just as Neil LaBute did in last year's In the Company of Men: her escalating interest in her story's allegorical conflicts of Work, Love, and Ambition bleed all the initial power from an emotionally explosive scenario. The middle of the picture works because the actors inhabit a potentially schematic scenario with so much commitment and inspired, humane eccentricity. The film is both hip and dour, an unusual blend, but by the end it's almost heavy-handed, without any clear message to be heavy-handed about. This, too, is an unusual blend of tones—didactic but ambiguous—but it's rather less compelling, to say the least.

In the end, though, even if High Art shares In the Company of Men's tendencies toward pretension and detachment, it also recalls its Sundance precursor for its literate dialogue, nuanced portrayals, and admirable breadth of vision. The movie plays deftly with the old themes of voyeurism, objectification, closet manipulation, and the tenuous alliances among women, and it's one of the more credible attempts I've seen to complicate feminist insights into cinema by filling a film with unclassifiable characters and diverse desires. (The men, by contrast, are very nearly gratuitous, and though that's probably a shortcoming in pure critical terms, it's a little bit delicious to see Syd guiding the whole plot while her boyfriend triflingly wonders what shirt to wear to a party.) Cholodenko would have done well to decide early on if her film was about three women artists or about Art as embodied in three women; her title implies a closer sympathy with the broader, less intimate project, as though she's theorizing something rather than describing someone. Maybe the ambiguity between these goals is the point of the picutre: Lucy's concern, after all, which even painful experience hasn't stopped her from re-learning, is that it's hard for an artist to preserve her humanity and individuality once the profit motive has infiltrated the artistic endeavor. High Art's resolution is still a little too clunky to approve even if the film, on repeated viewings, might reveal itself to be smarter and better-planned than it looks. I suppose what matters is that, for all of its minor disappointments and uneasy thematic balances, the picture is one that inspires repeated viewings. It's a little bit addictive, even if it's a little bit hollow. Sheedy, Clarkson, Mitchell, and their laudable director prove their mettle, giving us hope that these women's talents will come to fuller flower even though this particular script warns them of the risks involved in trying. Contemporary filmmaking trends, no less than the cutthroat world of photography and "fine" art, justifies anyone, especially any woman, who wishes to air these cautionary sentiments. But for a long while, what Cholodenko offers is so unique and insinuating that you wonder if this is the time and place for a warning. What you want is for the film and the filmmaker to grow. Let's hope she does. Grade: B+

(in June 1998: B)

Sundance Film Festival: Best Screenplay
Independent Spirit Awards: Best Actress (Sheedy)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Actress (Sheedy; tie)
National Society of Film Critics: Best Actress (Sheedy)

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