High Art (1998)

Director/Screenwriter: Lisa Cholodenko

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

One of the worst films of 2010 was The Kids Are All Right, a sitcom of a movie in which straight actors Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play a lesbian couple dealing with the appearance of the sperm donor who is the biological father of their two children. Given the chance to reach a mainstream audience with a realistic portrayal of a family headed by two females, The Kids Are All Right instead self-consciously backs away from gay sexuality as fast it can, hiding a scene of lesbian sex under a heavy blanket and then rushing Moore into straight sex with the sperm donor. The only thing missing from the conventionality of this flat film is the nightstand sitting like a sentry between two single beds.

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I wouldn’t have given The Kids Are All Right a second thought if not for the fact that it was cowritten and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, representing a shocking fall from grace for a director/screenwriter who created one of the most memorable feature debuts in many a year—High Art. High Art is everything The Kids Are All Right is not—assured, unapologetically frank about lesbian sex, nuanced, and authentic. Perhaps most important, Cholodenko offers a look at lesbians leading lives that contain as much love, dysfunction, ambition, and familial relationships as any other way of life.

High Art

High Art begins with Syd (Radha Mitchell) sitting in a small office examining slides submitted to Frame, the New York-based photography magazine where she works as an assistant editor. Her tragically hip boss Harry (David Thornton) dismisses her as his glorified gofer, though his condescension is a cover for his lackadaisical attitude toward his job and its subject matter. Dominique (Anh Duong), the editor of Frame, started as a receptionist at Interview, and her drive to succeed, her immersion in the art scene, and her cutthroat instincts form a mirror in which we can view Syd’s career aspirations.

Syd lives with her boyfriend James (Gabriel Mann) in a rundown apartment run by a slum landlord in the making. One evening, as she relaxes in a hot bath, she notices that the crack in the ceiling above the tub is starting to leak. She goes to the apartment above to let the tenants know about it. At the door is a thin woman about twice Syd’s age. After some perfunctory talk, the woman, Lucy (Ally Sheedy), promises to contact the super. Because service is slow to the point of nonexistent in the building, Syd returns to Lucy’s apartment several times to try to fix the leak herself.

Patricia Clarkson High Art

The leak becomes a convenient excuse for Syd to explore an attraction to Lucy subtly encouraged by Lucy herself and the quality of the photographs hanging all over Lucy’s apartment. It doesn’t take long for Syd to discover that Lucy was once one of the hottest photographers in the New York art scene. The engulfing attention and demands made on her caused her to flee to Europe, where she became involved with Greta (Patricia Clarkson), a has-been Fassbinder actress, and spent most of her time snorting heroin and taking pictures as more of a reflex than as a serious pursuit. Her return to New York after a 10-year absence may signal that she is ready to start making photographs again, but the downward pull of Greta and the rest of their heroin-addicted circle of friends seems to be keeping Lucy in a holding pattern, that is, until Syd enters the picture.

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As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and the obviously modest budget of High Art brought out the best in Cholodenko’s creativity, something the high-budget, high-profile The Kids Are All Right buried. The handheld camera work and settings—the apartments, the Frame offices, an upscale home where Lucy goes to visit her rich mother (Tammy Grimes), a restaurant, a mountain retreat—all must have been places opened to the cast and crew by friends and family. The lived-in, hazy look of Lucy’s apartment creates a realistic milieu for the kind of crash pad/opium den atmosphere needed to suggest the subterranean hideout of Lucy’s spirit. The unsuccessful photographs depicting Greta underwater reflect Lucy’s muffled talent. By contrast, the photos she takes of Syd when they go away together for the weekend to consummate their love are alive, vital, compelling.

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The strong subtext of Syd and Lucy’s desire is ambition. There’s no question that the two women are in lust and could be falling in love, but what really pushes them together in an irresistible way is their individual hopes for themselves. Syd has a good eye and immediately recognizes that Lucy could be the great discovery that could raise her profile at Frame and help her push past her clueless boss. When she realizes how big her discovery—rediscovery—is, there is no stopping her from picking a fight with James, with whom she seemed to be happy, and running straight into Lucy’s arms. Lucy’s overtures to Syd are, to me, more touching. She seems to want to be saved from herself, from the pull of heroin and her codependent relationship with Greta. She is feeling the advance of age, signaled by her desire to return to New York and spend time with her aging, if difficult, Jewish mother, fearing the future, fearing her own mortality. Becoming the Lucy Berliner again seems a plausible way to ensure that her life will count for something once more, and continue after death.

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The central performances by Sheedy and Mitchell are a master class in the way women love each other. Mitchell moves her braless torso in gentle curves, half-aware that she is being watched, not only by Lucy, but also by Greta. Cholodenko frequently directs shots that put Syd in the foreground, with Lucy in a corner of the frame looking at her with the eye of both a photographer and a seducer. Sheedy invades Mitchell’s space casually, agilely, but fixes her with her intensity. Syd’s response must feel like the kiss of life after Greta, who nods off in a drug haze when Lucy starts to make love to her. Indeed, although her German accent waxes and wanes, Patricia Clarkson plays a very believable Fassbinder actress, her superficial, needy vanity peeking out perfectly under her drug-layered performance. Overall, the drug scenes are very realistic—we can actually see Syd getting off after snorting her first line of heroin, and junkie-in-arms Arnie (Bill Sage) laying back in supreme pleasure after shooting up in Lucy and Greta’s bedroom.

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The script is a bit precious at times, but often witty and revealing, such as when Syd holds forth on one of Lucy’s compositions, and Lucy responds ruefully, “I haven’t been deconstructed in a long time.” Perhaps at that moment she sees the true foundation of Syd’s affections toward her, but chooses to ignore it. Harry’s pretense that he knows who Lucy Berliner is when questioned by Dominique is appropriately sleazy and hilarious. Greta’s dialogue seems to have been lifted in part from a Fassbinder film, which is either very lazy or very clever—I haven’t made up my mind yet. The most touching scene is when Syd and Lucy are about to make love and Syd says, “I don’t really know what I’m doing.” The tenderness and reassurance Lucy provides, and Syd’s genuine tears of love and gratitude, are pitch perfect.

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High Art offers a point of view in its final act. Photography—and by extension, film—captures moments in time that can move us with their emotional and physical content. The more universal the image, the more timeless it can be. Mere ambition and even enormously hard work have amazingly short shelf lives. True art can only come from those who can face the pleasure and pain of being alive and project that honestly.

  • sheila spoke:
    30th/01/2013 to 12:52 pm

    I remember when I saw High Art when it first came out: Patricia Clarkson was new to me (or, I had surely seen her in things, but she hadn’t “hit” yet like she has now) – and I truly believed that she WAS that person. I thought that Cholodenko must have actually found a dissolute German actress hanging out in the East Village – that did not feel like an acting performance to me. It was so real. I was amazed when I put it together later that that was actually Patricia Clarkson. It remains one of my favorites of her performances. Thanks for writing this up, Marilyn!

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    31st/01/2013 to 9:35 am

    Clarkson’s performance certainly rates with the one she gave as the nosy next door neighbor in Todd Haynes’s FAR FROM HEAVEN as standing among her best screen work. And Cholodenko’s superlative film is one of the finest gay-themed films ever made, sitting alonside BEAUTIFUL THING, SHOW ME LOVE, MAURICE, WILD REEDS and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN among others in this sub-genre.

    I certainly DO NOT by any stretch agree with you that THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT was one of the “worst films of 2010″ Marilyn (in fact it’s one of the best of that year and well-deserving of it’s New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Screenplay by Ms. Cholodenko and Stuart Blomberg, not to mention the same critics’ awards citations for Annette Bening as Best Actress, and Mark Ruffalo as Best Supporting Actor) and for me the framing of “sitcom” could not be further than what the script brings to the ‘relationships’ table. Still, before I shoot the messenger and insult one of my best on-line friends, I will say that your major aim here was compare, and I agree that HIGH ART is the stronger film, and one that does offer as you note some elctrifing performances and witty often humorous dialogue and revelations. Your final paragraphy is a real gem, as in fact is this incisive essay on an essential work that has stood the test of time most admirably.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    31st/01/2013 to 9:43 am

    Sheila and Sam – I have to admit that Clarkson grates on my nerves more than she inspires me, but her work in HIGH ART and FAR FROM HEAVEN do fill me with admiration. Sheila, she certainly looks the part of a druggie has-been German actress, definitely something out of Fassbinder. It was a great touch for this film.

    Sam – Sorry, but for me THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT was downright painful to watch. I will agree that Bening was quite good in it, and Ruffalo is always worth watching, but it was not enough to save the film for me. I was embarrassed by it.

  • Roderick spoke:
    31st/01/2013 to 9:52 am

    I haven’t seen High Art – I recall my hand hovering over the VHS box years ago when they still had VHS boxes quite a few times, but never taking he plunge. But I did see The Kids Are All Right, and my sympathies are entirely with you, Mare. Phony, trite, as empty and sophomoric as any “straight” relationship drama, slightly redeemed by Ruffalo, stuck playing an unplayable character, and Bening’s penny-drop scene.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    31st/01/2013 to 12:15 pm

    “But I did see The Kids Are All Right, and my sympathies are entirely with you, Mare. Phony, trite, as empty and sophomoric as any “straight” relationship drama, slightly redeemed by Ruffalo, stuck playing an unplayable character, and Bening’s penny-drop scene.”

    Here’s my response to Rod’s takedown: The film is witty, richly-layered, non-preachy, affectionate, sharply-written, superbly played and possessing the unique ability of showing dysfuction as the norm.

    No wonder at MetCritic the film had universal with a favorable to negative ratio of 35 to 0.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    31st/01/2013 to 12:29 pm

    Sam – You are overly attached to the opinions of the aggregate. Just because a lot of people like something doesn’t mean it’s good. I think we’ve seen that over and over again with awards and in other areas of life.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    31st/01/2013 to 12:44 pm

    True enough Marilyn. And I have admittedly gotten into trouble in the past with my embrace of the critical zeitgeist. Yet, as Rod knows, I have also been on the other side of the fence (SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, TABU, BARBARA and THE MASTER are films everyone else loved but I didn’t) and there are many other examples over the years. My aim here (and I voiced it poorly I will admit) is to establish that personal taste is what rules here and in any other evaluation of art. Hence there is no right or wrong when it comes to discussion and ultimate judgement of film or asny other art form, just as there is no real ‘good’ or ‘bad’, rather this:

    It worked for me
    It didn’t work for me.

    My apologies to Rod, though. I was wrong to use the critics’ card. It”s a lamentable weakness of mine, and it’s immature, especially since I use it when it agrees with my own opinion.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    31st/01/2013 to 12:53 pm

    Very gracious of you, Sam.

  • Abigail spoke:
    31st/01/2013 to 2:36 pm

    I’ve long admired Chodolenko. She brings such style to her films, and writes women that are neither plaster saints nor villains. She’s particularly interesting on mothers. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen “High Art” but I remember it as dark, sexy and if a bit precious at times, true to itself.

    “The Kids are Alright” – was it that bad? Sitcom, yes. Selling out lesbian sex? Yes. The plot was, in the end, contrived and vapid. But I admired its ability to capture (as most of her films have) the California that I know, and few really have done it; I can’t think of anyone who has done it as well. It had a real sense of place. The characters talked like Californians. The payoff for me was the young people rebelling against outwardly, but showing in their behavior that they’d absorbed something from their hyper emotionally aware upbringing, that maybe we’re not all doomed.

    Anyway, I really love your website. The best film writing around!

  • HM spoke:
    20th/12/2013 to 11:05 pm

    I watched the film recently and found your review to be the best by far. Sheedy and Mitchell’s performances were astounding, and the overall vibe the piece was much more life-like than any movie I’ve seen in awhile. Mitchell in particular conveyed such a wide range of authentic raw emotion, truly something to witness.
    That the movie is a downer is a bit of a drag, but that’s life sometimes, and there were just enough moments of positive evolution in the Syd character that it kept a strong hold on me, and for days after–unusual indeed.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/12/2013 to 9:19 am

    Thanks, HM. I found this film stuck with me for a long time as well. Glad you liked it.

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