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Review: 'High Art' clever, but low on ambition

Web posted on: Friday, June 26, 1998 1:57:21 PM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- "High Art," writer/director Lisa Cholodenko's examination of the New York photography scene via lesbianism and drained-out heroin chic, is one of those surprising movies that received high praise at the Sundance Film Festival while actually possessing elements that are worthy of the hubbub.

Over the years, Sundance has displayed a disturbing tendency to award unknown filmmakers for simply managing to get their movies off the ground, rather than for making them with any kind of overt intelligence or dynamism. There's intelligence to spare in "High Art," and a trio of truly first-rate performances, but Cholodenko's story teases the viewer into expecting a whole lot more digging than they actually get to see.

Yet as tedious some of the movie is, those performances may be reason enough to see it.

Radha Mitchell stars as Syd, an ambitious assistant editor at a photography magazine who's treated as a gopher by her pretentious, competitive superiors. Syd lives, somewhat unenthusiastically, with her boyfriend, James (played by Gabriel Mann), in an East Village tenement.

Sheedy in performance of her life

One day she comes into contact with the sweaty group of heroin-addicted, 30-something zombies who share the apartment directly above her. The most animated of the group is a photographer named Lucy Berliner (Ally Sheedy, in the performance of her life), who, Syd comes to find out, was something of a protégé 10 years earlier, then disappeared altogether from the art scene. Syd is highly impressed with Lucy's work, and, after much string-pulling, manages to get her a shot at taking a photo for the cover of her magazine.

Lucy grudgingly agrees to take some pictures that may or may not be the kind of thing she's interested in. She mopes and complains about it, but that's really all we get. I really thought that the movie would contain more insight into what it's like to be a true artist in an arena that's become overly concerned with the flavor of the moment, but Cholodenko, it turns out, is far more concerned with Syd's burgeoning awareness of her own lesbian tendencies.

Syd starts falling for Lucy -- and getting mixed up in her self-absorbed heroin indulgences -- but this rather fascinating take on one woman's sexuality could have just as easily been explored while making comments on the environment that unleashed the experimentation. Cholodenko eventually zeroes in on one topic after establishing a playing field that promises something far more complex.

"I've had more than ample opportunity to come into contact with the narcissistic artist-types who inhabit the film, and Cholodenko has the ambiance down cold."

Having lived in New York for nearly a decade now, I've had more than ample opportunity to come into contact with the narcissistic artist-types who inhabit the film, and Cholodenko has the ambiance down cold. The languidness of these people's existence is a very real part of the New York experience. But being steamrolled by a drug addiction is just a more deadly form of wasting away again in Margaritaville when you get right down to it, and I didn't see anything in the movie to suggest that there's anything more to it than that.

Lucy's sex-and-drugs crew perceives their downhill crawl as a glamorous escape from middlebrow banality, and if you can't see their situation devolving into something extremely unfortunate, you haven't been paying attention to your pamphlets, newspapers, and after-school specials.

What's on screen has an occasionally burning intensity, though. Sheedy turns in just about the bravest performance so far this year. She looks a little more than her age these days, but she uses that to her advantage; the wrinkles in her furrowed brow seem well-earned, to say the least. Lucy's very real intensity, however, is blunted sometimes by her often unwarranted tenderness towards her drug-dependent lover, Greta, baroquely played by Patricia Clarkson.

Greta is a former German film actress (she name-drops Werner Fassbinder more often than she says "hello"), and Clarkson imbues her with the withered spirit of Nico after too many stoned nights shaking her tambourine behind Lou Reed. There's a truly sick, forlorn humor to Clarkson's take on Greta, and her accomplishment is every bit as impressive as Sheedy's.

All in all, though, the movie eventually starts to get tiresome. Cholodenko absolutely has the goods, and, if you're a connoisseur of great film acting, the movie may be for you. Just be warned that you'll see it coming a mile away. There are more than enough road signs to suggest a prolonged dead-end, no matter how compassionately Cholodenko explores it.

"High Art" would give Jesse Helms fits, but I think the odds are pretty good that he won't be watching it. There are copious displays of heroin use and lesbian sex, not that the latter deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the former. You know how lots of people view that form of personal expression, though. There are also those old stand-by's, nudity and bad language. Rated R. 102 minutes.

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