High Art

USA 1998

Reviewed by Leslie Felperin


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

New York City. Syd works at Frame, a photography magazine. At home one night with her boyfriend James, a leak in the bathroom leads Syd up to the flat of their neighbour Lucy, who's been snorting heroin with her live-in girlfriend Greta and their friends. Syd is bowled over by Lucy's photographs and later borrows a book of her work to show the editors at Frame. They explain that Lucy was once the hottest photographer in New York, but she turned her back on it all. At a meeting, Lucy agrees to do a spread for Frame as long as Syd has full editorial control.

A mutual attraction grows between Syd and Lucy. Syd tries some heroin at a party with Lucy, alienating James and making Greta jealous. Lucy insists Syd accompany her on a trip upstate. The two make love and in the morning Lucy takes intimate snaps of Syd in bed. Back in New York, Lucy considers leaving Greta and giving up heroin. She gives Syd the photos of their weekend, insisting Frame use them. Greta and Lucy fight about their relationship and then snort some heroin together; Lucy dies. Syd's image adorns the latest issue of Frame.


"It's been a long time since I've been deconstructed," says a flattered Lucy Berliner after magazine assistant editor Syd raves about how Lucy's photographs illustrate a notion of Roland Barthes'. And it's been a long time since we've seen on screen so cerebral a seduction as Lucy's. It's to High Art's credit that it flirts so frankly and eschews using complicated visual accessories to lure us into the bedroom. Given the hip, quasi-intellectual demi-monde the film is set in, other film-makers might have been tempted to trick out the movie with retro new wave-style jump cuts or Warholian graininess. But Lisa Cholodenko (maker of the shorts Souvenir and Dinner Party) and cinematographer Tami Reiker confine themselves to coolly composed long takes and slow tracks richly lit. This suits what is after all a simple love-triangle story, and finds a correlative in Lucy's photographs (actually taken by JoJo Whilden) of her friends in various postures of loucheness, which Syd describes as striking a balance between formal composition and spontaneity. If Art Forum had a tabloid-style agony-aunt column with a photostory, it would look something like High Art.

Some of the other photographs used in the film are by Nan Goldin, and Lucy's snaps bear more than a passing resemblance to Goldin's confessional, lapidary portraits of herself and her bohemian friends. Inevitably, this has wrought accusations that the film has plagiarised Goldin's life, which seems a little unfair to both the film and Goldin, whose work has moved on from self-focus to more distinctly other subjects, including drag queens and hospices. Nonetheless, High Art does deal, perhaps with oblique criticism, with the 'cult of the artist's personality' culture that dominates a strain of 80s and 90s metropolitan chic. ("You guys are so glamorous," says Lucy to her friends as she watches them inject heroin.) The vampiric editorial crew at Syd's magazine Frame all but slobber when they find out Syd knows Lucy and push the latter to produce a spread based on her life at that moment, itching for the proximity frisson brought by her drug-culture lesbian cachet. Though sympathetically incarnated in Radha Mitchell's russet-and-honey figure, Syd gets to live out something of a star-fucking fantasy, albeit one for high-toned Ivy League girls.

Who can blame her when Ally Sheedy's Lucy is the fulcrum of that fantasy? Whip thin and kitted out in a selection of crisp hipster slacks, Sheedy oozes both the confident sexuality and brittle intelligence required for the role. Adding another spin to the film's thematic games with fame and reputation, her casting is an extra irony since Sheedy, like Lucy, also seemed to have slipped disappointingly from view since she became famous for The Breakfast Club. She holds the reins at the film's heart with confidence, leaving a wonderfully deadpan Patricia Clarkson, whose Greta once worked with "FAAAS-binder", to embody the bitterness of the wash-out.


Dolly Hall
Jeff Levy-Hinte
Susan A. Stover
Lisa Cholodenko
Director of Photography
Tami Reiker
Amy E. Duddleston
Production Designer
Bernhard Blythe
Shudder to Think
©High Art Pictures, LLC
Production Companies
October Films presents
in association with 391 a Dolly Hall production
Associate Producer
Lori E. Seid
Production Office
Livia Monte
Production Manager
Exile Ramirez
Location Manager
Jeff Roth
Jennifer Ruff
Assistant Directors
Kelly McKaig
Cecily Kaston
Gwen Bialic
Script Supervisor
Molly Maguire
Billy Hopkins
Suzanne Smith
Kerry Barden
Jennifer McNamara
Mark Bennett
Graphic Design
Art Director
Caryn Marcus
Set Decorator
Mechelle Chojecki
Art Department
Sean De Simone
'Lucy Berliner' Photography
JoJo Whilden
'Dieter' Portfolio Photography
Lauren Sorokin
FRAME Colour Photography
Nina Berman
Karen Crumley
Robert Flynt
Nan Goldin
Janine Gordon
Liane Harris
Brenda Ann Kenneally
Ernest Montgomery
Barbara Nitke
Mark Peterson
Jack Pierson
Amy Steiner
Robert Vizzini
Costume Designer
Victoria Farrell
Wardrobe Supervisor
Anne Kenney
Hair/Make-up Artist
Mia Thoen
Hair Style Consultant
Dave Hickey
Title Design
Shudder to Think
Craig Wedren
Nathan Larson
Stuart Hill
Music Supervisor
Tracy McKnight
"The Walk", "Cracktub", "Dominoes", "Gum Grinder", "Hot
Gazpacho", "Battlesoaked (Remix)", "Fools" by Craig Wedren, performed by Shudder to Think; "Say, Buddy", "That's Fat", "B-Bird" by Shane Faber, De Harris, performed by The JeepJazz Project; "PH Balanced (For a Lady)", "She Might Be Waking Up" by Nathan Larson, performed by Shudder to Think; "The Gavial" by Jud Elvbar, performed by Reservoir
Sound Design
Damian Volpe
Jonah Lawrence
Audio Co-ordinator
Stacey Weihe
Production Sound Mixers
Noah Timan
Matt Armstrong
Re-recording Mixer
Rob Fernandez
Supervising Sound Editor
Tom Efinger
Sound Editors
Sonny Calderon
Frank Egan
Contributing Artists
Jeff Carter
Mechelle Chojecki
Anne-Christine D'Adesky
Peter Fay
Daphne Fitzpatrick
Jackie Hamilton
Emily Krill
Zoe Leonard
Make Lu
Carol Pavitt
Michael Pirrocco
Marja Samson
Camilla Slattery
David Wojnarowicz
Suzanne Wright
Ally Sheedy
Lucy Berliner
Radha Mitchell
Tammy Grimes
Vera Berliner, Lucy's mother
Patricia Clarkson
Greta Krauss, Lucy's girlfriend
Gabriel Mann
James, Syd's boyfriend
Anh Duong
Dominique Pujôt, FRAME editor
Bill Sage
David Thornton
Harry, Syd's boss
Rudolf Martin
Charis Michelsen
Helen Mendes
White Hawk
Cindra Feuer
Anthony Ruivivar
Elaine Tse
Laura Ekstrand
Sarita Choudhury
Stephen Gevedon
man at party
Blue Light
9,148 feet
101 minutes 39 seconds
Colour by
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011