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20 January 2021updated 27 Jul 2021 7:27am

Lisa Cholodenko’s 1998 High Art is an eerily precise portrayal of stone-broke bohemian city living

In this hip and smacky drama-romance, a young woman drifts through parties, trying to find a higher purpose.  

Funny, the things you can end up feeling wistful over once it’s no longer an option to actually socialise. In High Art, a hip and smacky drama-romance from 1998 by the writer-director Lisa Cholodenko, a young woman who works as an editor at an art magazine for very little money drifts through parties – druggy, arty, days-long parties at which young people in thrift store clothes talk druggy, arty, insufferable shop – trying to find a higher purpose.

Syd is in her early twenties, and has the untarnished enthusiasm and bottomless appetite for professional abasement often found in twenty-somethings who work at magazines. “If they made you an editor, I just don’t think they should keep treating you like an intern, that’s all,” her boyfriend tells her when she comes home late, exhausted, from another hectic day of fetching Earl Grey tea for her superiors. “It’s degrading.” Syd just shrugs: “It’s assistant editor,” she says, lighting up and swigging a martini. Their apartment, small and dingy, is a mess; one night, as she is lying in the bath, she finds herself being dripped on from a crack between the tiles of their mouldering bathroom ceiling, and because the superintendent of their building is no help, she goes upstairs to see the neighbours. When she gets there, they are high out of their minds and playing dominos, the set-up so convincingly unwashed and louche that it is almost possible to smell the fug of cigarette smoke, the stale sweat and rising damp. God, I found myself thinking, improbably, I miss being in my twenties. Nostalgia is a helluva drug.

Roger Ebert, reviewing High Art in 1998, evidently found its portrayal of stone-broke bohemian city living – and stone-broke bohemian city living on the fringes of the art world, in particular – as evocative as I did watching it in 2020, newly locked down for a third time and so desperate for a social life that even drugged-up dominos seemed appealing. “Those people really seem to be living there,” he marvelled of the upstairs neighbours. “They suggest a past, a present, a history, a pattern, that has been going on for years.”

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Syd’s burgeoning relationship with one of those people especially is where our experiences diverge. While I did once work at an art magazine for a trifling wage, I was not ever lucky enough to discover myself living underneath a genius photographer whose work was ripe for rediscovery. I was certainly not lucky enough to discover myself living underneath a genius photographer like Lucy, a Nan Goldin-alike played by Ally Sheedy with the swagger and sharp chin of a Warholian boy hustler.

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Lean and sexy, Lucy used to work under the pseudonym “Lucy Berlin”, in homage to the city where she first began to run with photogenic freaks and well-heeled addicts. She is attached at the hip to her glamorous girlfriend Greta, a onetime Fassbinder muse and full-time junkie with a tendency to nod out during sex. (Patricia Clarkson, with an accent that is equal parts vampiric and Teutonic, avoids making her a caricature by instilling her tempestuousness with an unhappy and insistent twinge of insecurity.) When Syd sees Lucy’s photographs, she ends up gushing about composition. “I haven’t been deconstructed in a long time,” Lucy grins, in a tone that could make anybody blush. Professionally speaking, Syd’s access to the iconic and reclusive photographer is a coup. Unprofessionally speaking, their first meeting is a mutual coup de foudre.

High Art, with its portrayal of a corruptible blonde acolyte being taught the ropes of both photography and sex by an older and more intoxicated artist, is an interesting mirror for the following year’s Guinevere, which had the added frisson of the relationship between mentor and mentee being a heterosexual one. Written and directed by the late, beloved Audrey Wells, Guinevere made its heroine one in a succession of girl muses, each of them discarded as soon as they got old enough and wise enough to resent being used. In High Art, Lucy may be more experienced and have a greater reputation, but Syd’s simultaneous status as her model and her lover feels devotional rather than like an act of sexual exploitation.

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Both affairs end tragically, in only slightly different ways. As well as its procession of downtown drug soirées, High Art offers one of the more sensitive on-screen depictions of lesbian sex in (relatively) mainstream cinema: a tender, nervous and occasionally faltering consummation of the women’s love that takes place on a trip upstate to a remote house in the woods. That the rest of Cholodenko’s movie makes a cool and grimy argument for living – maybe even dying – on the scene ensures that this brief interlude of quiet intimacy cuts into the rest of the film’s hipster hurly-burly like a razor cutting dope. 

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This article appears in the 20 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Biden's Burden