29 August 2001

Easel Angles: Julian Schnabel on Before Night Falls

Julian Schnabel knows a lot about the collision of art and personality. He tells Michael Hutak why he put down his brushes to make a movie of a doomed Cuban writer. 

"I don't think this film will ever be gone from me," says Julian Schnabel, artist, film-maker and renaissance man, of his latest epic motion picture, Before Night Falls.

Splitting his time these days between his huge New York City loft/studio and the ritzy Spanish seaside resort of San Sebastian, Schnabel spoke to The Bulletin from his summer retreat in Montauk, Long Island. Premiered at last year's Venice International Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize, Before Night Falls won praise at the recent Sydney Film Festival and is due for Australian release. Schnabel financed, co-wrote, produced, cast, directed, edited and is now promoting this film himself.

"It was like a year ago," he says, "we were at Venice and while I can't believe I've been talking about the film for that long, it will never leave me, it was such a magical experience to be able to give this guy a voice."
"This guy" is Cuban novelist and poet Reinaldo Arenas and Before Night Falls is based on Arenas' best-selling (although until recently not widely appreciated) autobiography, first published in English in 1993. In a film that is by turns moving and mawkish, Schnabel covers Arenas' childhood of poverty and freedom in pre-revolutionary Cuba, skims over his education and adolescence under Castro to his persecution in the 1960s and 1970s as a political dissident and homosexual. Finally, he leaves Cuba as part of the Mariel boatlift in 1980 to live a life in exile in New York City, where, in 1990, he commits suicide rather than die of AIDS.

Surprisingly linear for a film by a self-confessed postmodern artist, Before Night Falls features an outstanding Oscar-nominated performance from Spanish actor Javier Bardem (Jamón Jamón, Live Flesh) in the title role. "Javier was amazing to work with," Schnabel waxes. "He gets right inside the character – which can be difficult at times for the director – but he gives everything and you can't ask more than that."

Bardem is indeed sensational as the naive but courageous Arenas, who published only one of his eight novels in Cuba, and whose works remain banned at home and admired abroad. A poet who referred to himself as that "angry and lonely child of always", for Arenas the promise of Castro's political revolution – which at first was also attended by a sexual "revolution" – turns into a nightmare as he is censored, persecuted and jailed for both his sexuality and his creative defiance. As Arenas is advised early in the film: "People who make art are dangerous to a dictatorship – artists are by their nature counter-revolutionary."

Schnabel's view of Cuba today is a million miles from the genteel, bridge-building diplomacy of the Buena Vista Social Club. "It's just another dictatorship," he says, and the 42-year American embargo of the island only "giving Castro somebody to point the finger at. Meanwhile, the place is getting bought up by Mexicans, Italians, French and Canadians".

Predictably, the film has attracted the ire of pro-Cuban groups and the praise of America's large anti-Castro Cuban lobby. When pressed about the political controversy Schnabel responds with a long digression about the end of the Cold War and the situation in the Czech Republic, before returning to not answer the question: "Like many people, Arenas was seeking to live his life beyond the boxes of left and right. I'm not in any camp, left or right. The Cubans are wonderful people."

A question about the parallels between himself and Arenas is much easier to grapple with: "Well, I think we've both devoted our time and energy to seeking artistic and creative freedom – I had final cut on Before Night Falls, and I made no compromises in this film." For instance, he manages to cast his wife, Spanish-born model Olatz Lopez Garmendia, as Arenas' mother, not to mention two of his five children in minor roles.

While there is a lot to admire about Before Night Falls, there is strangely not a lot to like. The vivid cinematography, the visceral locations and the genuinely affecting moments that punctuate the film are undermined by Schnabel's "look at me" direction, which holds our attention but remains remote: while we believe and empathise with Bardem as Arenas, our suspension of disbelief is broken when Sean Penn and Johnny Depp drop in for pointless cameos, as if to do their buddy Julian a favour by beefing up the cast list of excellent but little-known actors.

The irony is inescapable that in the 1980s, New York was home to both Arenas, the ailing exile, and Schnabel, the rampaging art star. At once the most celebrated and vilified painter of his generation, Schnabel courted celebrity and outrage in a New York art scene that thrived on both. He has always had a tetchy relationship with the press and the clippings are full of churlish encounters with journalists suspicious of his fame and (one suspects) envious of his success.

As early as 1988, even respected critics such as the late Australian writer, Paul Taylor, who wrote widely on the Manhattan art scene of the 1980s, viewed Schnabel's "movie-star antics and his pose as a Romantic genius" as "old news". Reviewing Schnabel's autobiography – written at the ripe old age of 36 – for The New York Times Book Review, Taylor describes Schnabel as tackling "the big subjects – Death, God, Art and Julian Schnabel".

In the late 1990s, however, Schnabel turned his attention to the cinema, writing and directing his first feature film, Basquiat, a biopic about the ill-fated New York 1980s artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, in which Schnabel famously cast the charismatic Gary Oldman to play himself. He says he made the move into film by circumstance. "I've always been interested in film and after making Basquiat I realised that every film I'd ever seen was just part of my training to get to this point."

Basquiat was praised widely for its energetic pop sensibility and its knowing presentation of the New York art world as hollow, corrupt and driven by hype. But he denies he's playing safe by returning to eulogise another tragic dead artist for his second feature. "I don't think you can compare the two films at all. One's about an artist in New York, this film is much more a dreamscape and it's almost unclear what's real or even if it ever really happened. This film is like a deathbed remembrance, really, a dream – film itself is like a dream, it has many elements that correspond to dreams."

Schnabel says he still paints "so I don't have to be ashamed to be alive", and he regards himself today as a painter who directs, not vice versa. "There's more people in the middle with film. It takes longer, it's more complicated. Art is much more direct but of course the audience is much smaller. But I've always been a painter, that's what I am.

"But I always say I'm a director at Customs. If you say you're an artist, they check your passport, your bags, and want to see a return ticket."

When he hit the New York art scene in 1980 with his trademark works – paint applied to broken plates which were then glued to large Masonite boards – Schnabel was embraced nostalgically as in the mould of America's last great "heroic" painter, Jackson Pollock. It was an analogy Schnabel did nothing to dissuade, but when asked for his view of Ed Harris' recent celebrated biopic Pollock, made this year but still to be released in Australia, it's as if a nerve has been exposed. First silence, then: "I don't wanna talk about that." Asked if he disapproved of Harris' hard-drinking portrayal of Pollock, Schnabel replies: "I'm sorry, that's just something I have nothing to say about."

Things deteriorate quickly from there. Yes, his film is still banned in Cuba. No, Castro hasn't seen it. There's that unfinished feeling about the conversation, like we're at cross purposes. When asked why Cuba, why Arenas, the artful dodger will not be drawn. "I just wanted people to know about the guy, y'know?" he says, like it should be obvious.

Well, I still don't know actually, but alas my audience with Julian Schnabel has ended.

First published in the Bulletin. 

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