(American, 1996, 108 minutes, color, 35mm)
Early in “Basquiat,” the film biography of the African American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, a middle-aged artist played by Willem Dafoe makes a confession to the title character. “I’m glad I never got any recognition when I was younger,” he confides. “It gave me time to develop.” In “Basquiat,” those words shroud the artist like Satan’s kiss, give him cause to distrust his early success and foreshadow his tragic death.
By the end of the film, which opens today, it’s 1988 and Basquiat, at 27, is dead from heroin, cocaine and a failure to reconcile fame with loneliness and enormous self-doubts…. Unlike earlier films about artists—Vincente Minnelli’s “Lust for Life,” for example—“Basquiat” is told by a genuine insider who not only understands the artist’s process but actually knew his subject.
Schnabel isn’t the first artist to become a filmmaker: Sergei Eisenstein, Jean Cocteau, Fritz Lang, Andy Warhol and David Lynch all painted or designed, and Schnabel shares with them a talent for creating a rich, defining physical context. Also, by shooting his film in the galleries and locales where Basquiat made his art, and using actors who understand the cool, cutting sophistication of the art world, he brings a ring of authenticity to “Basquiat.”
We see David Bowie playing Basquiat’s mentor Andy Warhol (he actually wears Warhol’s wigs and glasses), Michael Wincott as art critic Rene Ricard, Elina Lowensohn and Parker Posey as gallery owners Annina Nosei and Mary Boone, Dennis Hopper as Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger and Gary Oldman and Courtney Love playing fictitious amalgams of real-life characters.
We see the groupies and the poseurs, the greedy art dealers, the Eurotrash night owls and the spoiled, ostentatious yuppies who don’t know what they’re collecting. And we wonder: In a world so false, how could anyone—especially one who scrawled graffiti and slept in a cardboard box one day, and was hailed as the nation’s top black painter the next—hold a sense of proportion?
….Jeffrey Wright, who won a Tony for playing the outrageous gay nurse in “Angels in America” and is currently starring in the Broadway musical “Bring In ‘da Noise, Bring In ‘da Funk,” is a fine actor and understands the various levels on which Basquiat conducted his public life. Wright plays him as a frightened boy concealing his true nature. One minute he’s a bruised angel at odds with the world; the next he’s a slippery trickster who never seems to look at people or hear what they’re saying. Enamored of martyrdom, he buys into the mythology of Rimbaud, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, annihilates himself with drugs and eventually joins their deathly pantheon.
Aside from a reference to his father and the fact that his mother is housed at a mental institution within a convent, we discover very little of Basquiat’s background. Instead, Schnabel shows the painter at work on a single canvas—an ingenious sequence that captures his process without words—and visualizes Basquiat’s dream of escaping to Hawaii with a lovely image of surfers and waves projected above the Manhattan skyline. His own private Waikiki? “Basquiat” never names the devils that interrupted Basquiat’s journey nor crack the surface that Basquiat hid behind. It’s smart and good-hearted and boasts an amazingly good score, [and is intentionally restricted] by the very private nature of the man it portrays.
The following excerpt is taken from a Washington Post review by Desson Howe, “Basquiat: Spray-Painted Valentine,” August 16, 1996.
“Basquiat” is a sweet dream of a biography. The movie, about painter-artist Jean-Michel Basquiat may be small in scope, factually rearranged and even coy about his life. You could blink, for instance, and miss the fact that Basquiat (played with extraordinary grace by Jeffrey Wright) was a reclusive heroin addict while his paintings were the toast of Manhattan.
But the film, written and directed by fellow artist Julian Schnabel, is so tender in its affections, these omissions and poetic licenses seem like the embellishments of a good friend. “Basquiat” has the shorthand rhapsody and dreamy reverie of a lover’s passionately scrawled postcard.
When we first meet Basquiat, a down-and-out Haitian-American in New York, he’s trying to be a musician. But his graffiti and brushwork are recognized by Rene Ricard (Michael Wincott), who introduces him to Andy Warhol (David Bowie). The penniless artist, who senses an easy road to success, starts painting full time. Basquiat really does have talent, it turns out. His efforts are soon recognized in galleries, the media and at Manhattan parties. Unfortunately, his neophyte sensibility cannot keep up with his newfound fame. He’s frustrated by obnoxious journalists (such as a nameless interviewer played by Christopher Walken), who want to label him a black artist. He’s unable to deal with the world of hangers-on, gallery owners, jealous artists and other SoHo parasites. And he’s entranced by the mystique of such tragic, addicted artists as Jimi Hendrix and Charlie Parker.
He loses track of himself, plunges even deeper into heroin (we sort of catch up on the fact that he has been doing it for some time) and squanders a personal relationship with waitress/artist Gina Cardinale (Claire Forlani). When Warhol dies, Basquiat’s subsequent downfall seems inevitable.
As Basquiat, [Wright] is a pure pleasure to watch, a dreadlocked manchild who veers between social shyness and impulsive artistic confidence. When he first sees Gina, who’s waiting on his table, Basquiat pours syrup on the wooden surface before him and etches her face in the goop. He presents his work to her proudly and wins her heart. Whatever one thinks of the sticky work, you know Basquiat has the soul of an artist. Wright’s presence is complemented by scores of alert, little performances. Forlani makes a sweet, devoted lover. Benicio del Toro is marvelous as Basquiat’s tell-it-straight roommate, Benny Dalmau. And David Bowie appropriates every scene he’s in. With a bleached fright wig, accidentally British inflections, and a pinched, peeved expression of bewilderment, he’s a pop-art scream.
It seems appropriate that Schnabel is behind the project. Both painters made their names in the art-is-what-you-get-away-with climate of 1980s Manhattan…. And to his credit, Schnabel has risen to the task, causing us to fall in love with his subject. In this era, it’s almost impossible to say what constitutes great art. But Schnabel makes us believe Basquiat was great enough to celebrate.
(American, 2000, 125 minutes, color, 35mm)
Julian Schnabel's film "Before Night Falls" belongs to what might be called the life-is-but-a-dream school of biographical cinema in the way it hovers ethereally over its subject and conjures up fragments of his consciousness in brilliant, disconnected flashes. Adapted from a memoir by the exiled Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas, this haunting film portrays that homosexual dissident writer as a desperate unfulfilled searcher for a lost heaven on earth that he experiences only briefly as a very young man. No sooner has he tasted the ecstasies of this pagan paradise than it is snatched away by the punishing, gray-faced Communist revolution.
Relentlessly persecuted for being gay and for having his manuscripts smuggled out of the country and published abroad, Arenas eventually migrated to the United States along with thousands of other Cubans during the 1980 Mariel boatlift. But if exile brought him freedom, it provided little satisfaction. After living unhappily in Miami for a time (the film omits this period) Arenas settled in New York, where he committed suicide in 1990. (He was suffering from AIDS.) In his suicide letter he bitterly blamed Fidel Castro for all his troubles, including his death.
For all the pain and disappointment it encapsulates, "Before Night Falls" is far from a glum film. Like a deathbed dream it leapfrogs through Arenas's life, reconstructing crucial moments as a succession of bright, feverish illuminations. The movie, which the New York Film Festival is showing this evening and on Sunday at Alice Tully Hall, makes little attempt to psychoanalyze Arenas or to explain him. Instead it dips into his imagination, plumbing the sources of his art in scenes that evoke his closeness with nature and his obsession with sex.
Javier Bardem, the gifted Spanish actor who portrays Arenas (and who bears a striking physical resemblance to him) narrates the film (whose screenplay incorporates swatches of Arenas's posthumously published 1993 memoir) in a thickly accented English that is occasionally difficult to follow. The portrait it paints is of a slightly mad romantic who never recovers from the dashing of his illusions.
Freedom for Arenas didn't simply mean freedom of political expression; it was synonymous with his being a wild boy who claimed to have had 5,000 sexual encounters by age 25. When the Communist revolution on which he had pinned his inchoate boyhood hopes clamped down on Cuba's free-for-all sexual climate and threw homosexuals in prison camps, Arenas began to throw a lifelong tantrum. Liberation wasn't supposed to bring repression.
The film's early scenes of Arenas's dirt-poor childhood in Oriente province, where he was brought up by a single mother and his grandparents, are dizzyingly gorgeous, surreal evocations of a sopping semi- jungle environment where he played in mud holes and carved his early poems into trees. Childhood memories of torrential floods rushing across the landscape have a kind of a voluptuous majesty, and as Arenas matures, the movie returns again and again to images of water.
His happiest moments are his days spent lolling on the beach in male company and having indiscriminate sex everywhere and with everyone. One of his first boyfriends, Pepe (Andrea Di Stefano), a handsome bisexual stud and heartbreaker (who later betrays him), is held up as Arenas's erotic ideal, a rampantly priapic force of nature.
In these scenes the film deliciously evokes pre-Castro Cuba as a sensual endless summer of hot pliable flesh and lapping turquoise waters. Later, when Arenas escapes from prison, he steals out of his cell, squeezes through a fence, and dives into the ocean. Later still, in an unsuccessful attempt to flee Cuba, he floats out to sea on an inner tube.
While still a boy, the film recalls, Arenas desperately wanted to join the Communist guerrillas, and it skillfully weaves period color film clips of the revolutionary celebration with similarly grainy original scenes. No wonder then that when the revolution repressed homosexuals and artists, he became its bitter, unforgiving enemy….
Johnny Depp has flashy dual cameo roles as a transvestite who smuggles Arenas's rolled-up manuscripts out of prison and as a prison guard who uses sexual manipulation to secure Arenas's signature on a statement declaring his writing to be worthless.
Once the film moves to New York, its colors dim, as though all the light had gone out of Arenas's life. As he becomes ill, he is dutifully attended by his companion Lázaro Gomes Garriles (Olivier Martinez). Long before Arenas kills himself (with pills and a plastic bag), his will to live appears to be spent. One of the movie's final and most resonant scenes intercuts images of the slums of New York with the grand but now crumbling architecture of contemporary Havana….
Like many of Mr. Schnabel's paintings, this cinematic canvas is consciously heroic in its scale. Yet "Before Night Falls" is mercifully neither hagiographic nor politically strident. And for all the brutality Arenas endured in his life, the movie is surprisingly gentle and free of jarring shocks. If "Before Night Falls" doesn't give us Arenas's life as he actually experienced it, it offers penetrating glimpses into his life as he may have dreamed it.
The following excerpts are taken from a Los Angeles Times review by Kenneth Turan, “The Screen is a Lush Canvas in Before Night Falls,” December 22, 2000.
Redolent of atmosphere and rapturously cinematic, “Before Night Falls” has a gift for creating visual mood that’s so strong you’d swear it couldn’t last—but you’d be wrong. Anchored by a charismatic and accessible performance by Javier Bardem as star-crossed Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, this florid examination of an artist’s coming of age, of cultures in collusion and conflict, is difficult to resist.
Stronger on images than on dialogue and with a tendency to embrace excess for its own sake, “Before Night Falls” is not without its shortcomings. But ultimately this powerful, beguiling film about a poet whose homosexuality put him at odds with the state seduces us just as it seduced Bardem (who resisted the part but ended up winning best actor at the Venice Film Festival)….
Collaborating with cinematographers Xavier Perez Grobet and Guillermo Rosas and production designer Salvador Parra, and with Mexico standing in for Cuba, Schnabel has turned out an exceptional re-creation of several exotic worlds. The Edenic rural Cuba of Arenas’ childhood, the hothouse sensuality of Havana just after the old regime’s fall and the nightmarish prisons that are the revolution’s darker side combine to create visual poetry of a high order.
Ironically for a film about a poet, it’s the scenes without words, or rather the scenes where excerpts from Arenas’ wonderful poetry and prose are read by Bardem in the original Spanish over magical images and Carter Burwell’s hypnotic music that are the most successful….
…Bardem brings grace, empathy and sensitivity to his portrait of the poet who makes the journey from innocence to experience without losing his freshness and his receptivity to new sensation. Though Bardem is on the screen in almost every scene, his is a presence that never wears out its welcome.
“Before Night Falls” presents an especially damning look at the Cuban revolution’s attitudes toward homosexuals, and, in a wider sense, at the way increasingly repressive regimes try to marginalize anyone who bucks the imperative to conform. …[The film’s] wholehearted embracing of what the poet believed in and its ability to unfold like a veritable dreamscape, to use the camera to expand our world, are virtues in short supply. “Before Night Falls” commands our involvement and our respect.
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