Those whose experience of Julian Schnabel has been one of enduring his overarching, humorless exclusionary egomania have been successively surprised to discover a sensitive side to the lumpy dauber in his justly praised trilogy of films, Basquiat, Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
Fortunately, daughter Lola Schnabel’s short video of Schnabel as director, attached to the video of Before Night Falls, reveals Schnabel to be his usual bumptious self behind the camera, as well. The question lingers: what dynamic transforms Schnabel into an avatar of the lyricism so evident in his movies?
The answer lies in Julian’s relationship to the lead characters in each film and the actors who play them. What unites the personae of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Reinaldo Arenas and Jean-Dominique Bauby is that each falls victim to the kind of risks that Schnabel has always armed himself against: Basquiat, engulfed by fame; Arenas, destroyed by casual encounters with strangers; Bauby, by an instant stroke of bad luck.
Protected from these fates, Schnabel can then casually decorate his protagonists with the bourgeois trappings of his own life. This occurs quite overtly in Basquiat when Jean-Michel visits the opulent cavelike studio of bad painting that is Schnabel’s own (Julian is played by Gary Oldman). In Before Night Falls, Schnabel delights to identify with Reinaldo’s following his prospective lovers in the street and on the beach, ultimately taking them, standing up, from behind. In Diving Bell the paralyzed Bauby is transfixed by the play of his children in the surf and sand, longing for their touch, reflecting Schnabel’s self-celebrated role as Montauk Pied Piper to his own vast brood.
Julian’s heartrending filmic poesy also hides a streak of sadism towards his trio of alter egos. The mercy killing of AIDS-stricken Arenas, whose roommate suffocates him with a shopping bag reading "I Love New York," is done with a shocking force straight from Schnabel’s deepest id. The scene in which Basquiat screams outside the locked gates of his mother’s mental hospital stands in stark contrast to Schnabel’s public flaunting of his own family’s healthy state of integration.
In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", beauteous women are the tease: their erotic proximity is salve and torture to the immobilized Bauby. In contrast, Schnabel flicks such babes away in real life like so many butterflies. Ultimately, one is left with the strange feeling, enforced by Lola Schnabel’s peek behind the lens, that the same factors of bluster, preening self-regard and intimidation which Schnabel has employed in his long career remain at the heart of the "gentle" side purportedly revealed in his movies.
Julian’s actors, cinematographers, editors, assistants and grips buy into his act, in the closed environment of the film set, out of a sense of resplendent fear, a fear which paradoxically liberates the lyric spirit inside them, and Schnabel, fixated, spoiled monster that he is, takes and gets the credit.
The filmgoer, transformed by Schnabel’s artifice and alchemy, must ultimately concede that he deserves it.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).