Schnabel’s Before Night Falls Is a Fine Way for a Filmmaker to Conduct His Career

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Before Night
by Julian Schnabel

That combination of vision
and compassion–also apparent in Schnabel’s new film about the late
Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls–is a fine way for
a filmmaker to conduct his career. So far Schnabel’s movies suggest an
impasto. Personal, biographical details amass so that his subjects’ complexity–their
emotional density–becomes each movie’s essence. It so happens that
Arenas was a poet, like Basquiat was a painter; but their stories are vivid
and multitextured because Schanabel has both a poet’s and painter’s
appreciation. The central image of Arenas as a boy playing in a pit of gray
earth has undeniable amplitude. (A discovery? A grave?) As with the wave-surfing
imagery intersecting the Soho street scenes in Basquiat, Schnabel doesn’t
label the symbolic meanings; these images simply affect one’s understanding.
He takes a similarly allusive approach to genealogy, casting a look at the troubled
lives of his subjects’ parents. More than the usual Freudian-Hollywood
method of explaining how an artistic personality is formed, it sets the stage
(animistically, historically) for the advent of an otherwise fortuitous, but
particular, artistic temperament.

Arenas’ parents present
a volatile cultural struggle predating Cuba’s revolution. Their clash introduces
unsatisfied desires and ambitions. (Arenas says he was born in a house full
of women and recounts his grandfather’s hostile reaction to a school teacher’s
report, "Reinaldo has a special gift. He has the sensitivity for poetry.")
Legacies of Latino peasant folklore tangle with agrarian pragmatism–Lorca
meeting Guevara–only to be fulfilled in Arenas’ own private contests
and literary bequests. Arenas’ writing, his sexual being, his reaction
to political events showcase different aspects of his personality, separate
prism angles that Schnabel keeps turning. Always mixing media, Schnabel applies
his richness-thickness approach to the standard biopic, immersing viewers in
Arenas’ memories, quotations, fantasies and sexual exploits. The film’s
content stays aswirl.

Before Night Falls
offers the pleasures of genuine intelligence rather than intellectual-political
posturings as in the facetious Quills. Schnabel’s worldly approach
to sex (also a distinguishing aspect of Basquiat’s thwarted love
story) substantiates the film’s secondary concern with Arenas’ life
as a civil rights struggle. To live homosexually in a repressive society is
seen as Arenas’ destined agon–whether in the shadow of his mismatched
parents, in Castro’s Cuba or in the superficially welcoming United States.
(His wintertime New York arrival is met with snowfall, not a shower of confetti.)
By concentrating on what he knows was only a marginal’s life, Schnabel
insists that it yet was wondrously complicated.

Figures like Arenas and
Basquiat allow Schnabel to examine contemporary Bohemia (or at least its last
days before New York became a landlord/marketer’s paradise). Schnabel’s
movies lament what became of the opportunity for creative lives in societies
that quickly moved toward commodification. In that sense, Before Night Falls–even
more so than Basquiat–portrays Schnabel’s sincere dissatisfaction
over our era’s (his era’s) withered artistic community. Unlike Ed
Harris’ rags-to-riches Pollock, Schnabel’s biopics view a larger
downward arc. He clearly perceives society’s decline (shown in Arenas’
delirious, passenger-seat confusion of Cuban and New York cityscapes) while
commemorating the late artist’s unrecognized striving. What possible vanity
there might be in this kind of perspective is mitigated by Schnabel’s emphasis
on both artists’ singular, almost enigmatic determination to elude their
cultures’ narrow expectations.

As long as Schnabel works
at conveying a struggle that might have been more difficult than his own–the
heroic intransigence of outsiders–his filmmaking is special, giving Before
Night Falls
its nearly marvelous moments. Understanding what rules and hierarchies
need to be flouted, Schnabel celebrates Arenas’ sexual esprit. Scenes of
Arenas’ coming-out in 1960s Cuba feature a relaxed exoticism. It’s
a lost paradise sequence (including an unfaithful lover’s failed attempt
to escape Cuba in a homemade hot air balloon) recalling a fantastic erotic nightmare–a
fever that mounts despite repression. Having a painter’s ease with nudity,
thus sexuality, Schnabel seems to tour Arenas’ libido rather than titillating
our own (Philip Kaufman’s insincere approach). Scenes like Arenas’
dirty schoolroom joke, or a memory of his mother haloed by flowers, are as anarchic
as early Bertolucci, though less voluptuous. It’s a heady depiction of
momentary sexual freedom–young men cruising in a white Thunderbird that
once belonged to Errol Flynn, or Arenas and friends’ nighttime, campfire
confrontation with Castro’s guapo troops when the apolitical Arenas
felt sexual revolution as keenly as Cuba’s political revolution.

These moments succeed largely
due to Javier Bardem’s hothouse flower portrayal. His flatfooted, pinched-shouldered
Arenas inhabits the same solipsistic bubble as Jeffrey Wright’s Basquiat;
both seem to be hugging, buffering, themselves. (There’s a Basquiat documentary
proving Wright’s accuracy, but this remoteness may also show Schnabel’s
sensibility–his wariness toward the art world–that Wright and Bardem
cannily express.) Schnabel’s intuitive emphasis on personality and atmosphere
(the film sustains a romantic yet rough visual quality) has a drawback: not
being script-oriented, his drama grows amorphous. The film almost suggests that
repression killed Arenas, which hardly jibes with the glistening, suntanned
life he braved earlier. Showing Arenas’ final years, dying from a vague
illness, cohabiting with a straight Cuban exile (a romantic ideal, an "authentic
boy" played by Olivier Martinez), Schnabel’s vision succumbs to doctrinaire
moralizing and political confusion.

Perhaps it’s unavoidable
that Before Night Falls is daunted by the totalitarian specter raised
by other films with related topics: In the late Nestor Almendros’ documentary
Improper Conduct, the plight of homosexual repression in Cuba was witnessed
by real-life interviewees. Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s Strawberry and Chocolate
fictionalized the same subject, although with too much rank sentimentality (and
more than a little mawkish comedy). Sometimes, Schnabel seems to be remembering
to remember the perils of fascism–even though it’s the epater le
that he does with unexpected piquancy.

Political conscience doesn’t
ruin any film; it’s just that Before Night Falls is best at the
ironic dispassion of Cuba’s gay elite–what Almendros’ and Alea’s
understandably could not afford to be distracted by when making their ex-post-facto
accounts. When young Arenas wins a literary competition (the day after an unsuccessful,
violent beach flirtation), a very fine moment shows his elegant, learned sponsor
giving him advice along with fancifully served croquetas: "People
who make art are dangerous to any dictatorship. They create beauty and beauty
is the enemy. Artists are escapists. Artists are counterrevolutionary, and so
you are a counterrevolutionary… Because here is a man that cannot govern the
terrain called beauty, so he wants to eliminate it. So here we are, 400 years
of Cuban culture about to become extinct, and everybody applauds."

He interrupts his speech
to ask, "But what happened to your lip?" Arenas demurs, "I found
someone who doesn’t like French music." And his mentor soothes, "Be
careful, be careful." At that moment, esprit is the thing. Arenas later
narrates about the four styles of Cuban gay men and goes on to comment, "Repression
only acted as a stimulus–a weapon to use against the regime." But
that statement sticks out; it is less convincing than Schnabel’s scenes
of sophisticated sexual camaraderie.

At the film’s lowest
point, Johnny Depp does a double cameo, first as a drag queen helping Arenas
smuggle a manuscript out of an internment camp (giving new depth to the term
pneumatic tube), then as a repressed gay prison guard. This obvious pointmaking
(a mustachioed Depp cradling his boner recalls Franco Nero in Marco Bellocchio’s
Victory March, a more adept allegory on sex and fascism) detracts from
Schnabel’s portrayal of individual sexual valor. It’s where the movie
stoops to anti-Castro pandering, even overloading the use of actual revolutionary
newsreel footage.

Superfically justifying
Arenas’ sexual life with political rectitude may help Schnabel finally
to win the acclaim denied Basquiat–though Arenas is almost certainly
a less significant artist. Bardem recites a passage describing Arenas’
boyhood in rural Cuba: "Water runs down gutters, reverberating over the
zinc roof like gunfire. A massive army marching across the trees, overflowing,
cascading, thundering…a culture of drums. Water falling on water, drenched."
The language seems trite, yet Schnabel’s burbling, pulsing, restless water
images are nonliteral and stirring. He balances light, water, sky, reflections
and treetops delicately, memorably, so that even Arenas’ early boyhood
reverie over a group of naked men at a watering hole–his romantic awakening–turns
that risque skinnydipping situation from A Room with a View into something
mythic. Even the recently lauded Bardem was ignored (along with Liberto Rabal,
Angela Molina and Francesca Neri) when acting out the expanding love triangle
of Pedro Almodovar’s overpoweringly erotic Live Flesh. That’s
because politics lends Before Night Falls a puritanical front, but it’s
best appreciated for its live flesh evocations. Schnabel’s film work is
most persuasive on sexy camaraderie; when it resurrects friends’ passed
lives and laments their passing worlds.