Photo by Michael Powers
Julian Schnabel is the most famous American painter of the last two decades, and one of the most notorious, symbolizing to many the self-indulgence and corruption of the Reagan-era art world. Born in 1951, Schnabel scandalized the anti-commodity establishment of the late 1970s by selling out his first show of large-scale, rough-hewn broken-crockery paintings before its opening, then scoring a museum retrospective that traveled from the Whitechapel in London to the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Whitney. After the art market crashed in the early ’90s, however, his exile from the pages of Artforum was sealed. Then the artist popped up in 1996 with a film about late fellow painter Jean-Michel Basquiat that surprised everyone with its quality.
Schnabel was recently in Los Angeles to promote his second film, Before Night Falls, based on the autobiography of exiled Cuban dissident novelist Reinaldo Arenas. The film is anchored on an outstanding central performance while indulging in feverish and gorgeous image-making. The dense simultaneity of visual information in Schnabel’s paintings translates beautifully spread across the durational structure of film, and the romantic extravagance and unapologetic sensuality of his visual style are significantly more integral to the second feature. He explains that he has attempted to translate the spontaneity and emphasis on process from his painting to his filmmaking. As is eloquently witnessed by the movie itself, he has succeeded. Dressed in a sarong and grazing on a plate of room-service bacon, Schnabel discusses his experiences.
L.A. WEEKLY: How would you characterize the politics of Before Night Falls?
JULIAN SCHNABEL: There are a lot of people from many different countries who are living away from their homes because of this kind of upheaval. What’s an artist supposed to do? It can be just about pointing a finger and saying you can look at something in a different way. I think that pisses some people off, because they don’t want people to look at things another way. Reinaldo was not writing political essays against the government. And I’m not Costa-Gavras — I don’t know much about politics. But I had to tell the story, because the guy touched me, and I instinctively felt something in common with him. There’s a humanity that Reinaldo projected that made me feel like making the movie, and I tried to be true to his voice. Obviously, it’s a Latin story — but it’s against totalitarianism in any country. It’s about tolerance.
The film has many pure visual moments — did you have to hold back from telling the story in a linear way?
I like the sense of observing observation, whether you’re looking at paintings, looking at movies, whatever. It’s not about holding back and being scared of being normal. It’s uninteresting to know what everybody’s going to say all the time, what the next scene is going to be. I want to make the experience interesting for myself. If you’ve two hours, more or less, make it an interesting two hours. Pick what you think is important, and get rid of the stuff that isn’t. You’ve told the story, and you’re letting someone connect the dots. I think the audience is more intelligent than most people give them credit for. I watch movies and I’m insulted. I feel like I’m being told things that are so damn obvious — and it happens all the time in most American movies. There are movies you watch and don’t want to see again. That’s it, you got the story, and it’s boring. But in this movie, there are these epiphanies or moments where the music, sound, image happen, and you get derailed or caught up by these moments, and they’re multiplied in the rhythm of the movie.
How was it filming Before Night Falls?
It was an island of absolute freedom making the movie. Maybe it had its price, but I don’t think there is a price for that, and I don’t know what you can win that is greater than being together, doing that, knowing there was no compromise, and then seeing it. I don’t make paintings to sell paintings, I make paintings to see paintings. I made the movie so I could watch it. I made it so I could feel the body of Reinaldo, in a way. The whole body of his work gets made into some substance, some kind of material that operates in some way for all those people in the theater communally. From someone who lived a life of people saying no all the time, like Reinaldo, we had a situation where we were all saying yes to Reinaldo, and we exchanged his body for his body of work. I can’t get myself out of it still. It’ll be nice when this is over. When we get to the summer, and I can just be out in Montauk and painting.
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