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

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Before Night Falls Directed 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 bourgeosie 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.

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