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Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2001
Poetry and the pursuit of freedom
Biopics about writers are always a dicey proposition -- authors live or die on the strength of their words, but how do you incorporate them effectively in a visual medium? Attempts this year include the documentary "Beatnik," which featured straight-to-camera readings, and "William Burroughs' Wife," which largely traded on the salacious personal lives of the beatnik literary circle.
Director -- and artist -- Julian Schnabel aims for a seamless flow between text and imagery in his biopic of dissident Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, "Before Night Falls." Schnabel's film is a bold experiment in impressionistic cinema: Arenas' life is recounted in a blur of images, as if passing before his eyes at the moment of death, a haze of poetry, dream and memory. The look on his mother's face, a lover's touch or a rainstorm are given as much weight as the publication of his first novel or his escape from prison.
While this makes for a singularly striking cinematic experience, it's also more than a little convoluted (made more so by the seemingly random shifts between Spanish and heavily accented English). Entire scenes might leave you scratching your head, pondering their significance. Unlike, say, the Beats, Arena's fame is not so great that the filmmakers can assume prior knowledge of his work.
While obscurity is certainly a hurdle, it's one that can be overcome by clear and focused direction. This, however, would be at odds with Schnabel's aesthetic, and so we're left with a film that is a visual paean to Arenas' genius but never reveals the secret of his significance. We see his inner life, yes, but barely glimpse how it was transmuted into art.
We do get the facts of Arenas' brief life: his birth into poverty in rural Cuba, where he was abandoned by his father and raised by his mother and grandparents who opposed his desire to write; his embrace of and subsequent disillusion with Castro's revolution; his life as a publicly gay man in Havana, and his eventual persecution for both his lifestyle and his writings; his imprisonment and flight to America in the "boat people" exodus of 1980 following Castro's expulsion of criminals and homosexuals; and, finally, his suicide in the face of imminent death from AIDS in New York in 1990.
Schnabel plays up the fact that Arenas suffered for his art, but we never sense how that made his art great. When an overseas admirer of Arenas tells him (in the film) that his book is the greatest account of childhood, we have to take his word for it. It's rarely clear when narration is taken from his works, and when it is, it's subsumed by the lush imagery. Similarly, much is made of the Cuban government persecuting Arenas for his homosexuality, when in reality, it was his writing that bothered them. Again, though, "Before Night Falls" doesn't tell us why.
There's something almost parasitic in the way in which Schnabel -- a wealthy and successful purveyor of art to the upper classes -- seeks authenticity as a director through lionizing lower-class artists who truly suffered (see also Schnabel's debut, "Basquiat"). If torment is the forge in which the greatest art is created then Schnabel's own art is decidedly lacking. Schnabel suggests in his film that art bothers dictators because it is "escapist" in its pursuit of beauty. But that's not what Arenas was about; while his works were intensely personal, the writer remained committed to the idea that freedom to create art was part of a larger struggle for a free and fair society.
Schnabel's film also argues -- as rich men often do -- that poverty is alleviated by freedom. Yet it was poverty that killed Arenas, as he had no money to get medical treatment for his illness. One could even say it was the freedom to engage in casual sex with a multitude of partners -- freedom that New York offered and Cuba didn't -- that killed him.
"Before Night Falls" positively skirts such complexities in favor of portraying the artist as martyr. Fortunately Javier Bardem ("Jamon, Jamon") is more than able to convey the tragedy of the lead. He undergoes an amazing transformation, from a fresh-faced youth unsure of his skills and sexuality to a fierce dissident, hardened by jail and personal betrayal. His face never lies. Schnabel's film may fail to explain clearly what Arenas experienced, but Bardem always manages to make us feel it intensely.