Feb 24, 2008

The Nerve and the Will

The New York Review of Books
back in May 2007, during a post on Diving Bell and the Butterfly, I promised a post on schnabel's other two movies.

By Sanford Schwartz

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a film directed by Julian Schnabel

Before Night Falls, a film directed by Julian Schnabel

Basquiat, a film directed by Julian Schnabel

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death

by Jean-Dominique Bauby, translated from the French by Jeremy Leggatt

Vintage, 132 pp., $12.95 (paper)

C.V.J.: Nicknames of Maitre D's & Other Excerpts from Life

by Julian Schnabel

Random House, 222 pp. (1987)

For those of us who have followed Julian Schnabel's larger-than-life career as an artist for nearly thirty years, watching his new movie The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a doubly extraordinary experience. It is a film that presents a nightmarish and almost unbearable medical case history that has been handled with humor, a lyrical deftness, and a remarkable absence of sentimentality; and if you have more than a passing sense of Schnabel the person and his work as a painter, your mind is running at the same time on a parallel track, one full of amazement and almost disbelief that, with no apparent training in theater arts or the directing of actors, or even a feeling for photography, he has turned himself into a sometime moviemaker—this is his third film—of such drive and sensitivity. The movie is about a patient's transformation of himself as he lies in a hospital bed; and it has been made by someone who, with a perhaps related kind of strength, is similarly extending himself.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is based on the book of the same name by Jean-Dominique Bauby. The editor of the French fashion magazine Elle, Bauby suffered a stroke at the end of 1995, at forty-three, that left him paralyzed from head to toe and able only to use his mind, to hear from one ear (in a muffled way), to move his head a little (with a huge effort), to grunt out the letters of the alphabet (after considerable therapy), and most crucially to see from his left eye and to blink its lid. A victim of what is known as locked-in syndrome, Bauby learned how to communicate through a collaborative process. As someone read to him letters of the alphabet, he would, through blinking at the letter he needed, spell out words......

Like Basquiat, Schnabel's 1996 film about the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Before Night Falls, of 2000, about the exiled Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is first and foremost a crisp, craftsmanly piece of work, stylish to the degree that the material calls for it and always driven by the needs of the story. Each of the movies, furthermore, is about an actual person of real accomplishment who came to an untimely death.

And like The Diving Bell, Schnabel's earlier movies are graced by images of being on, by, or immersed in water. When Basquiat fantasizes about his future he looks up and sees, above the tops of city buildings, a sky that has become one big ocean wave with surfers carving down it. In Before Night Falls, Arenas's moments of wider understanding, whether concerning his artistic identity, his sexuality, or his political freedom, are inseparable from his being, respectively, in the rain, by a river, or diving into the sea....

Before Night Falls, though, was a huge step forward. It, too, presents a person making his way through a distinct social milieu, in this case Castro's Cuba during the 1960s and 1970s, when individual liberties were first celebrated and soon eradicated. Based on Arenas's autobiography of the same title, the movie at its core is an urgent and affectionate portrait of a man who rose from a background of dirt-poor farmers in the hinterland to become an internationally recognized writer— and who was brutally punished for his views by Castro's regime and eventually died in New York, a decade after he was able to leave Cuba, of AIDS.

Schnabel is as intimate and down-to-earth about Arenas's life as a homosexual, and about the texture of Hispanic Caribbean culture, as he is about the hospital world Jean-Dominique Bauby inhabits. But Before Night Falls is a richer and deeper movie than The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It encompasses grittier and more tumultuous experiences and revolves around a person (played by Javier Bardem without, it seems, a false moment) who grows as we watch from a cautious kid to a lovely young man and then finally to a self-assured and hardly cautious lover and writer whose refusal to conform leads to imprisonment and torture.