The most important and original Texas filmmaker to have emerged over the past decade does not hail from Texas. He speaks with a New York accent. He lives in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, in a bright pink high-rise that he designed himself (not too many of those in Dallas or Houston). His sartorial trademark—silk pajamas worn in public—is probably not one that would be looked kindly upon on the streets of Tyler or Lubbock.
Yet Julian Schnabel spent nearly a decade living here, first in Brownsville, where his parents moved when he was fifteen, and later in Houston, where he studied art at the University of Houston—and formative years they must have been. That’s because each of the 56-year-old’s three features reveal an unquestionably Texas-flavored cinematic sensibility. Schnabel’s work displays an unabashed brashness and swagger (who else would create a two-hour movie told largely from the perspective of a blinking eyeball?). He seems deeply concerned with geography and especially with how the landscape of a man’s home can also be a reflection of his soul (Terrence Malick would—and should—be envious).
Perhaps most important, he tells the story of outcasts and lone wolves who, for all their effete-seeming pursuits (painting, poetry, fashion magazine editing), are also men of taciturnity and determination. Schnabel’s three films are about iconoclastic souls bucking up against the banal dictates of modern society; they are cowboy movies for a metrosexual age. With The Diving Bell and the Butterfly just out on DVD and Schnabel’s first documentary, Lou Reed’s Berlin, due in theaters this summer (see “Old Sensations”), it’s time that the Brooklyn-born director come to be regarded alongside our most talented native sons.
“Everything that I do is based on some idea of freedom,” Schnabel told me when I interviewed him last fall. That is, of course, a typically grandiose statement from an artist whose grandiosity has been both his singular weakness and his greatest strength. He burst onto the art scene in his twenties, first in Houston (the Contemporary Arts Museum hosted his first major solo exhibition in 1976) and then in New York, with a series of famously overwrought, borderline-kitsch “plate paintings”: abstract scrawls of paint across pieces of broken ceramic plates glued to massive canvases. Many regarded Schnabel as the scourge of the run-amok eighties art scene. But he didn’t just stand in opposition to this criticism; he turned it into a kind of personal fetish. Indeed, the most interesting thing about Basquiat (1996)—a well-acted but mostly generic biopic about the graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat—is the portrait that Schnabel serves up of himself. Whereas Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright) and Andy Warhol (David Bowie) come across as childlike naïfs whose every last doodle is somehow embraced as a masterpiece, the Schnabel stand-in (Gary Oldman) is deliberative and severe, an artist who spends hours contemplating the placement of each canvas at his gallery show. “I’m the real talent,” he seemed to be saying, “whereas these other fellows are just kids playing in a sandbox.”
But if ego and hubris can be off-putting within the sanctity of a museum space, it’s exactly what we want from our movie directors. And when Schnabel delivered his erotic, devastatingly sad adaptation of the gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas’s memoir Before Night Falls (2000), it was a sign that the artist had finally found his voice. Following Arenas (Javier Bardem) over the course of four turbulent decades, Schnabel weaves bits of documentary footage and Arenas’s poetry into the drama; the Arenas character breaks out of the story to directly address the audience. There seemed no rule the director wasn’t willing to ignore, and the result was an uncommonly playful tragedy. (Arenas, who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987, committed suicide in 1990.) It was also with Before Night Falls that Schnabel finally brought to bear some of the lessons he first learned in Texas—the place, he told me, that “absolutely opened up my landscape.” Schnabel makes us feel the grit of the sand of the beaches where Arenas spent his days and the heat of the Havana sun as he meets a series of impossibly handsome lovers. He shows us a man who, even as he finds himself persecuted and censored by a repressive government, is physically and psychically wedded to his homeland.
How to top a contemporary classic? Seven years later came The Diving Bell and the Butterfly—and anyone who doubted that Schnabel would turn out to be a world-class director was instantly silenced. Based on the book by former French Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was paralyzed following a massive stroke, the Oscar-nominated movie chronicles how Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) wrote a memoir by blinking to a transcriber. The film’s many wonders have been amply chronicled: the way cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s camera approximates Bauby’s blinking eye, for instance, with a shutter that keeps opening and closing; the way Schnabel turns a story of death and immobility into a hymn of what it truly means to be alive. But perhaps the one thing that’s been undersold about The Diving Bell is the way that it also functions as a metaphor for Schnabel’s own story.