Hallucinations in exile

Julian Schnabel’s painterly vision of an unrepentant Cuban misfit.



A life abstracted into image becomes a portrait. The 1993 self-portrait of words by Cuban author and exile Reinaldo Arenas (Javier Bardem, Jámon, jámon) was a posthumous memoir titled Before Night Falls. Director and artist Julian Schnabel (Basquiat) reincarnates that memoir into cinematic light with significant moments of bold color, a poetic portrait of moving images.

Schnabel has been a portraitist for more than two decades. In the ’80s, he literally broke into New York City’s SoHo art scene, fracturing store-bought ceramic plates on which he painted still lifes and portraits. He transubstantiated flesh and blood into the fired clay of the broken ceramic vessels and paint, the shattered plates an actual “neo-expression” of flesh’s metaphorical “mortal clay” — both inevitably fated for destruction. Schnabel then substituted shades of light for pigmented clay, putting his portraiture in motion with a film biography of his dead friend, painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, also fated, like Arenas, for premature destruction.

Within the spring-green cathedral of a Cuban forest, a naked baby boy sits in what appears to be a shallow mud grave just his size: Baby Arenas patiently awaits his simultaneous coming-of-age with the Communist revolution, his subsequent persecution as a poet and a homosexual, and the ironic redemption of his early death from AIDS.

Schnabel color-codes the arc of Arenas’ life. The verdant greens of youth cool to the blues of the Cuban skies and the Atlantic Ocean, both offering freedom to America with the risk of death which Schnabel dresses in red and black.

As young Arenas’ teacher points between the petals of a large illustrated flower, she asks, “Can anyone tell me what the reproductive organ is called?”

“A dick,” he responds defiantly, “a big, skinny dick.” Arenas implicates himself as a militant flower — an object of rebellious beauty which will impress itself in the prose and poetry of his contraband book — as a counterrevolutionary, a criminal.

In an age when artists still remain in the shadow of Sen. Jesse Helms’ neo-McCarthyism (Are you now or have you ever been “obscene”?), Before Night Falls is a multilayered allegory of artistic mortality.

Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.

E-mail James Keith La Croix at letters@metrotimes.com.

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