The Pajama Clad Director

August 10th, 2008 § 3 comments

julian schnabel

Consistency in directors, or expecting consistency, has become such a problem of late that I am beginning to think I simply shouldn’t expect it. There are some men of whom I could forgive just about anything, I sat through Don’t Come Knocking in France, yet I don’t think Julian Schnabel is one of them. For the painter he was hyped to be in the 1980’s, introducing himself as the “greatest American painter”, I don’t think I have knowingly seen his works in person. I might have passed by one in the past, missing the name or ignorant of it, and admittedly my knowledge of painters, especially hotshot, pajama personalities showing at Mary Boone, is deliberately faulty. Word in art jargon seems to be that as his reputation waned he turned to other mediums, including film. The Diving Bell’s success I credited to the director himself, and not to those who wrote and photographed the film—I say those two aspects now because the glaring problems with his previous films stems from the writing and the filming. Having recently watched Before Night Falls and Basquiat I am thinking a bit of “luck” was involved with his third film. His French cast was good, with characters flawed enough to be human, and the photography interesting enough to keep the film from wallowing in self-pity.

A fellow grad once made fun of the student body at VCU, saying with sarcasm, “it must be so hard to be white and middle class.” Both Before Night Falls and Basquiat dwell on the injustices of society, seen through the self-centered expectation that life should be fair. Avoiding plot specifics, Schnabel’s interest in biographies, and sadly mangled ones at that, runs through all three films. The protagonists are all men, all artists (of sorts), all were successful, and all created around them the myth of artistic tragedy. Perhaps Diving Bell is captivating only because its protagonist narrates a self-reflective story of a life well lived, shot through with mistakes, carelessness, and selfishness. Being “locked-in” almost seems to have woken the Elle editor up, or so the film states, as to the truth…


Accuracy, because Schnabel deals with “real” biographies of “real” people, some of which he knew himself, becomes an important issue. I don’t interpret them as I would a fictional film, especially not when Warhol, Boone, Schnabel himself, and others we know are being “acted.” Was the nyc art scene really so grasping and exploitive as is certainly believable, or am I watching Schnabel’s impression of a fictitious art world he was the center of? It is impossible to imagine him being objective toward a scene he has been deeply embedded in, and while he could therefore be offering a precious perspective, I am inclined toward disbelief—not of what he portrays in particular, but of his stories in general. How have they been altered in order to be palatable to an audience he knows so well? His personality and determination to remain important dominate the headlines of his recent films and artworks, and the Diving Bell now seems to be the culmination of two critically acclaimed (though completely mediocre) films, rather than the work of a radical visual artist turned director, though happily he might prove me wrong. With all his films I am asked to be sympathetic, but of what I am unsure. Injustice, racism, artists, life, politics, the world, these three men in particular?

§ 3 Responses to The Pajama Clad Director"

  • a guzman says:

    I am still holding out some faith that Diving Bell was simply a better film, though my post was meant to question weather or not Schnabel was to be credited for that or not–it might have been better in spite of him! I know language can be a problem in assessing films, but if you think about the difference between say, Before Night Falls, and the French movie in question, there is a world of difference. Before Night Falls, be it in Spanish, English, or English with a very strong (and unconvincing?) Cuban accent, was a bad film.

  • a guzman says:

    That was where I started, I enjoyed the film and wanted to see his others as I had high hopes for them. But, even of the people you think something of, it seems some kind of objectivity has to be maintained, or you have to allow good directors to make bad films. In this case I am not convinced that he is a good director, however much I liked the Diving Bell. That, I think, is my current quandary.

  • occassia says:

    I haven’t seen the two other films, and had no previous knowledge to speak of re: Schnabel. I found The Diving Bell beautiful and deeply engaging.

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