Before Night Falls
film genre known as the biopic is as
difficult as it is appealing. In the Old Hollywood days, screen biographies of
politicians like Abraham Lincoln or entertainers such as Al Jolson often had
very little relation to their subjects’ real lives. A tiny aspect of those
existences would be picked out and worked over in order to fit some tidy,
standard formula of action, success or romance.
we are used to a new style of biopic that is, superficially at least, very
different. Movies such as Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1996), Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) and Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) have accustomed us to long, sprawling chronicles with many minor
characters. Such films are full of sweeping changes in time and place, offering
a synoptic overview of successive eras and their cultural styles. But there are
still plenty of problems that come with condensing an entire lifetime into a
few hours and trying to shape from these fragments a testament that is at once
authentic as well as satisfying as a self-contained drama.
the mid 1990s, a string of celebrated American artists ventured into feature
narrative filmmaking. The results – judging by Robert Longo’s Johnny Mnemonic (1995), David Salle’s Search and Destroy (1995) and Cindy
Sherman’s Office Killer (1998) – were mostly
arch, self-conscious, tepid affairs. The one in that batch that has survived
the test of time best is Basquiat (1996) by Julian Schnabel, about the miserably
short life of a gifted painter in the New York of the 1980s. With its
close-focus, bare-bones style and Stations of the Cross approach to a troubled
and brief life, it managed to be moving without ever becoming mawkish, and
authentic without succumbing to slavish realism.
(as his subsequent projects in cinema have proved) is especially fond of
biopics. While he documented times, events and people of which he had intimate
knowledge in Basquiat, he tackles a far
greater challenge in his second feature film. For Before Night Falls, he travels to another time and culture to tell
the equally tragic tale of a writer, Reinaldo Arenas, played with great
conviction by Javier Bardem. The life of Arenas takes in a larger, more
comprehensive and complex slice of political history than did Basquiat’s.
Schnabel inevitably simplifies – and also romanticises – his subject.
melodramatic polarities of Before Night
Falls are stark. Arenas experiences his childhood and young adult life as a
lyrical Utopia of sensuality, song, beauty and nature. Arenas tells us that, in
the 1960s, he loved his typewriter, young people and the sea; to that list
Schnabel adds nightlife and music. Arenas’ path to gayness sometimes earns him
a bloody lip from uptight straights, but he still rejoices in its discovery. He
registers as an anarchic force, counter to every official ideology of church or
state. Above all, Arenas was “born to write”, and he is initially promoted by
associates who appreciate the subversive power of his work.
the reign of Castro in the 1960s and ‘70s, however, Arenas and all like him
undergo brutal persecution. Most of his story is a long and protracted struggle
against that persecution. He flees, is jailed, hides his manuscripts. Arenas’
acts of self-preservation, and his efforts to smuggle his writings abroad,
register as ingenious and heroic gestures of survival. Exile to America in the
1980s brings a different kind of struggle and sadness to Arenas’ journey.
villain in this story is the Cuban state under Castro – militaristic, macho,
destructive of culture. This society is portrayed as one vast prison. In case
we are in any danger of missing the underlying dichotomy, Schnabel has Johnny
Depp play a bizarre twin-set dual cameo: first as Lieutenant Victor, a stern
cop over whom Arenas homoerotically fantasises; then as Bon Bon, an extravagant
gay diva who aids the writer in prison.
are vivid passages in Before Night Falls,
especially those devoted to recreating the Cuba of the ‘60s. The music score by
Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson and Carter Burwell (best known for his work for the
Coen brothers) is well used. Bardem’s performance is superb in its nuanced
range of moods and emotions. But, on the whole, it is a thin, dissatisfying
film. Although the recited excerpts from Arenas’ work are impressive, it is
hard to get a clear fix on what kind of writer he really was – how he mixed
autobiography and fiction, for instance, or which Latin American traditions he
reworked to his own ends. And shots of someone merrily hitting typewriter keys or
scribbling out a few words never, ever come close to conveying an author’s real
rather annoying form of cultural inexactness is evident in the film’s use of
language. Like any mainstream Hollywood movie past or present, it chooses to
have its Cuban characters speaking mostly in English. But once Arenas hits
America, it occasionally switches to Spanish with English subtitles!
damagingly, Schnabel is overly conscious of his own signature as an artist.
What this means, in effect, is that both Basquiat and Arenas in turn are
processed through Schnabel-style imagery that often borders on high-tone
kitsch. So, just as in Basquiat, we
get dream-visions of watery bliss and weightless flight; memory flickers of
lost parents and idyllic childhood moments; and strange little detours into
whimsy or terror that abruptly turn out to be dreams or reveries.
common to both films is a rather fatalistic view of the artist-outsider or
Golden Child figure as eternally doomed. According to Schnabel, the suffering
of Basquiat and Arenas is only partly explained by social factors; these movies
promote a vague, fuzzy pathos about men whose very personal death-drives seem
inextricably bound up with their choice of artistic idiom and their morally unconventional
lifestyles. But Arenas as imagined by Schnabel, just like Basquiat, is forever
haunted by disquieting memories and fatalistic premonitions; he is the eternal
non-conformist and “exile” from all societies.
Schnabel seems simply too enamoured by the exoticness of his subject in Before Night Falls – and too willing to
entertain a black-and-white view of the gifted individual pitted against the
rest of the world. But, at least, I did come away from it with a strong desire
to hunt out the books of Reinaldo Arenas.
© Adrian Martin September 2001