Before Night Falls

(Julian Schnabel, USA, 2000)


The 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.


Today, 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.


In 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.


Schnabel (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.


The 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.


Under 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.


The 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.


There 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 labour.


Another, 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!


Most 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.


Also 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.


Ultimately, 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

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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