Havana Nights

Julian Schnabel's quixotic exoticism

Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls (2000) is a sensationally atmospheric portrait of post-revolutionary Cuba. It is also a bio-pic that sits well with Schnabel's favourite theme: the artist as martyr. Like the eponymous hero of his 1996 debut, Basquiat, the subject of Schnabel's latest film, author Reinaldo Arenas, is a Dionysian genius oppressed by the mundane and autocratic elements within the social order. A talented, openly gay novelist, Arenas' resplendent bohemian existence was intermittently crushed by Castro's homophobic regime. As in Basquiat, Schnabel shows beauty as the artist's weapon and epic sensuality as his birthright, but in Arenas' case both were criminalized. While Jean-Michel Basquiat didn't quite fit the profile of manacled visionary that Schnabel required, Arenas' artistic and personal excesses, and his repression by the Cuban government (his life comprised hiding from the police, attending secret gay rumba parties and stealthy literary production), offered more mileage. Perhaps it's not surprising that a movie about his pleasured but nightmarish existence, colourful subculture and the distressed glamour of Cuba in the 1960s and 1970s verges on revolutionary tourism. With its supersaturated period film stock feel, the film occasionally resembles another recent feature about Cuba, Wim Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club (1999), and shares a similar fixation on the strange reality of the country.

However, Before Night Falls' intensely beautiful exoticism is also its greatest strength. From his days as a child revolutionary to his time as an habitué of fizzy dance clubs and ocean side romps, to the darker days of imprisonment and the 1980 Mariel boat lift, the film's visual language is scrupulous yet lavish. Even sombre sequences, those depicting the writer's years in El Morro prison for example, are equally effervescent. This tone is very much in keeping with Arenas' literary timbre. (Even his memoirs of his last days contain the same bitter vivacity: he writes that a doctor who played him music at his bedside was a better composer than medic.)

The exotic aestheticization of the film does have a downside: the politics of the Fidelista and Arenas, whose insistent, hedonistic sexuality was as much about politics as personal satisfaction, are toned down. Arenas' erotic quest is recast as more happy-go-lucky than rebellious. And despite the film's interest in assuming the mantle of authenticity through its depiction of a delirious and lush Cuba, Before Night Falls places European and American actors centre stage. Spaniard Javier Bardem leads the cast as a vital and arrogant Arenas. He is fantastic, but Johnny Depp as a jailhouse transvestite and then as a military official, and Sean Penn as a gold-toothed peasant, are far less successful. The final product of the film's exoticism is that the whole third act, set in New York, is truncated and thus given short shrift. Arenas lived in New York for ten years, for five of which he was sick and for three of which he was very ill. The Manhattan years have their own beauty in the autobiography, but in the film they are confined to one brief, glorious winter drive in a convertible around the city that skilfully echoes an earlier shot of Arenas cruising down the Havana streets. His numerous sexual dalliances around New York with men of all creeds and classes are untouched. Also, the way in which his writing, nationality and final illness marginalized him, condemning him to a life of poverty and exclusion resembling his earlier oppression at home, remains unexplored or extremely abbreviated. It is as if, after all the beauty and otherness of the Cuban sequences, Schnabel can't bring himself to train the camera back on grimy but equally complex New York. (Maybe after Basquiat he doesn't trust himself with local material.)

Perhaps the director's fear of New York is also a fear of the city's palette of greys and blacks. After all, the objects of desire elsewhere in the film appear clothed in colours like aqua and bright yellow. You can see echoes of Alain Resnais' films, as well as the aquatic photography and crowd scenes of René Clément's Purple Noon (1960), within Before Night Falls' Cuban sequences. Similarly, the score features Mahler's 'Adagietto', an elegiac piece recognizable from such classic European queer films as Visconti's Death in Venice (1971) and Fassbinder's In the Year of Thirteen Moons (1978). But the most important element in Before Night Falls remains the one that has always interested Schnabel and which he finally perfects: the artist/visionary destroyed by the quotidian; a person for whom art is the engine of pleasure and self-sacrifice.

Issue 57

First published in Issue 57

March 2001

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