Sunday, November 18, 2007

Don’t Call Him a Filmmaker, at Least Not First

THE paintings on broken plates that made
Julian Schnabel an art-world star in the early 1980s seemed to announce their importance not just by their retrograde swagger but also by their sheer weight. Hanging one on a wall was like suspending a cabinet full of Buffalo china.The other day in a former smelting factory near the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn a bunch of new paintings that he had hanging on the walls seemed by contrast to be almost weightless, looking as if skeins of smoke had settled on the canvas. But they were actually digitally printed blow-ups of antique French hospital X-rays that he had come across last year in northern Normandy. And as such they were pieces not simply of art but of argument, Mr. Schnabel’s pointed way of saying that while his life as a filmmaker may be threatening to eclipse his life as a painter, he still has his palette firmly in hand.

He found the X-rays in a building near the naval hospital at Berck-sur-Mer on the Normandy coast, where he had just finished directing “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” his movie based on the best-selling memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former editor in chief of Elle magazine in France. In 1995 Mr. Bauby suffered a stroke that left him with a condition called locked-in syndrome, conscious but paralyzed, with only his left eye remaining functional, and he composed the memoir painstakingly by blinking that eye to select letters on a chart.

The movie, which will open Nov. 30 in New York and Los Angeles, has proved to be a kind of hat trick for Mr. Schnabel, whose first film, “Basquiat” in 1996, got a respectable reception considering his inexperience and his share of detractors in the art world, where it was set. His second movie, “Before Night Falls” in 2000, about the gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, established him solidly as a filmmaker, earning an Oscar nomination for its star, Javier Bardem. And “The Diving Bell” has been even more widely praised in the early going, winning Mr. Schnabel the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival and fueling Oscar dreams on the part of Miramax, its American distributor.

The only problem with this track record, of course, is that it has a lot of people describing Mr. Schnabel as a director who paints, and not the other way around. This development does not always sit well with a man who has made thousands of paintings — and millions of dollars from them — over the last 30 years and who once declared that he was the “closest you’ll get to Picasso in this life.” Next....