Film Review: Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait

A total, shameless love-fest, not exactly created—but definitely hosted—by its subject.
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It would seem that most great artists, along with their genius, possess at least some degree of insecurity, a self-doubt which both tortures and drives them on to hopefully further greatness. Not so in the case of Julian Schnabel. In Pappi Corsicato's incense-burning cinematic ode to the man who will forever be known as the painter who used dinner plates for a canvas, Schnabel emerges as a supremely confident lord of all he surveys, even as far back as when he was the "only" Jewish kid in Brownsville, Texas, transplanted from Brooklyn, forever drawing when not throwing his always copious frame onto a surfboard and paddling out to ride the sort-of wild surf.

Although subtitled "A Private Portrait" and liberally laced with interviews with Schnabel’s two ex-wives and four of his kids, you only get the most genial, sunnyside-up version of things. Understandable, one supposes, when you consider the amicable nature of his relationships with all, exes doubtlessly happy with their settlements and kids all employed in some way on his various art and film projects. Schnabel has for decades been perhaps the most controversial personality in the art world, for his explosive temperament, art-world politics, unashamed media embrace and commercialism. Apart from some wry comments from his early gallerist, Mary Boone, you'll get nothing very negative here and it almost seems as if he should get a shared creative credit on this film.

This writer, while sharing in the general fascination with the man, has never quite considered his art great. Clever and delightfully accessible, yes, but great? One feels too strenuously the impulse to shock with the splashy, be it the overwhelming size of the canvases he chooses to work with or the calculated use of disparate elements—starting with those plates. When he first emerged on the art scene, he says, he realized he had to have a signature—like Pollock's drips or de Kooning's wild women—and this rather says it all about him. He's an artist who works from the outside in, always with an eye to what the general reaction will be, rather than operating from some authentic burning urge within.

This is all not to say that the film is not immensely diverting. If Schnabel is not exactly a Leonardo, he certainly is a Medici, and his aid to younger artists (like admiring interviewee Jeff Koons), opulent lifestyle and the nutty San Simeon-esque "Palazzo Chupa,” the eccentric pink Italianate palace he built over his studio in Greenwich Village, attest to this. It would certainly be fun to be his friend, as happy Kool-Aid-quaffing personalities ranging from Willem Dafoe, Al Pacino and Laurie Anderson to eminent art critic John Richardson testify. Good God, the man not only paints, but can cook, select the proper outfits for his children, cut their hair, educate everyone about what to look at or hear, and play the guitar and sing, too! He was greatly struck by Lou Reed's album Berlin and he designed the visuals for a very special revival concert of that work, using film shot by his daughter as backdrop. He also hosted the starry memorial to Reed in his palazzo which, as in his films, rather ended up being all about him; at least in this movie, very little is said about Reed per se, but there's much about the host being such a great guy.

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