“When I was young, all I wanted to do was be a great artist,” says Julian Schnabel at the start of a new documentary about his life and career. He rose to prominence as a young iconoclast of the New York art scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Schnabel’s gallery showings were heavily attended but also polarizing. Today, his reputation among the critical community has recovered, due to his award-winning work as a filmmaker. Dramas like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Before Night Falls explore both creative bliss and struggle. Director Pappi Corsicato trains his camera on Schnabel, the artist’s family, and a community of actors and curators to capture an intimate side of a man both revered and reviled.
Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait is an unexpectedly tender look at a radical artistic voice. This softer approach helps to illuminate Schnabel’s personal and family life, but also restricts some of the thornier debates surrounding his paintings and artwork.
Corsicato finds rich material from many of the filmmaker’s family members – two ex-wives, several of his children – who talk about Schnabel’s selfish tendencies as well as the quirks of growing up adjacent to a creative being. This close access to Schnabel’s personal life humanizes the subject without becoming too hagiographic. Meanwhile, a plethora of film and art world celebrities (Al Pacino, Willem Dafoe, Laurie Anderson) give useful asides and anecdotes.
However, the doc is too talking head-heavy and only contains occasional interludes from the artist and filmmaker. These interjections provide some context, but also make one wonder why Schnabel is so seldom used within this biography. When speaking with Corsicato, the subject often seems distracted, as if he would rather be working on a painting in his studio.
Meanwhile, adding to A Private Portrait’s lopsided feel is the enhanced interest and analysis on Schnabel’s films over his paintings and artwork. There is meaningful discussion about how the creative protagonists in these projects were extensions of their maker. (Some of the Schnabel’s children had small roles in his films, further ensnaring his life and his work.) At the same time, the commentary about Schnabel’s provocative large-scale paintings and gallery work needed more elaboration. Curators note the animosity between Schnabel and the critical community, but specifics of these conflicts are conspicuously absent. (Also missing from the doc: Schnabel’s 2010 flop Miral.)
This documentary boasts a couple of revealing behind-the-scenes glimpses at Schnabel at work. (One poignant scene shows him sobbing at the beauty of an image from Before Night Falls.) However, these insights into his creative process aren’t quite enough to warrant a recommendation. The 83-minute doc is too slender, especially with its subject held at a reserve for much of A Private Portrait.
Is Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait Essential Viewing?
Not really. Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait is too incomplete to warrant the full ticket price, especially with only a couple of observations from the subject. Your time would be better spent revisiting his films – or listening to the director’s DVD audio commentaries.
Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait opens Friday, August 11, 2017 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. Check their website for more information.