'Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait': Film Review

Courtesy of CMG
A rich and enjoyable look at an easily caricatured artist.

Pappi Corsicato charts the career of Julian Schnabel through the eyes of the painter/director's family and friends.

Friendly, relaxed and expansive, Pappi Corsicato's Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait just might be capable of transforming those who are put off by the art star's aggressive flamboyance into fans, or at least grudging admirers. You don't have to like those gimmicky "plate paintings" to enjoy this trip through a career that survived 1980s hype and a risky foray into filmmaking. The doc should enjoy healthy attention from urban sophisticates before its video afterlife.

Brooklyn-born but transplanted in his teens to South Texas, Schnabel was, as sister Andrea puts it, spoiled literally from birth. His mother was his best friend; he lived by his own rules. (As his daughters reveal, he'd later impose some of those odd rules on his children.) He fell in love with surfing as a youth, and the pastime would be a source of both spiritual solace and, in later years, artistic imagery.

Befitting its title, the film gets much of its insight straight from the artist and the handful of children he raised to be similarly creative. If hints of complaint lurk between the lines of the latter group's testimony, they are clearly couched within an admiration of his spirit and gratitude for the opportunities he encouraged them to pursue. (Son Vito and daughter Stella, for instance, played roles in his movies; daughter Lola also paints; Vito is an art dealer.)

The title also prepares viewers not to expect a straight journalistic accounting of his career. Though he progresses more or less chronologically, Corsicato isn't very interested in setting the scene for Schnabel's arrival as an artist or explaining how his fame grew. It does, however, capture impressions from that time. Gallerist Mary Boone recalls her first visit to his studio, where she decided immediately she would represent him. Following the Conceptualism that dominated 1970s art, she says, "Julian moved the needle back to painting, very physical painting." (The then-unknown artist also boasted on that visit that "I'm gonna be on the cover of Artforum within five years." And he was.)

Borrowing vintage footage of Schnabel's sometimes fascinating painting techniques from people like Sante D'Orazio, the movie conveys the way art-making and lifestyle are fused for Schnabel. Other footage of daily life — languorous moments in exotic locales — demonstrate the kind of indulgence one expects of a man who commonly wears pajamas in public. (Any haters in the audience will get one more reason here, when they learn that Schnabel helped Jeff Koons sell his first piece — thus enabling one of the most widely despised, and most stupendously moneymaking, careers in contemporary art.)

The doc offers solid chunks of discussion for the painter's first three outings as a filmmaker. While his stars Jeffrey Wright and Javier Bardem don't appear here, famous friends Willem Dafoe and Al Pacino do. It's commonplace for art lovers to say that these three movies far outshine the work that made Schnabel famous, and to be sure, the clips from and observations about these features remind us of their strengths. But even a naysayer might be surprised to find himself intrigued by the variety of energetic paintings shown here, reminding us that Schnabel has done more than those cracked-pottery portraits and the overfamiliar image of the girl with a stripe across her eyes. Watching A Private Portrait is a bit like meeting a celebrity not at a gala but through a mutual friend — one eager to show you the human being behind the reductive public persona.

Production company: Buena Onda SRL
Distributor: Cohen Media Group
Director-screenwriter: Pappi Corsicato
Producers: Valeria Golino, Riccardo Scamarcio, Viola Prestieri
Editor: Tommaso Gallone
Composer: Gabriele Roberto
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Special Screenings)

87 minutes