While on a visit to Dallas, I had a chance to see The Diving Bell & the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel's most recent film. The experience was "magnified" by the fact that due to the packed house at the Angelika, I sat in the third row, looking up at the humongous screen and constantly pivoting my head to take in the whole frame -- not too unlike standing 3 feet away from one of Julian's paintings -- for two hours.
That notwithstanding, I thought the film was simply brilliant -- visually, aurally, psychologically -- it uses the medium with inventiveness, sensitivity, and a sort of raw daring that is almost nonexistent in American cinema. Every scene is infused with a dreamlike liquidity, and charged with a heightened visual and aural reality. In an amazing scene in which the main character gives his dying father a shave, the sound of the razor across the whiskers has physical presence as palpable as the psychological interplay of love and sadness between the two characters. The outdoor scenes have an atmosphere of shimmering, silvery, constantly shifting light that can only be described as painterly. And the dialogue and character interactions are direct, gripping, and utterly without cliche or pretense.
I'm not among those who resent Julian for his audacity or his success, and the kneejerk reaction, "what an asshole" at the mention of his name in many circles is now very tired. One thing you must say is that he always goes for it full tilt, and more often than not, he pulls something off that is at the very least arresting. Another thing I'd say is that beneath all the bravado, is a person who believes in art as a regenerative force in the world. Certainly that is a primary theme in this film, along with an examination of the expansiveness of imagination and the difficult process of translating it to physical form. Julian's ambition and appetite are, I think, almost too large for a medium as intimate and still as painting. The sort of inclusiveness he was going for via massive scale and blunt physicality may be more naturally and more deeply accessible in cinema. With this film, he has been able to achieve a scope, both in terms of narrative and form, that accommodates and complements the scale of his impulses. This was not an easy film to make. I could imagine someone like Antonioni having a go at it. But Schnabel's ability to re-invent the process to address a specific vision, to use a medium as complex and collaborative as film as a raw material rather than a set of conventions, is remarkable and refreshing.