The quest to watch fabulous films continues. As the journey continues, noteworthy trends arise. One of those is the discovery of artist/painter/director/visionary Julian Schnabel.
On a tired, windy Saturday afternoon, I decided to go see a movie at my local theater. A short walk brought me to the unpolished gray exterior of the tiny closet theater: the only place where I can watch the latest independent and art house flicks of my choice. The choice picture of the day was The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. I had been aching to go see the film, and then, by good luck, the film came to me.
There are movies I get excited about because I know I will continue to ponder them and explore them as I move on to other less entertaining and fulfilling activities. This was one of those films. The story of Jean-Dominique Bauby is one of unbelievable solidarity, accomplishment and bittersweetness. A man of great professional accomplishment in a creative, fashion-driven field, Bauby suffers a stroke that paralyzes his movement and speech. He is forced to communicate with his only part that continues to function: his left eye. He blinks. He spells words through multiple blinks. He communicates sentences through thousands of blinks. In this manner he writes a book of his life through what must end up being millions of blinks. Soon after its publication he dies.
The magic of Julian Schnabel is in his communication of emotions and thoughts. His direction traces the purpose and story of his main character. In this case Bauby is a man whose career it was to be creative and forceful. He used his words to communicate his ideas and visions. However, once his voice and his body are taken away from him, it is much harder, sometimes impossible, for him to reach his goals and express his impressions. In order for audiences to understand this frustration, Julian gives the audience Bauby's point of view. The lens of the camera is the lens of his working eye. The sounds in his head--the thoughts he has that cannot be heard--are audible for the audience. The visions and memories in his mind's eye are made visible to the audience. Bauby is seen as a handsome, confident, successful man in times past. However, even though time has past and Bauby is now stuck in his body instead of living somewhat outside of it, the vitality of Bauby's mind is felt by the audience. His eschewed face and changed appearance are not seen until significantly far into the film.
This is a visually stunning film. The stark cleanliness of the hospital is set against the sensual cleanliness of the fields and beaches. Julian has created an atmosphere that is at once frustrating and difficult for Bauby and then calming and heavenly for Bauby. The audience feels pains for his closed life, but then they somehow feel joy for the tranquility he can experience while he is a man unto himself. His rare bodily state has given him lonesome periods and private periods. He is forced to leave the life he had and reflect on that life in a way that allows him to appreciate those who stand by him. He had to leave his old life, but through that break, he gets to ponder that existence and put it in writing.
Julian Schnabel's gift is the ability to narrate someone's life. Recently, I watched another one of his movies: Basquiat. This one I watched on my laptop in the confines of my private room. Jean-Michel Basquiat, a young American grafitti artist and painter, was swallowed up by New York's powerful art scene of the 1980s. He was befriended by and he collaborated with Andy Warhol. Basquiat died at 28 due to a drug overdose.
Again, Julian's ability to narrate an individual's inner thoughts and revelations as well as explore the exterior of that thoughtful mind is utilized. And again, a creative person is the subject of this narration. What is particular to this film is Julian Schnabel was one of the artists of the notorious New York 1980s artist crowd; one of the film's characters is representative of him. Julian knew Jean-Michel. They were casual friends. They were colleagues and competitors. I appreciate the insight he gives to this subject and this film.
Julian Schnabel explores the personal challenges of these men, including the relationships with their parents that bring them frustration and uneasiness. It seems these issues were never resolved in the ways these men would have wanted them to be: they were never able to gain the confidence for which they yearned. Julian's use of the camera delves deeper into the human soul than the work done by most directors. The camera sees Basquiat's vision of the freedom of a surfer suspended on a giant wave. The camera wanders into the image Bauby sees of himself, wearing a heavy, burdening diving suit, submerged in an unending ocean. These men are islands in some respects, but Julian reminds us that they are connected to all human emotions and conditions.