November 08, 2005

Julian Schnabel Is A Laughing Matter

Every time Julian Schnabel’s image appeared on screen at the New York premiere of Sydney Pollack’s documentary, Sketches Of Frank Gehry, the audience’s decorum surrendered to laughing derision and disapproving groans...of palpable intensity. This became, for me, the most intriguing part of a fascinating evening with the director.

The jeers were quite a disjunct, ripping through the awed atmosphere at the Apple Store, Soho. Such vitriol for a man whose offense, such as it is, is having once broken some plates and, without irony or embarrassment, painted on their shards.

Pollack’s film, a clear labor of love among friends, is a moving and joyous explication of Gehry’s process. Featuring interviews with the architect, contemporaries, critics and most notably Gehry’s long-time therapist, the legendary Milton Wexler, Schnabel is an integral figure in the mix. Appearing only three times, he contributes what may well be the funniest, most incisive comment of the lot - which is saying something.

But it wasn’t Schnabel’s commentary that provoked the audience’s reaction. Reclining with brandy snifter in hand, wearing dark shades and a plush white bathrobe, Schnabel performs in his own tableau as an artist of grand, unapologetic self-expression.

Yet, Gehry’s architecture does something similar. For his part, the architect speaks of a compelling application of Democracy.

In a moving passage of the film, he explicitly addresses the democratic impulse undergirding the execution of his designs. “The nature of Democracy is chaotic,” he posits, adding hopefully:

“and that chaos, we’re starting to feel, is beautiful.”

Like structurally sound castles in air, every inch of a Gehry building resonates with consideration, transmitting residuals of the architect’s focused attention. Nothing is dismissible, every part is valued, even celebrated.

The uncowed, flamboyant Schnabel-figure that so exercised attendees at Friday’s event functions in a manner comparable to Gehry’s work - but more brashly, less abstract. Schnabel’s refusal to be shamed registers as a challenge to the viewer. His audacious expression prompts the thought; “If I allow my own ‘inner-Schnabel’ full license, might not chaos ensue?”

...and might it not be a beautiful chaos?

Pollack shared, in Q & A after the screening, that one of the lessons learned from his first documentary in over forty years of filmmaking is that documentaries are made in the editing room. But his handling of the Schnabel material betrays his uncategorical cinematic mastery.

Schnabel’s hilariously triumphant line (If you’re unconcerned by a spoiler, click here for the quip) is the last thing the painter/director says in the film. And with it, all the tutting and tisks are silenced, replaced by avalanching guffaws that make the previously baffling suddenly seem self-evident. So concludes Schnabel’s bit of walk-on performance art.

A cautionary voice may counter that unbridled self-expression fails to account for the artist’s social responsibility and is akin to mere self-gratification.

For this, consider what Gehry’s therapist, Milton Wexler, offers from his decades helping people access their purpose and unleash their own unique ‘inner-Schnabel:’

“[When most people come to see me, they want to know how to fix their relationships, improve their careers, how to heal the pain from their early life, in a nutshell, how to change their lives.]

”When an artist comes to see me, he wants to know how to change the world.”

Which raises the question, artist or not, is there any course of action that doesn’t change the world?

“Sketches Of Frank Gehry” is slated to appear on PBS’s American Masters in September 2006.

Posted by mark at November 8, 2005 03:33 PM