Julian Schnabel: Art of the possible

For a long time, Julian Schnabel seemed destined to be remembered as a sort of artist as superstar, a painter and a showman who took the New York scene by storm in the "greed is good" era of the 1980s. He was bombastic; he was loud; he was supremely self-assured – a perfect artistic foil to an era built on ostentation.

As one of a group of artists known as Neo-Expressionists, who railed against both the minimalism and the minimalist attitudes of the 1970s, he became a social fixture around Manhattan as much as an artistic one. He painted on broken plates, velvet, animal hides – any material that would grab people's attention and smack of the new. He sold his work seemingly by the yard (to judge by the vast size of many of them), to the Wall Street traders and bankers then becoming, in Tom Wolfe's phrase, the Masters of the Universe.

That, though, was then. What is remarkable about Schnabel now, almost a quarter-century on from his artistic heyday, has been his ability to reinvent himself as a film-maker of considerable skill and growing critical esteem. The bombast is still there, along with an outsize physique, a ferocious belief in himself and a penchant for wandering around in either flowing tailcoats or pyjamas. But his maturity as a film artist is now beyond question.

He started out almost a decade ago with Basquiat, a homage to his friend and fellow artist Jean-Michel Basquiat who blazed almost as bright as Schnabel did for a while on the New York art scene before succumbing to heroin addiction and an early death.

Next came another loosely biographical film about a doomed artist, Before Night Falls, which used the story of the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas to examine the wellsprings of artistic inspiration in a frequently hostile world. Both films attracted attention on the festival circuit and art-house audiences.

Now, though, Schnabel has broken through to the mainstream with his astonishing third film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, based on a memoir by the former editor of the French fashion magazine Elle, who lapsed into a coma one day without warning and became so imprisoned in his own body that he could communicate effectively only by blinking his left eyelid.

The film could have been mawkish or downright unbearable – few people who read the book could easily envisage it as a movie at all – but in Schnabel's hands, helped by an accomplished script from Ronald Harwood, it became, like his previous work, a meditation on the origins of artistic inspiration under the most daunting of circumstances.

The film is ingenious, visually intriguing, surreal, soothing and even funny in places. It won Schnabel the best director award at last year's Cannes film festival and it has put him in contention tomorrow for an Oscar. He probably won't win (the Coen brothers are hot favourites for their bleak thriller No Country for Old Men), but the nomination alone is a rare honour for a film-maker of little obvious multiplex appeal working in a language, French, that he did not even know before embarking on the project.

Like many breakthrough films, this one had a special resonance for its director. Schnabel had been aware of Jean-Dominique Bauby's extraordinary memoir for many years; it was published in France in 1997, two years after Bauby fell into his coma and just a few days before he died. But he never thought of making a movie of it until Harwood's script came his way at a singularly propitious time. Schnabel had just lived through his own father's terminal illness, watching as Schnabel Snr found a surprising artistic liberation in his looming death and even composed a long poem, the first he had ever written, just days before the end.

Under those circumstances, Schnabel couldn't help but be inspired by the idea of a man cut down in his prime and inspired to dictate an entire book, painstakingly blinking each letter with the help of an assistant brandishing an alphabet chart.

Schnabel has told interviewers that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was his way of processing and coming to terms with his own mortality. "I made this movie, and I'm not afraid to die."

It is, ultimately, about the triumph of human imagination against all odds, about art as the ultimate affirmation of life even in the face of near-total physical breakdown. And, like the best groundbreaking movies, it takes the audience to a place previously unimaginable – in this case, the inside of a man trapped in his own useless body. The first third of the film is told almost exclusively from Bauby's point of view – the doctors and nurses, the hospital room, the window with a view of the English channel.

Bauby, played by Mathieu Amalric, contrasts the image of feeling trapped inside a diving-bell with the sensation of soaring like a butterfly, which is what happens in the last two-thirds of the movie. The notion of the sea being either a symbol of entrapment or liberation is no accident, coming from this director. In Basquiat, Schnabel's hero was given to fantasies of surfing on an ocean flowing directly above the Manhattan skyline. In Before Night Falls, the Caribbean around Cuba becomes a symbol of both liberation and menace. In the new film, Bauby's artistic liberation is accompanied by images of icebergs melting and his own wheelchair-bound self plonked grandly atop an oil rig with the water lapping benignly all around.

The films aren't striking as an affirmation of Schnabel's abiding themes, though, as they are a remarkable technical feat for a man with no obvious training in cinematic technique or the marshalling of actors. As Sanford Schwartz writes in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, citing an artist friend: "Apparently it's easier to make a great movie than a great painting."

Schnabel has never wanted for self-confidence, of course, and from the beginning of his film career he's been blessed with a long roster of celebrity friends to call on. For Basquiat, he summoned – and received – the services of Dennis Hopper, David Bowie, Christopher Walken, Gary Oldman, Courtney Love and Benicio del Toro, to name but a few. In Before Night Falls, he persuaded Johnny Depp to play a transvestite prison inmate. Sean Penn also has a cameo.

Now that his directing career is taking off, he's not only calling in favours, but also doing some of his own, especially when it comes to his nearest and dearest. His wife Olatz Lopez Garmendia was in Before Night Falls and appears in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly as Bauby's physical therapist.

One can argue – and many have – that Schnabel is now hitting heights he never came close to as a painter, never mind how much money he made (and continues to make). During the 1980s he inspired as much hatred as admiration – not helped, perhaps, by the fact that it was his paintings that adorned the office walls of the decade's villain, Gordon Gecko, in Oliver Stone's movie Wall Street. The critic Robert Hughes compared Schnabel unflatteringly to Sylvester Stallone – "a lurching display of oily pectorals, except that Schnabel makes bigger public claims for himself".

Indeed, by about 1987, Schnabel himself was moved to opine that he would eventually "look boring to the art crowd". That was the year he brought out his autobiography, given the typically portentous, even pretentious, title C.V.J.: Nicknames of Maitre D's & Other Excerpts From Life. It was also arguably the single most successful year of his painting career, as a retrospective went on tour from London to Paris to Dusseldorf and then around the United States.

Something, though, was beginning to change. Andy Warhol, the godfather of the New York scene, died in 1987, and Basquiat followed shortly after. Schnabel retreated in imperial splendour to a succession of mansions in Manhattan, on Long Island and in San Sebastian in northern Spain. He tried his hand, unsuccessfully, at producing a music CD, then stumbled on film as the next intriguing thing.

Basquiat succeeded almost in spite of itself. Its deft use of imagery and music to build up a portrait of the drifter turned graffiti-tagger turned art-world darling (played engagingly by a young Jeffrey Wright) belied its extraordinary self-centredness. Schnabel's own paintings are everywhere in the film, as is a thinly disguised alter ego, played by Gary Oldman, who acts as a voice-over wise man offering his thoughts on the deeper meanings of art. He also voices his contempt for art critics through an unnamed interviewer, played by Christopher Walken as a stuck-up, pretentious, character assassin who knows plenty but understands nothing.

The film also dropped plentiful clues about Schnabel's own early life: his tentative entry on to the New York art scene after spending his teenage years and early 20s in Texas, his first encounters with a small but influential group of buyers, including Warhol's Swiss dealer Bruno Bischofberger (played in the movie by Hopper), and then the first intimations of superstardom.

While Basquiat, in the movie, is inspired by a trip to Picasso's Guernica at the Prado, Schnabel was inspired by a different Spanish destination, the Gaudi-designed Parc Guell in Barcelona, to come up with his broken crockery painting concept. Once that had made his name, he, like his fictional counterpart, tended to treat everyone around him badly. In fact, Schnabel's egotism became legendary.

Much of it is still intact today. He is a man of forthright opinions and a high degree of defensiveness about his work. If you want to enrage him, just go ahead and call his films biopics. Or remind him that he once cockily likened himself to Picasso. As an artist, he still commands million-dollar price tags, and that allows him to regard film-making, paradoxically, as something of a side-job – the passion that gives him his jollies but doesn't really pay the bills. We can expect quite the performance on the red carpet tomorrow.

Schnabel also commands tremendous loyalty and friendship – from his dealers, his agents, from his actors and from a coterie of admirers. Now that he has grappled with some of the most essential themes any artist can confront – the relationship between imagination and mortality – he may also be winning over some of his doubters. As Sanford Schwartz concludes in his New York Review of Books essay: "Schnabel is in his way just the person to make us see what it is like to take in the world for one last time."

A Life in Brief

Born: 26 October 1951 in New York. Moved to Texas as a teenager and studied fine art at the University of Houston.

Family: Three children by his first wife, the clothing designer Jacqueline Beaurang, and two more – twin boys – by his second, the Spanish Basque actress Olatz Lopez Garmendia.

Career: Broke into the New York art scene in 1979, between stints as a short-order cook. By 1984 his broken plate paintings were commanding $100,000 each. A major retrospective in 1987-88 toured the world. His feature films are Basquiat (1996), Before Night Falls (2000) and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007).

He says: "My compulsion is to create things."

They say: "He's Falstaffian, intelligent and a little nuts. But now we also know something else about him: he's a film-maker with butterfly hearing." – Stephanie Zacharek of Salon.com, reviewing The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

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