Mr. Moonlight Directs a Masterpiece Artist Julian Schnabel Takes a Break from 'Day Job'

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 21, 2007 | Go to article overview

Mr. Moonlight Directs a Masterpiece Artist Julian Schnabel Takes a Break from 'Day Job'


Byline: Jenny Mayo, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Julian Schnabel's reputation precedes him. He's known as that controversial neoexpressionist artist who hung around in Andy Warhol's crowd. That publicity monger who's rubbed a few people the wrong way. That eccentric, oft-pajama-suited character who gives long-winded interviews, sometimes while sprawled out on the floor or laying facedown on a couch. Increasingly, Mr. Schnabel is also solidifying a reputation as a masterful cinematic storyteller who gravitates toward biopics about artists and people who create. First, it was street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1996's "Basquiat"). Then, Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas (2000's "Before Night Falls").

Now, in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," Mr. Schnabel illuminates the life of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of French Elle, who, at 43, suffered a massive stroke that left his brain trapped inside an unresponsive body.

What is remarkable about Mr. Bauby's story is that instead of accepting his prognosis as a death sentence, he dispensed with self-pity and created a new life for himself. He saw old memories from a fresh perspective, fabricated novel encounters through his imagination, and literally blinked out a series of poetic vignettes about his experience that would eventually be published in book form. He died two days after it made it into print in France.

"Something that's particular to me is that I'm a painter, and I make things," says Mr. Schnabel, making his purple-pajama-clad self comfortable on a D.C. hotel-room sofa. "So the idea of transmuting your life into art, into making these objects, into making a film, into making a book is a denial of death - because these things stay, and they're life-affirming. Essentially, that's what this whole movie is about."

The artist-director first encountered Mr. Bauby's book while attending to a friend who was debilitated by multiple sclerosis. "I used to read to him ... and his nurse gave it to me," says Mr Schnabel. "I didn't really want to deal with it when I first read it."

Later on, producer Kathleen Kennedy sent him a copy of a screenplay that Ronald Harwood ("The Pianist") had written based on Mr. Bauby's work, and Mr. Schnabel accepted the challenge.

The director knew he didn't want the cinematic "Diving Bell" to focus on Mr. Bauby's regrets or how he could've lived his life better or differently; that's not what readers take away from the book. What they get is a sense of hope, humor and courage in the face of the direst of circumstances. A feeling that we can't change yesterday but can choose how we want to live today.

What struck Mr. Schnabel was how much of Mr. Bauby's postaccident world consisted of things he'd dreamed up in his head. …

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