Pappi Corsicato’s Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait unfolds with no less ambition than to enshrine its titular figure as a mortal god whose life has been so blessed and meaningful that, it would seem, he’s never made a false move. Corsicato compiles footage taken from around Schnabel’s home, recent interviews conducted with family and friends, and an assortment of photographs and film clips spanning the artist/director’s life in an effort to, if one trusts this documentary’s title, provide an intimate portrait of Schnabel’s psychology as it was generated from the unusual circumstances of his youth. Contradictions, hype, and hagiography ensue to the extent that a more honest title for this film would be Julian Schnabel: Cult of Personality.
Corsicato piles on bits of insight and factual detail at a brisk clip, but the growing lot of information swells into an incoherent mass of undifferentiated claims. Growing up as the only Jew in South Texas, as one of his relatives says, Schnabel apparently felt alienated and quickly set himself off from others, turning to art as a coping ritual. But another family member claims Schnabel to be a born artist. Neither relative is at fault for these contradictions—all blame lies with Corsicato, whose editing clumsily flies from one setting and line of thought to another without any sense of wit or ingenuity in structuring what’s otherwise a procession of Schnabel’s loved ones pontificating on what a swell guy he is. Corsicato even cuts to Schnabel’s sister recalling how her brother was very fit and “charming with the ladies” in his teens to a soundtrack of mariachi music. One-of-a-kind artist and Don Juan, it seems.
While appreciations and recollections from family largely comprise the film’s first third, the baton of praise is passed to a handful of celebrities and close friends thereafter, with Willem Dafoe, Al Pacino, and Laurie Anderson among those featured. Once again, Corsicato compiles a montage of verbal high-fiving, whether it’s Pacino recalling Schnabel’s impressive word-for-word recitation of The Godfather or Dafoe musing on Schnabel’s inimitable skill as a visual artist. Yet at no point amid the glad-handing is Schnabel’s art framed in relation to his contemporaries; instead, stills and footage of Schnabel hobnobbing with Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat (all set to a jazzy soundtrack) stand in for any substantial commentary. (The closest we get to this needed context is artist Jeff Koons explaining his own Schnabel connection in brief detail.) The overriding sense of A Private Portrait is that, because its subject has had such a meaningful existence, anyone viewing the film should be grateful that its maker has assembled all of the highlights.
Stunningly, Corsicato saves his most shameless compilations for the second half, as Schnabel’s filmography is trotted through with near champagne-popping glee. Each and every statement and recollection about the director’s most well-known films (Basquiat, Before Night Falls, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is a marvel of straight-faced hyperbole. The most outrageous comes from a secondhand account of Javier Bardem allegedly telling Schnabel, who was weeping after watching dailies of Before Night Falls, that “usually I meet a director and they’re crying because their movie’s so bad, not because it’s so good.” That this is followed by Schnabel himself saying the film has to do with “things that are beyond language” wildly reinforces Corsicato’s shameless bid to make the documentary as an offering to be placed at the altar of Julian Schnabel, an artist so singular that words simply fail.