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Julian Schnabel is not Fidel Castro

CBS News featured a 12 minute segment on 60 Minutes last night (Sunday, December 7, 2008) dedicated to Julian Schnabel. The segment was generally respectful, fair minded and generous - some might even say fawning - examining the artist's childhood, career, painting and film making. The central interview, conducted by Morley Safer, took place in Palazzo Chupi, the great pink elephant that Signore Julian has erected on the banks of the Hudson River in the West Village.

The palazzo has engendered some controversy lately, but there was no critique of it offered in this segment, no mention of the several community groups aghast at its ostentation, color, and invasive presence, no discussion of the several unsold units in the building, which Schnabel has developed with his own money and in his own image, a veritable labor of love. This subject is carefully skirted, as any recent mention has caused Schnabel to become confrontational and visibly agitated. But then Safer "dares" to cite critic Robert Hughes, who famously baited Schnabel during the 1980s, calling him untalented, bombastic and supremely egotistical. This proves too much for Schnabel, who lashes out at the grandfatherly Safer and does not forgive him for the remainder of the interview.

You can access the contretemps above at 8:00 through 9:30, with a transcript below from CBC News:

"Speaking of critics, your old nemesis Robert Hughes once said that you are to painting what Stallone is to acting," Safer remarks.

"Is this really what you want to do?" Schnabel asks. "I mean Robert Hughes is, he’s sort of like a guy, a bully in a bar that’s sitting around waiting for somebody to trip on a banana peel."

Robert Hughes is the highly respected, sometimes venomous, art critic formerly at Time Magazine, who took great delight in dismissing Schnabel as a schlockmeister.

"I mean, he’s a bum," Schnabel says.

But he says he doesn't have a real "thing" about him. "I just don’t like him. So if you wanna talk about him, you can talk about him all you like."

"We're trying to cover all aspects of…," Safer remarks.

"Hey, do whatever you want. I mean, you know, I expect you to be exactly the way you wanna be, but I will be the way that I'm gonna be. And I don't feel like conforming to talk about this guy that had, you know, he really was basically a very negative person," Schnabel said.

Safer tried to shift gears, and talk instead about Schnabel’s transition from painting to moviemaking.

"Was that something that had always been at the back of your mind, even as a painter?" Safer asks.

"I’m still pissed off about talking about Robert Hughes. I’m sorry, I just think that it’s lazy. I think it’s very lazy," Schnabel replies.

Schnabel is well known for his bullishness, his bristly, cantankerous demeanor, his steadfast loyalties and sudden antipathies. He is decidedly an old school guy, a paterfamilias, generous to friends and family, expansive when he does not feel slighted or threatened, but quick to take offense at the slightest whiff of disrespect or the questioning of his artistic destiny and the seriousness of his aesthetic prerogatives.

Before Night Falls, his second directorial effort, was based on the life of Reinaldo Arenas, a Cuban writer imprisoned by the Castro regime for his homosexuality, but who managed to escape and spend his life in exile in Miami and New York, finally dying of AIDS. It is a tragic but compelling and poetic story, and I can see why it captivated Schnabel. I recall a feature article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, part of the pre-release publicity, in which Schnabel indicates he was once ten feet away from Fidel Castro at a film festival reception but refused to shake the dictator's hand. Jack Nicholson and Gérard Depardieu have, but not Schnabel. His reason: there was "too much blood" there.

The point is well taken, and I know many people, both Cuban and not, who might applaud it. But I wonder if his reluctance was also a case of repulsion between similar characters, of his not being willing to acknowledge the other alpha male, the other 800 pound gorilla in the room. Considering Julian and Fidel side by side, there is not just the physiognomic resemblance of beard, jowls, squinty eyes and broad, stubborn forehead, but also a common imperiousness and arrogance, a moral certainty that brooks no contradiction, an easily offended pride and a brutal ego. Separated at birth?

Addendum: Morley Safer comments on the interview.

that is great

It is the most funnies interview I have seen in a long time. Julian rules!