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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with DEAN and JULIAN SCHNABEL: A PRIVATE PORTRAIT!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

I’ve noticed that since it’s premiere a year ago at the Tribeca Film Festival that comedian Demetri Martin’s directing debut, DEAN, has been criticized by some as trying to hard to feel like an updated, early-era Woody Allen movie. The newsflash is that Allen isn’t really making those types of movie anymore, so why shouldn’t someone else throw their version of a troubled young romantic into the ring? The worst that can happen is you laugh a little and possibly are moved by the surprisingly raw emotions on display.

Martin’s stand-up persona is somewhat distancing, pseudo-intellectual who slips in jokes before you even realize the set-up has begun. He’s quite masterful in that respect, so to see him make a film that feels so personal and intimate is the first of my surprises in DEAN. Martin plays a New York-based illustrator who has been suffering from “artist’s block” since his mother died recently, leaving him and his father Robert (Kevin Kline) lost and attempting to find a way to reconnect without her as the focal point in the family. Dean has become somewhat insufferable, both as a friend (he nearly ruins a friend’s wedding attempting to establish best man dominance) and a son, as he drags his heels in setting up a meeting with Robert to discuss the possibility of selling the family home.

To further delay said discussion, Dean decides to take a meeting with an ad agency in Los Angeles, giving him an excuse to avoid dad and visit a few friends who live out west. Still reeling from the break-up of a long-term relationship, Dean meets Nicky (Gillian Jacobs of “Community” and last year’s DON’T THINK TWICE) and the two seem to hit it off, although it’s clear she has a few personal issues of her own. Jacobs is one of the true strengths of the film, as she refuses to let her character simply be potential-girlfriend material. Instead, Nicky brings an entirely separate set of issues to Dean’s misfit island. Still, their deeply rooted brand of pain not only makes sense, but it comes across as sweet and necessary.

Back on the East Coast, Robert is preparing to put his home on the market with the help of real estate agent Carol (the essential Mary Steenburgen), who is moved by Robert’s way of moving through and past grief, but not quite being there yet. She’s had bad luck with online dating sites, so Robert’s troubles don’t seem insurmountable. Although it may not always feel like it, DEAN is a movie about a father and son finding each other again, but taking a roundabout way to get there. Martin has crafted two complex, but ultimately good people who know they have to move forward, through their grief, but refuse to feel rushed by anyone, even each other.

As a sometime illustrator himself, Martin uses his real-life drawings as a stealthy transitioning device between scenes. Sometimes the drawings summarize the scene we’ve just witnessed; other times, they act as a way to ease into more difficult moments. The filmmaker deftly uses the artwork as a way to increase or decrease the level of humor as a way of establishing tone, and we move onto the next sequence with a degree of ease, rather than a jarring edit.

DEAN is quite amusing, but it isn’t afraid to dive into the loss these men are enduring. Sure, there was a time when Woody Allen may have considered this story in his wheelhouse, but I love that a new generation of filmmakers might take a stab at giving us this type of stumbling sensitivity. And if Kevin Kline doesn’t break your heart a few times in this film, you might be due for an emotional tune up.

Whatever you may think of the art itself, there’s no denying the impact of Julian Schnabel’s collection of oversized paintings have had on the art world throughout recent decades. And I think the first person to tell you how significant he has been to the art world is Schnabel himself, who is the focus of a aggrandizing documentary JULIAN SCHNABEL: A PRIVATE PORTRAIT, which serves more as a greatest hits collection of his paintings and films. It’s the type of film you might buy in the gift shop of a gallery featuring Schnabel’s work.

A PRIVATE PORTRAIT is certainly a well-made piece, assembled by Italian-born filmmaker Pappi Corsicato (ANOTHER WOMAN’S FACE). It goes into Schnabel’s upbringing, his first dalliances into art as a teenager, his family life, early successes, all with testimonials from his children, his first and second wife, and a who’s who of famous artists, gallery owners, actors, musicians, all of whom have been moved by the man and his work. But the film also allows Schnabel to be something of a character, walking through his palatial pink studio/home in the West Village, Villa Chupi in admittedly comfortable-looking pajamas or other flowing garments. I appreciated the Corsicato spends a great deal of time allowing us to watch Schnabel actually paint and create.

Ample archival film and photos show the company that Schnabel kept throughout the decades, and it’s clear that he was not only a contemporary with the likes of Warhol and Basquiat, but he was their friend and sometimes mentor, since he became that rare artist who enjoyed success while he was living.

My entry point into Schnabel’s work was through his films, which included a highly personal debut with BASQUIAT (in which Gary Oldman played Schnabel, with an impossibly young Jeffrey Wright as the artist and David Bowie as Andy Warhol). Schnabel was a self-taught filmmaker who used actors and sets like the raw materials of painting. He sometimes got messy, throwing them into a moment and watching what happened. His later films, BEFORE NIGHT FALLS and the Oscar-nominated THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, as well as a filmed concert for Lou Reed, BERLIN, are undeniable works of beauty and sensitivity that a more traditional filmmaker might have been too terrified to attempt. As Schnabel says early on about his art career, it never occurred to him that he wouldn’t be successful.

The star-studded testimonials from the likes of Willem Dafoe, Al Pacino, Laurie Anderson and Bono are certainly enjoyable, but they don’t reveal much about Schnabel the man or the artist. The film skims over some of his shortcomings as a father and husband, and while I wouldn’t say A PRIVATE PORTRAIT feels like a whitewash that opts to ignore Schnabel’s flaws (his overly inflated ego is referenced on more than one occasion), it also doesn’t feel like a complete picture, which would have been interesting since, in theory, the darker corners of his life probably inform his art as much as the more positive aspects of his life.

Schnabel as a subject moves from fascinating to insufferable with a degree of regularity, which isn’t a reflection of the film, but this idea that the artist is always thinking such deep thoughts or that his bad behavior is forgivable because he’s such a talented artist is a terrible message to put into the world. If you have a curiosity about Schnabel’s work, you’ll probably find this work quite viewable. I was captivated by the behind-the-scenes footage of his movies, and fortunately a great deal of the doc focuses on his movie years. But be prepared for all of the cliches about artists to be confirmed in the worst possible ways at times.

-- Steve Prokopy
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