Aspen Filmfest: ‘Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait’ |

Aspen Filmfest: ‘Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait’

The documentary "Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait" will screen Saturday at Aspen Filmfest.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait’ at Aspen Filmfest

Where: Isis Theatre

When: Saturday, Oct. 7, 2:30 p.m.

How much: $20 ($15 for Aspen Film members)

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House and Isis box offices;

More info: The screening will be followed by a Q-and-A with Aspen Art Museum learning director Michelle Dezember. Saturday’s lineup also includes the panel discussion ‘Hedy Lamarr: Bringing Accomplished Women of History Forward to a New Generation’ at 1 p.m., ‘Whose Streets?’ at 5:30 p.m. and ‘The Upside’ at 8:15 p.m.;

A year after the Aspen Art Museum hosted a monumental exhibition of Julian Schnabel’s iconic “plate paintings,” Aspen Filmfest is screening a documentary that attempts to find the man and myth behind the massive canvases.

Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait,” by the Italian director Pappi Corsicato, screens today at the Isis Theatre.

The film mostly forgoes standard chronological biography in an attempt to capture Schnabel’s outsized persona. Friends, family and colleagues — famous and not — try to explain him, describing Schnabel as a “huge force of nature” and a “cartoon character.”

“The world moves around him,” filmmaker Hector Babenco said. “He’s like a character from a Balzac novel.”

Corsicato calls on collaborators and friends like the gallerist Mary Boone, the artist Jeff Koons and actors like Al Pacino and Willem Dafoe — along with many family members — to explain the one-of-a-kind art-world superstar who is Julian Schnabel.

The film drops in at key points in Schnabel’s life: his family’s move from Brooklyn, New York, to Brownsville, Texaswhen he was a child; his wild teen years as an acid-head and Texas surfer boy; his first gallery shows in New York in the late 1970s and his acclaimed forays into feature filmmaking since the 1990s. Throughout, he’s depicted as an extroverted and extravagant presence.

The documentary doesn’t much concern itself with Schnabel’s artistic process — like the making of those groundbreaking paintings — or his creative breakthroughs and controversies along the way. The film is more character study than biography.

“When I was young, all I wanted to do was be a great artist,” Schnabel says in the film. “I didn’t even know what the art was supposed to look like.”

The film suggests his unlikely destiny — to reach the top of the art world and, later, of commercial filmmaking — is beyond explanation.

“(His parents) wanted him to be an accountant or a doctor,” his first wife says in the film. “It’s amazing that Julian is Julian.”

Archival footage and photos show a young Schnabel in Texas and with Andy Warhol, and with Jean-Michel Basquait in New York in the 1980s, along with intimate scenes of him with his family in Italy and in his New York studio in recent years. We see video of Schnabel smearing paint on a two-story-tall canvas with his hands and we see him throwing a paint-soaked cloth at an even larger canvas outdoors in another. But he reveals little about how his physical, maximalist style developed or the choices he made along the way.

He made his unlikely move to filmmaking, beginning with 1996’s “Basquiat” and continuing with the acclaimed “Before Night Falls” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” with little training beyond watching “The Godfather” and “Spartacus” repeatedly.

“I could make the movies because I wanted to express myself in that medium and I had always wanted to do it since I was a kid,” Schabel says. “When Jean-Michel died, I felt like, ‘OK, I’m going to make sure the story gets told in the right way.’”

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