Requiem for a True Original

Reinaldo Arenas detested Miami's exile culture as much as Castro's tyranny, and he wasn't shy about saying so

"My generation," Arenas announced in 1990, "has not produced a single noteworthy writer, with the possible exception of myself." Art dealer Mary Boone recalled encountering a similar world view upon first coming face to face with Schnabel and his paintings at the artist's studio in 1979. In Phoebe Hoban's biography of Jean-Michel Basquiat (whose life would become the subject of Schnabel's first film, 1996's Basquiat), Boone remembers: "I said something to Julian like, “It usually takes me awhile to get into things, but I think these are pretty good.' Rather than being flattered, he was insulted, and he said, “Pretty good? What are you talking about? I'm the greatest artist of my generation.'"

Schnabel took a similarly arch attitude when presenting Before Night Fallsat the New York Film Festival this past October. Before a sold-out crowd inside Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall (Kulchur was lucky enough to find a ticket scalper on the street outside), Schnabel sprawled out in a chair, his considerable girth straining against a thin shirt open nearly to his navel; beneath a mass of tousled black hair and an unruly goatee, he beamed a confident smile that made it clear he didn't need anyone to tell him what a forceful movie he'd created.

Asked by an audience member how he managed to convince Johnny Depp and Sean Penn to star in the film, Schnabel quipped, "I was having sex with the two of them, and I rolled over and said, “Hey, would you like to be in my movie?'"

Beach Blanket Bibliophile: Javier Bardem (left) takes 
Reinaldo Arenas, Cuba's premier literary rebel, to the 
big screen
Beach Blanket Bibliophile: Javier Bardem (left) takes Reinaldo Arenas, Cuba's premier literary rebel, to the big screen
Beach Blanket Bibliophile: Javier Bardem (left) takes 
Reinaldo Arenas, Cuba's premier literary rebel, to the 
big screen
Beach Blanket Bibliophile: Javier Bardem (left) takes Reinaldo Arenas, Cuba's premier literary rebel, to the big screen

As for discovering Arenas's writing, it began with a trip to Miami several years ago, when Schnabel hoped to buy a hotel here. "The Mafia insisted on being a partner, so I changed my mind," he deadpanned, adding that the business plan wasn't a total loss. His Cuban-American real estate agent hepped him to a documentary video that featured Arenas. Immediately charmed by the writer's onscreen presence, he soon began devouring Arenas's work.

Regarding the transformation of Before Night Fallsto celluloid: "All I needed to show was a map of his internal life. You can say a lot when you don't use any words." Gazing back at the enormous movie screen inside Alice Tully Hall, he continued, "There's a physical reality to the screen that can wash over you like a wave."

It takes nothing away from Schnabel's film to note what's missing from it -- namely any mention of Arenas's time in Miami (an experience that clearly shaped his feelings about being exiled from not only his country but his own people), as well as anything more than the barest sketch of his life in New York City prior to falling ill.

The details of that period are tantalizingly brief in Arenas's own Before Night Falls; in the same sentence the author leaps from marveling at being invited to speak at more than 40 universities to enjoying "memorable adventures with the most fabulous black men in Harlem, in Central Park, and on populous 42nd Street," and then back to the pleasure of hearing Jorge Luis Borges read aloud.

Undoubtedly there is another entire book in this one sentence. Sadly it's a book we'll never see. But the personal course Arenas charted and the "plague on both your houses" attitude he cultivated toward the cultural commissars of both Havana and Miami stand as inspiration to those of us still here.

"Soon, perhaps, in Cuba there will be no more Fidel Castro," he writes in The Color of Summer, "but the seed of evil, vulgarity, envy, ambition, abuse, injustice, betrayal, treachery, treason, and intrigue will still be there, waiting to sprout and grow. In Miami there is no dictatorship only because the peninsula has not yet been able to secede from the rest of the United States."

A decade after he wrote those words, racked by pneumonia yet refusing to end his suffering until the novel was finished, chapter headings such as "HM, top, seeking same ..." and "Crucifuckingfixion" are still likely to make some people uncomfortable on both sides of the Florida Straits. Which is exactly the way Arenas would've wanted it.

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