Requiem for a True Original

"The difference between the communist and capitalist systems is that, although both give you a kick in the ass, in the communist system you have to applaud, while in the capitalist system you can scream. And I came here to scream."

-- Reinaldo Arenas, shortly after arriving in Miami, 1980

It's hard to imagine what the late author Reinaldo Arenas would make of the red-carpet treatment being provided for the December 14 arrival at the Gusman theater of Before Night Falls, Julian Schnabel's cinematic adaptation of his autobiography (see "Night & Day" ). To be sure Arenas was an implacable foe of Fidelismo, contending with years of state harassment in Cuba, including a stretch in Havana's notorious El Morro prison, and being forced to smuggle his officially banned novels out of the country for publication abroad. Those are the sort of credentials that should go down well in South Florida. Yet for all his gloriously hallucinatory indictments of revolutionary Cuba, Arenas seemed equally sickened by what he encountered upon landing in Miami during the 1980 Mariel boatlift.

"If Cuba is hell, Miami is purgatory," Arenas declared. In Before Night Falls, published after an AIDS-stricken Arenas committed suicide in 1990, there's little softening of that position. Miami is a "conservative, reactionary" society, where "the typical Cuban machismo has attained alarming proportions.... I did not want to stay too long in that place, which was like a caricature of Cuba, the worst of Cuba: the eternal gossip, the chicanery, the envy.... In Miami the obsession with making things work and being practical, with making lots of money, sometimes out of the fear of starving, has replaced a sense of life and, above all, of pleasure, adventure, and irreverence."

It's a sure bet that Arenas would've passed on attending the post-Gusman screening party at Bongos Cuban Café.

In all fairness to el exilio, Arenas was something of a drama queen. But then, he had a lot to be dramatic about, and thankfully he chronicled it all in Before Night Falls. A teenager when Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, Arenas in 1961 fled his dirt-poor surroundings in rural Holguín for everything urban Havana had to offer. Once there he threw himself into a frenzy of both literary and carnal activity, which to Arenas were inseparable. (He matter-of-factly calculated that by age 25 he had had sex with nearly 5000 men.)

"The best part of our youth was wasted cutting sugar cane," he recalls of his own "lost generation," consumed "doing useless guard duty, attending countless speeches (in which the same litany was repeated over and over), in trying to get around repressive laws, in the incessant struggle to get a decent pair of jeans or a pair of shoes, in hoping to rent a house at the beach to read poetry or have erotic adventures, in a struggle to escape the constant persecution and arrests by the police."

It's this milieu, Arenas's "vision of an underground homosexual world, that will surely never appear in any newspaper," which Schnabel captures in his filmed version of Before Night Falls, maintaining the narrative arc of the original memoirs but also drawing upon the novelist's trippier prose from works such as The Color of Summer. The end result is, much like Arenas's writing, by turns anguished, darkly comic, and always hypnotic.

We watch Arenas run away from home in 1959 in the hopes of joining up with Castro's guerrilla army, already full of inchoate desires that far exceed whatever his hometown had to offer (encountering Sean Penn as a straw-hatted guajiro along the way). Soon the rakish Arenas (deftly portrayed by Javier Bardem) is raising appreciative eyebrows among both Havana's already established writers and the rough trade cruising in the streets; as Schnabel whips the camera from beachside trysts to semiclandestine intellectual salons, the point is to show that the two can't be isolated -- at least for Arenas. It also means that for an uncompromising figure like Arenas attempting to navigate Cuba of the Sixties and Seventies, the only possible outcome is romantic heartbreak, personal betrayal, and eventual imprisonment. (A jailhouse segment of the film features Johnny Depp as both a sadistic warden and a scene-stealing drag queen, a duality Arenas surely would have found delightful.)

While escape came in the form of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, liberation itself proved fleeting. Eventually resettling in Manhattan, Arenas finally was silenced by AIDS, painfully finishing Before Night Falls, and then The Color of Summer, with IV tubes attached to his hands as he wrote. What he left behind, however, was more than just a masterful collection of writing. His legacy also includes a life that was consciously constructed as a work of art, which Schnabel movingly evokes in one of the year's best films.

How New York City artist Julian Schnabel came to direct Before Night Falls is itself a neat poetic twist. Though the two men lived in Manhattan at the same time, they never met. And at first glance the enfant terrible of the oft-maligned Eighties art boom would seem an unlikely candidate to deliver a thoughtful meditation on Cuba.

Still it's easy to imagine the two men unknowingly passing each other at a downtown gallery opening or punk club. And closer examination reveals even more kindred spirits.

"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 Falls at 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?'"

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 Falls to 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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Brett Sokol
Contact: Brett Sokol