March 23, 2011
‘Miral’ filmmaker Schnabel is feeling the love — and the criticism
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What’s not yet determined is how the larger public will respond. After screenings at the Toronto and Venice film festivals last year, reviews of “Miral” ranged from mixed to scathing. The Guardian said that Schnabel had gotten into “a terrible muddle” bogged down by too many characters and tangents, and thus was “unable to tell the heroine’s story in a clear and compelling way.”
Variety opined that Miral herself emerges as “a bland totem of hope, rather than a compelling character” and that “at a certain point, the characters begin speaking almost exclusively in sound bites.”
Since then, Schnabel reportedly has trimmed 13 minutes from the film, with Weinstein’s help, in order to “stay with the characters instead of the topic,” Schnabel told the Los Angeles Times. But however the drama is received upon its theatrical release, any film by Schnabel tackling the Middle East conflict is bound to be perceived as culturally significant.
Schnabel burst onto the art scene as a major figure in the 1980s, achieving international recognition for his exuberant, large-scale paintings set on canvases adorned with broken ceramic plates. He also made a splash for his larger-than-life personality (wearing his signature pajamas in public, for example; comparing his own genius to Picasso’s; and his extravagant lifestyle and circle of movie-star friends, such as Mickey Rourke).
In the interview, Schnabel was not withholding: “Do you think I’m crazy?” he asked of his passionate defense of “Miral.” Schnabel declared that he has never made art or films for the money; and he repeatedly — and intensely — asked whether a reporter knew of the Deir Yassin massacre, the catalyst for the founding of the orphanage where his lover, the movie’s screenwriter Jebreal, was raised. And as for the observant Jewish settlers who remain in the occupied territories, he heatedly said, “They’re from Brooklyn — what are they doing over there?”
Schnabel — who is also from Brooklyn — said he knew almost nothing about Middle East politics before meeting Jebreal in 2007 at the Palazzo Venezia, the former papal residence where Mussolini gave his infamous speech on the balcony during World War II.
The artist grew up in a strongly Zionist family; his mother was president of the Brooklyn chapter of Hadassah when Israel was founded in 1948, and she served many terms in subsequent years. As a child, he remembers how she “sold tickets for the youth aliyah; the B’nai B’rith brunches on Sundays; and how all the women who came to our house were members of Hadassah.
“My mother very much wanted me to go to Israel after my bar mitzvah, but I didn’t want to go — in part because everyone else was,” Schnabel said. “I was just more interested in being an artist; it was a point of rebellion in a way.”
When Schnabel finally did visit Israel, he arrived, ironically, the day before the First Intifada began in 1987. While Jebreal was teaching children in refugee camps, he was preparing for his solo show at the Israel Museum. Schnabel recognized that there was a curfew imposed, and that he and his sister were the only people dining in an Arab-owned restaurant his second night in Israel.
While in the Jewish state, the artist had hoped to make a painting on a Bedouin tent in the desert, with Arabs and Jews, and then view it from several hilltops away. Because of the intifada, that didn’t happen. “Really the whole trip was more about me being an American artist talking to Israeli art students than me finding out about what was happening with the [uprising],” he said.
In 1996, Schnabel made his feature film debut with “Basquiat,” a biopic on the self-immolation of the extraordinarily talented young artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Schnabel went on to win the top award at Cannes — and was nominated for an Academy Award — for his 2007 visual poem “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” based on the remarkable memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor-in-chief of French Elle, who became paralyzed but with all his mental faculties intact.
As a coterie of publicists prepared to whisk Schnabel away to his next interview, the artist said he doesn’t plan to make another movie for some time and will devote his energy to painting. But his experience with “Miral” has given him a new and unexpected label.
“When I stand up and say I’m an American Jewish director making a movie about a Palestinian, it’s the first time I’ve become the ‘American Jewish director,’ ” he said. “It wasn’t even a question before, but the fact that I am a Jewish person and an American person making a movie about a Palestinian, suddenly that becomes an issue.”
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