Interview With Basquiat Director Julian Schnabel

Julian Schnabel is on the defensive. The 80s crockery-smashing art star, who has just directed his first film, Basquiat, is famous for his egomania (well, that and the girth he attained after achieving success). But in a recent telephone interview, his egocentrism manifests itself not in bombastic pronouncements, as one might expect, but in an almost plaintive, detailed defense of himself and his film. No matter what the question, he seems to come back again and again to criticism of the film. For such a rich and famous guy, he's actually rather touchingly thin-skinned.Basquiat, a film about the deceased artist Jean Michel Basquiat, Schabel's contemporary, has been getting mixed reviews. Even those reviews that might be considered positive are rather grudging and condescending in their admiration. Schnabel is a guy people love to hate.Schnabel claims that the people who understand his film either know a lot about the art world -- knew Basquiat and Andy Warhol and that scene -- or know absolutely nothing about it. "Then there's people that think they know something about the art world, and they have certain puritanical ideas and they're not even listening to the words that are in the movie," he says. "It's like a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The response to the film is some sort of weird sociological phenomenon."Schnabel is the kind of person who probably should not read his own reviews, but he seems to do so obsessively nonetheless. "I mean, one week they write this thing about me in New York magazine that's like character assassination, O.K.? Obviously, [the writer] knows nothing about my work and keeps talking about my belly," he says. "Then the next week David Denby writes the very eloquent review of the film, really spectacular." He goes on to complain about the New York Times review of his film. "I think it's supposed to be a good review of the movie," he says, but feels that the writer begrudges him his success. Ditto, Gene Siskel: "Gene Siskel said the film was more beautiful than any painting I've ever made. . . . I don't know why my paintings have to be put down because I made a good movie."When asked how he feels about these kinds of reactions, he says, "I'm not used to getting good reviews. I've been attacked for such a long time for I don't know what. Maybe I'm having too much fun or doing what I want to do--I don't know what it is." Later, he decides what it is: "All this negativity is just about people being jealous, you know?" Despite the criticism, Schnabel says the moviemaking experience was overall a good one, one that allowed him to explore a more popular medium than his usual occupation of painting. "I think that I just have to get pleasure from the fact that I made the film and didn't compromise," he says. "I've said what I wanted to in the film and people are going to see it." He tells a story of onetime Warhol protege and erstwhile Velvet Underground member Lou Reed: "The greatest compliment was Lou Reed coming up and telling me how he really felt like Andy was captured in this film, and it really meant so much to him," Schnabel says. "That review means more than anything."

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