Saturday, June 09, 2012

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #21--Before Night Falls (2000)

Happy Birthday, Johnny!!!! 

Johnny played guitar with The Black Keys
during the MTV Movie Awards last week!
(He also received some well-deserved golden popcorn.)
Onward with Johnny Kitties.....

A Look at a Hard Life
Based on the autobiography by Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls explores the life and times of the Cuban poet/novelist from childhood through the Cuban Revolution to his death in the United States. This powerful drama, directed by Julian Schnabel, offers an unforgettable glimpse into the repressed yet prolific life of an artist, fighting for the universal rights of acceptance and freedom of expression.

When I came up with the idea of Johnny Kitties, this is the movie I dreaded revisiting. My sister and I saw it together in Cincinnati, where she lived at the time. One of her friends described it as "just beautiful." I only knew two things about it: Johnny was in it, and it was directed by one of his friends. We had to see it! We eagerly entered the theater but left slightly traumatized. Knowing nothing about Reinaldo Arenas, we weren't prepared for the oppression, false imprisonment, solitary confinement, horrific failed attempt to escape from Havana for Florida by inner tube, sickness, AIDS, death..... My sister summed it up well, "Ugh, that movie!" It was kind of a downer, and I dreaded seeing the movie again because all I remembered were the bad and sad bits.

But it's worth a look! 
It turns out that this movie is beautiful! All those things do happen during Reinaldo Arenas's amazing life but, through it all, he continued to write and his voice was heard. Can you imagine being in those circumstances--falsely accused and jailed in dingy, over-crowded prisons--and yet finding a way to write vivid literature amid the chaos? After publishing only one book in Cuba, he had to smuggle the rest out of the country to be printed. "He's a symbol of endurance, and he had a lot of character," director Julian Schnabel said of Arenas. "He would have had it a lot easier if he wasn't true to himself."

Although he fought with the rebels, Reinaldo Arenas was constantly repressed by authorities who shunned not only his books for their accurate portrayal of Cuban life but his homosexuality. "The important thing is not that he's gay or not," said cinematographer and friend Guillermo Rosas. "It's that he's a person who is fighting for his freedom, for his own beliefs, and for his own personality. That's what counts." Javier Bardem, who is brilliantly portrays the writer in this film, agrees: "This movie is not about Cuba or Fidel Castro at all. This movie is fighting intolerance, and intolerance happens all around the world." Reinaldo Arenas eventually got a pass out of Cuba when authorities were purging anyone who didn't support the regime. In New York, while he became a reluctant political symbol against Cuba's oppression, he could, at last, live and write freely. Too bad he dies at the end.

But Reinaldo Arenas left a lasting impression on many. "We all feel that we have difficulty expressing ourselves. We all feel that our forms of expression are under-appreciated and repressed," film composer Carter Burwell said. "Here's a man who manages to overcome that in much more dire circumstances than most of us will ever know. In that sense, he's a hero because he gives, hopefully, direction and form to these unformed feelings that we have of not properly expressing ourselves." Javier Bardem said we could all learn from the writer's life: "His example to us is a person with the strength to survive without hurting anyone. Reinaldo didn't hurt anybody. He put all his anger, sadness, and happiness into his writing, so he made art with that."

Director Julian Schnabel is a prominent New York painter. You can tell  this movie is directed by an artist because the scenes are all visually moving--evoking emotions, sometimes just with color and space. The film is in free form--sometimes telling the story, sometimes looking like a still painting, sometimes seeming like a documentary--pieced together like a collage. Julian Schnabel explained, "This movie is made for the screen. I mean, you can lick the colors off the screen. I used different filmstocks and gels to make the color of the movie seem like you were in a time warp, like the movie was Life magazine, 1959. If you're going to make a movie about Cuba, time has to stand still." Though I haven't seen them all, he's directed several interesting films so far, including Basquiat and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (both of which I recommend highly).

Before Night Falls was nominated for a bunch of awards, several of which went to Javier Bardem for his amazing performance. (Is he ever not amazing, though?)

Bon-Bon vs. Lieutenant Victor
Johnny is only in this movie for approximately 6 minutes. (They should tell you these things in the previews.) After all the talk, you'd think he had a starring role. I guess it was big news because he signed on to play two roles, one of which happened to be a glamazon transvestite named Bon-Bon. The other role, Lieutenant Victor, is an angry, mean interrogator.

Johnny worked on this movie for free, just for the chance to work with Julian Schnabel, his old friend. (Julian taught Johnny how to paint. If you haven't seen Johnny's paintings, I can tell you that Julian Schnabel is a good teacher! You can see some of Johnny's paintings, including one of Julian himself, here.) "Johnny couldn't have been cooler about the whole thing," Julian Schnabel said. "He really loved the story we were telling and wanted to help get it told. Johnny is  incredibly exacting. He brings energy and a sense of playfulness to his roles. He's just inspired, and totally free--no hang-ups." I remember Johnny talking about his role as Bon-Bon, thinking it'd be a quick, simple job--just fly in for the day, do the work, and go home. In the end, he instead summed up portraying his Sophia-Lorenesque transvestite with, "This is hard!"

Gordon can't be two cats at the same time.
While Johnny is great in both roles, as Bon-Bon and Lieutenant Victor, Victor is not a nice person. When you have the choice of an evil authority figure or an alluring transvestite who brings sunshine wherever she goes, it's an easy one to make.

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp--Film #21--Before Night Falls (2000) [February 19, 2012]

So, here, Reinaldo (Simon) watches Bon-Bon make her entrance, to the joy of all the other inmates (including B.J., Comet, and Norman). As Reinaldo described, "She was so glamorous that, when she walked by, she made everyone feel like they were in the movies." With Bon-Bon's special help, Reinaldo Arenas was able to smuggle one of his novels out for the world to read.

What's Next?
Johnny is the strong silent type in The Man Who Cried.

Photo credits: Image of Johnny Depp at the 2012 MTV Movie Awards © MTV; all other images, aside from my drawing, © New Line Cinema.


Karen M said...

Hi Melissa,
I love your kitty art! Thanks also for stopping by my blog,
Karen from the BYW class

Melissa Connolly said...

Thanks so much, Karen! I hope you're enjoying class. I can't believe it's almost over already!