Movies have always been drawn to writers and artists as subjects. Yet few film biographies of artists are truly successful.
Unlike musicians, whose art is inherently based in performance, writers are quickly reduced to souls sweating and fretting over the blank page - Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman yanking her words out of a typewriter and throwing them into the trash in "Julia." Painters fare only slightly better.
How many films, from "Lust for Life" to "Basquiat" to "Pollock," depict the artistic breakthrough as a painter wielding his dripping brush in a fury, as if suddenly struck by lightning?
"Pinero," Leon Ichaso's ambitious biopic of the Latino playwright-poet-actor Miguel Pinero - who was also a junkie, a thief and an ex-con - is the latest film to try to visually depict a writer's methods and his underlying madness. And it follows cinematic tradition in that it succeeds wonderfully in some moments and falls into artist-as-tormented-icon clichi in others.
To his credit, Cuban-born writer-director Ichaso tries to wed his film's form to the rough-and-tumble of Pinero's troubled life and the passion of his streetwise verse. The result is occasionally incoherent and muddy but often moody and lyrical, as Ichaso jumbles time frames and sequences, and shifts between color and black-and-white and between video and film. Without this attempt to visually convey Pinero's alternately dreamlike and brutal dual existence, the film would have been the typical fast rise and faster fall of the self-destructive artist.
Pinero was the quintessential gutter poet. His most acclaimed work, "Short Eyes," was penned while Pinero was incarcerated in Sing Sing. A harrowing play about prison life, it was the toast of Broadway in 1974 and was made into a movie starring Bruce Davison in 1976. The film tells us that Pinero both embraced his celebrity and the luxuries it afforded him but refused to give up the self-destructive street life of drugs and crime. As Pinero heads to Joseph Papp's famed Public Theater for the premiere of "Short Eyes," the writer and a friend mug a pair of women for their fur coats. Papp, intelligently played by Mandy Patinkin, is the professional who admires Pinero's art but grows weary of his thug behavior and eventually distances himself from the writer whose career he helped launch.
Benjamin Bratt gives a charismatic performance as Pinero. The actor does a credible job of showing the contradictory nature of Pinero, whose public performances of his work at the landmark Nuyorican Cafe he co-founded is shown to be a precursor to rap and poetry slams. But for all its authenticity in showing the talent and dark side of the artist, the film wants to have it both ways. It ends up at times mythologizing Pinero's lowlife behavior, as if the attraction to street life and drugs made Pinero purer as a street poet/voice of the people.
Ichaso delivers some eloquent moments - the young Miguel dancing on a Manhattan rooftop with his mother (Rita Moreno in a terrific performance) - but shies away from negative revelations in others. The film hints that Pinero may have sexually preyed upon young male playwrights, but this never goes anywhere.
Still, "Pinero" is a vivid rendering of the complexities of the artist's soul, and a notable attempt to convey the trajectory of a volatile creative life. It wisely lets us hear Pinero's words for ourselves, and in the end, they echo louder than the images that accompany them.
"Pinero" Directed by Leon Ichaso; written by Leon Ichaso; photographed by Claudio Chea; edited by David Tedeschi; production designed by Sharon Komofsky; music by Kip Hanrahan; produced by Kathy DeMarco, John Penotti, Fisher Stevens. A Miramax release; opens Friday, Jan. 25. Running time: 1:43. MPAA rating: R (drug use, strong language and sexuality).
Miguel Pinero - Benjamin Bratt
Miguel Algarin - Giancarlo Esposito
Sugar - Talisa Soto
Tito Goya - Nelson Vasquez
Miguel's mother - Rita Moreno
Joseph Papp - Mandy Patinkin