The Truth About Miguel Piñero & The Problems With Biopics
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/27/03
never be solely equated with truth. If it is it is dead. Biography, however, is
a form of journalism which should not dicker with the facts. So, how to resolve
the dissonance between the art of making a biographical film, & the truth of
the subject matter? To see how difficult this is in the written world of
biography 1 need only hearken back a few years to the furor over Edmund
Morris’s biography on ex-President Ronald Reagan, called Dutch. EM had
been lauded over earlier work, yet in Dutch he abandoned the journalist’s POV
for that of ‘speculative fiction’- wherein totally made up people &
events served as dramatic table setters for ‘real’ events. As apropos as
this may have been for a film version of the life of this man who was lost in
senile delusions of reality & film, it was a big NO GO in the publishing
world- especially egregious was EM’s insertion of himself into RR’s life
Film, indeed, is a different story, however. Especially if the film is cinematically brilliant enough to cover over its lapses, or omissions, of truth. When the cinema is bad, however, the chinks of mistold reality only make the mess of a movie even more manifest. Such is the case with the vast majority of biopics. From the birth of film onward there have been such films. Because of legal hassles vast areas of ‘history’ were shaded in thin veils of ‘based on reality’: from the Civil War of Birth Of A Nation to the life of William Randolph Hearst in Citizen Kane. To avoid potential libel suits early biopics were fluffy hagiographies ala Knute Rockne: All-American or The Pride Of The Yankees, in which tragic heroes, George Gipp & Lou Gehrig, respectively, were shown as the sine qua non of the American Dream. This sunshiny take on biopics lasted well into the 1970s, only to be gradually displaced by a love of antiheroes. Debauched people such as a Jake La Motta- ex-Middleweight Boxing Champion, or a Joan Crawford, or a Frances Farmer were now open to scrutiny. Yes, there would be excellent takes on, say, schlock film auteur Ed Wood or preening phonies like Jackson Pollock, but by & large biopics have become bloated, unseemly messes with little bearing on the reality of the person portrayed.
My recent viewing of the DVD of Piñero only dismally confirms this aspect- as this is a film of someone I actually had the onerous unfortune of meeting on a few occasions at the Nuyorican Poets Café readings in the 1980s. The real Miguel Piñero was a thief, liar, pimp, user, con, rapist, mugger, robber, con artist, abuser of women & drugs, & generally reviled by all he came into contact with. All of these aforementioned qualities are mentioned in the film, save the last 1. Those included are included as bizarre points of praise. But before I go too deeply in to this horrible & meretricious little film I will be thankful that I am actually allowed to speak the truth about this insipid & repulsive troglodyte only because he’s dead & no matter how true the things 1 speaks are, you open yourself up for phony, petty, & harassing libel lawsuits if the scumbag is alive, & then I’ll go on about some other biopics I’ve recently watched &/or re-watched on DVD, & compare flaws & virtues.
Let me start with what is still the greatest biopic in film history, 1 of the 10 or 20 greatest films ever, & 1 of the 4 or 5 greatest visual treats ever: Lawrence Of Arabia, the magnum opus by David Lean, & the middle of his great epic trilogy of films starting with The Bridge Over The River Kwai, & ending with Doctor Zhivago. Overall I prefer Zhivago to Lawrence as a film, but LOA is a visual delight, Peter O’Toole gives 1 of the great subtle performances in film history (ignored by the Oscars, of course), as he twinges in & out of both homoerotic & homicidal desires. That the film’s historical reality was distorted to ‘clean up’ old T.E. matters little because of the film’s overarching brilliance in so many other areas, & the general largeness of the real Lawrence’s life. Also, the little chinks in the title character at least hint that there is far more going on than the film proper allows.
The film Frances, an early 1980s take on the life of 1930s film starlet Frances Farmer, suffers by comparison for a # of reasons. The titular character is a nutcase who led a shallow & drab existence. Personal pain & masochism do not stir like the backdrop of a world at war. Jessica Lange gives a good performance, but there is not a likable character in the film. This led to a controversy over a fictional love interest that the film presents as real. But the real flaw with Frances, & the bulk of biopics lies not in their deceit but in their insistence on jamming in as much biographica as possible to explicate their subject, rather than focusing on a particular key incident in the person’s life, & using that as the basis for the revelation of character & plot. An example of this telescoping, or microscoping, used to great effect can be found in Woody Allen’s sometimes stagy- but underrated- 1987 Chekhovian gem of a film called September. The film fictionalizes the 1950s real-life murder of film star Lana Turner’s Mafia beau Johnny Stompanato by her daughter, & sets the action decades later, where the events of that night come back to haunt the aging film star & her wreck of a child during a peaceful late summer gathering of friends at a country cottage.
Most films, however, avoid this legitimate- but more difficult- approach, opting for the squeeze everything into it approach. The obvious drawback is that too often the characters experience so much that the audience is still digesting a moment from 3 scenes earlier when they are trying to contextualize it with another gut-wrencher coming onto screen. Great filmmakers, like an Oliver Stone, have enough visual poetry to get away with this MTV-like approach. In The Doors the life of suicidal rock poetaster Jim Morrison was tailor-made for such an approach, & the film’s 2001: A Space Odyssey take on the main character works marvelously- despite the accuracy or inaccuracy of what occurred. Similarly, despite all the controversy regarding JFK’s supposed bowdlerizing of history, the film is a tour-de-force slice of 1 man’s mania with his idea of justice- that being Jim Garrison. & let’s face it- the fact that JFK’s take on the assassination (while probably inaccurate) is alot closer to the actual truth than the fictive Warren Commission’s report is just- well- a coincidence. A few years later, however, OS hit his zenith of biopicturing with Nixon- a film a pal of mine labeled ‘The Joycean Nixon’. After 20 minutes Anthony Hopkins so inhabits the character that the real Nixon’s visage is forgotten. The tale is so not what would have been expected that even Nixon haters learned to understand their enemy. Whatever fictions OS put in to the film (Nixon’s clandestine operations, the truth about the Bay of Pigs, etc.) were irrelevant since the overall take on the man was served much better.
Lesser directors & films, however, fall flat & their distortions only exhibit, rather than hide, other flaws in the filmwork. Films like I Shot Andy Warhol, Total Eclipse, The Basketball Diaries, the Virginia Woolf section of The Hours, & Chaplin, all suffer from a lack of poetry, a lack of vision, & a fundamental lack of coring in to their main characters- despite the best efforts of the lead actors- say, Robert Downey, Jr. in Chaplin. Other than Oliver Stone the only other directors to show some facility with biopics are Philip Kaufman, whose The Right Stuff avoided being a strict biopic by its focus on the NASA, rather than any of the astronauts, & Quills- which took an almost comic turn on the Marquis de Sade, & Martin Scorsese whose 3 biopics- Raging Bull on boxer Jake La Motta, Goodfellas on ex-Mafioso Henry Hill, & Kundun on the Dalai Lama, show not only a facility in the form, but- unlike OS- an ability to do the genre in different ways.
In Raging Bull, often cited with MS’s Taxi Driver as 1 of the great films of the last 30 years, the lead character played by Robert De Niro is a Method Acting primer of neuroses & archetypal moments. While the film does span 20+ years, it is notable that so little of depth occurred in this man’s life, which eases the feel of having too much crammed in to the film. His life is a Möbius Strip of indulgence & violence played again, & again, & again….Goodfellas, while violent, is much slicker & the character’s memory & drug abuse smooth away much of the cramming effect. While Robert De Niro & Joe Pesci shine, as they did in RB, the film is really a career-maker for Henry Hill’s portrayer Ray Liotta- a character who is notable for his total revulsiveness. With Kundun, MS takes the cinepoem approach. A visual treat, stark, meditative, the film avoids nearly every biopic cliché by having the film mirror its subject. Oddly enough, this is exactly what MS did in RB- that film sees in black & white, is repetitive, & harsh, ala Jake La Motta, whereas Kundun is filled with color, has 1 or 2 key moments, & is lush with the little & the reflective.
The quality of reflection, sadly, is all too often missing in biopics- especially those of the last few years. Ali, by Michael Mann (so good with fact-based The Insider), is a travesty of a film, as it whitewashes (no pun) the career of Muhammad Ali. Gone are his ties with organized crime, his involvement in the Sonny Liston fixes, his true relationships with Don King, Howard Cosell, Joe Frazier, & Malcolm X. Inserted is pure hagiography: Ali’s refusal to be drafted (& as Heavyweight Champ he’d never have seen combat) is shown as an act of conscience whereas insiders have long revealed that it had to do with Ali’s unwillingness to give up some big paydays. A simpleminded script, a performance by Will Smith based upon imitation & mockery rather than embodiment, & far too much useless info make this film a near disaster- saved only by some slick camera work by MM. Speaking of Malcolm X, the film of the same name by Spike Lee, also suffers from twisting its facts about the famed icon. While easily SL’s best film, & Denzel Washington’s best performance, the film is still rather humdrum. Little insight is gleaned from the film that the Autobiography Of Malcolm X, penned by Alex Haley, does not impart- Lee & Washington did little with the great material they’d been spoonfed. When Ed Harris essayed Pollock a few years back the biggest gape in the film as art was his rather pedestrian way of telling this well-known tale. Marvelously acted by he, Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden, & a host of supporting roles, the film suffers most from its cramming far too much in to the film & its refusal to chop off the trite & bathetic ending- no matter how true to the facts it may have been. Few biopics could have so manifestly benefited from picking out 1 singular time or incident & using that as a key into a life, than could this possibly great but ultimately disappointing film. The final film to be spoken of before goring in to the trash of Piñero is last year’s Oscar winner, A Beautiful Mind. How Russell Crowe can be so good in films like this, L.A. Confidential, & The Insider, yet win an Oscar for Gladiator is a tale for another essay, not to mention the stellar acting of Jennifer Connelly. Yet, this film suffers from an egregious excess of information cramming. In dealing with a man as schizoid as John Nash you would think a poetic Oliver Stone-like approach would be warranted. Instead we get the trite requisites of the overemotional love scene, the loony genius vignettes, & the great resolution scene at the end, despite a decades-long interstice which- if the realities of the tale are true- were far more interesting than those the film depicts.
Oh well, on to Piñero- the film & the man. Starring as MP is quasi-Hispanic pretty white boy Benjamin Bratt, best known as 'that guy on Julia Roberts’ arm', & a supporting role as Sandra Bullock’s love interest in Miss Congeniality. The real MP was a 5th rate celebrity & 10th rate poetaster & playwright. He’s often been called a co-founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café, even as the film basically dismisses that assertion since he had no financial stake in the place, & did not run it. 1 of the big lies about MP is this initial 1. Stylistically the film is a mess- at turns black & white & then color. Meant to suggest the fucked-uppedness of MP’s mind it merely shows a desperation to jazz up what is basically the tale of 1 of the more worthless people to have graced this planet in the last 50 years. Critics have basically seen through this terrible film, although they have reserved praise for BB’s breakthrough & career-making performance- whatever that means. If mugging for the camera, posing, & caricature are great acting I guess so, but the MP I saw at the NPC was a total burnout so strung out that he could barely move- this demon of activity that BB portrays has little to do with the incoherent & lethargic druggy I, & others at the NPC, knew. Yes, he did do the whole tired Che Guevara schtick- 1 loser idolizing a more famous loser, but the whole poetry slam style invented at the NPC is so easy to do that 1000s of bad poets have done it, & done it better than the real MP, or BB, have done- so what? Does BB’s performance let us in to the man? No. & would we really want to go there? Even the filmmakers, who presumably admired this total loser, find little to put forth as deep.
Another great miscalculation is the casting of MP as a hero in the film. The truth is he was reviled- even by his supposed ‘homey’, & NPC ‘co-founder’ Miguel Algarin- who was on the outs with MP for years before his death. Many were the vehement denunciations of MP, & his betrayals of other NPC regulars, cast about freely in the NPC scene of the mid 1980s. Also, the NPC is shown as some multi-ethnic enclave of harmony. Nothing could be further from the truth. The name aside, the vast majority of people who read & performed at the NPC were middle class, Jewish, 3rd or 4th generation Beatnik wannabes. Very few Nuyoricans were Puerto Ricans. Maggie Estep was 1 of the more famous, but schlubs like Bob Holman, Hal Sirowitz, Steve Cannon, & later Dana Bryant, were prevalent. It’s interesting that only Algarin shows up in the film. Perhaps Estep, Holman, Sirowitz, & Cannon decided they could not go along with such blatant distortions of the truth, & in response the filmmakers decided to elide them from the NPC’s ‘official’ history! In truth, I guess, they can be grateful for this since the whole point of the film seems to be that he inspired crap- or so my wife Jessica says.
The film has its trite moments of ‘depth’- scenes where he freaks out a transvestite who pulls a knife on him, his gleeful ‘rape’ of 2 women with a pal, his father’s abandonment, his mother’s support & ultimate disappointment in him (in a very thin & clichéd performance by Rita Moreno), his father’s attempted return to his life, his cirrhosis & assorted ailments throughout the film, buddy Algarin’s getting HIV, the death via OD of a pal in a van, alleged sexual abuse as the reason he was such a foul person, indecision over his sexual orientation, etc., etc. The whole film is poorly acted, hammy in the extreme- sometimes you can literally see actors reading from cue cards, & poorly constructed with its disjunctive flashbacks, verbal gism from MP, as well as its insistence that great art is the province of foul, fucked up folk; folk who nonetheless realize art is truth, & other such canards- such as MP’s advice to Reinaldo Povod (of Cuba & His Teddy Bear fame) to ‘write what you know’- i.e.- imagination is nothing. MP is held up as some genius because he wrote terrible poems, bad plays like Short Eyes, & died fairly young- just like other truly great artists. This is known as conflation, but what the hell? Bad art is very easy to produce- you need only be good at posing as an artist. MP, in his 40 years (1948-88) produced alot- he was a Hispanic Charles Bukowski, of sorts.
A better film about another loser, although far better writer, is The Basketball Diaries, starring a pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio (still holding on to acting potential) as Jim Carroll. That film, at least let’s an audience sympathize with the hero for a bit. The oddest fact about Piñero is that the film finds him despicable to start with, & does nothing to humanize the character, save for positing him as a major artist & influence. In truth, at his death he was almost totally forgotten. If the film were stylish enough its many lies would be irrelevant. But it’s not. Especially silly was the end scene where MP’s ashes are scattered across the Lower East Side of Manhattan, like a bad poem MP wrote. Shots of the real Algarin, & the equally repugnant, although better writer, Amiri Baraka, are interspersed with the actors. The film’s very lack of art (it’s a mess, not the free-form fantasia it sought to be) leaves the film’s historicity open to examination, & it fails on that count as well- even down to the film’s usage of shots of the 1990s version of the NPC for the original dive, & those many dives the readings were held at when they were without permanent residence in the 1980s. As for the film’s score- it’s hodgepodge of salsa music without rime nor reason, I guess, justified by the fact that MP was Hispanic. Regardless, he was a bad human being, & a worse writer who suffered not because he was an ‘artist’ but because he brought about all of his own problems, & 1 feels director Leon Ichaso & producer John Leguizamo are desperate to add whatever meat they can to this skeleton of a tale.
Add to that fact the fact that Nuyoricanism has been on the wane for the last 6 or 7 years since its early 1990s heyday, & 1 wonders just how & why a film like this was made? In truth, MP was not representative of Puerto Ricans, poets, Nuyoricans, playwrights, nor artists in general. About the only folk he can legitimately claim to have been a token of was that of drug-addled criminals. This may be the reason that the film believes it needs to take no time to explain why this loser is allowed to abuse & use all he comes into contact with, but that’s a crock. The film is poorly written, mostly because its hero presents nothing of substance for a writer to delve into & expose.
MP, the man & the character in the film, was a loser from Day 1, who whined to be spared punishment for his sins because he was an artiste. Many gave him those breaks, which ironically just sped his path to a well-deserved oblivion, 1 this film should emulate. In fact, in the 10 or 15 minutes you’ve read reading this essay you probably know 10 times as much about Piñero- man & film- than the film says. While Leon Ichaso deserves a panning for his take with the film, in truth, the only vaguely interesting things about the real MP was his bad art & why it caught on (briefly & limitedly) & then disappeared- as a man he was a cipher (dull, pathetic, with a fucked-up mind & existence), thus the film’s worship of ‘art’ over humanity, not to mention its ridiculous conflation of import on MP by counterpointing the protagonist against documentary footage of celebrities like Muhammad Ali, Richard Nixon, Ayatollah Khomeini, & John Lennon). LI, however, failed to realize there was nothing to the art, to boot. Let me end this piece be reiterating that biopics need not be slavish to every dull detail of a person’s life, but it cannot wantonly distort a person’s life out of proportion with its reality. So, it’s time someone finally told the truth about Piñero & the Nuyoricans- I guess it just had to be someone with balls- like me.
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