From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Monday, March 15, 2004

Movie Retrospective: Troubled Artists - Pinero

The Goddess chips in with her first guest review/retrospective at the new web location. Her email has been added to the column on the right. Here's her look at Piñero.

He was Dead
he never lived
Died died
He died seekin a cause
Seekin the Cause
He said
He never saw the cause
But he heard
the cause

Piñero, written and directed by Leon Ichaso
Starring: Benjamin Bratt, Giancarlo Esposito, Talisa Soto, Nelson Vasquez, Mandy Patinkin, Rita Moreno

Miguel “Mikey” Piñero was one of the founding writers of the Nuyorican writers…movement? Style? Identity?…in the 1970’s. Born in Puerto Rico in 1941 he came to New York with his family in about 1948. He is credited with being one of the forerunners of hip hop and rap. He did a stint in Sing Sing for armed robbery and while he was there he wrote “Short Eyes”, a play about the prison fate of a child molester. The play won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best American play of 1974, was nominated for several Tonys and was adapted into a movie. The movie featured himself, a young Luis Guzman (before he met Steven Soderbergh, who thankfully recognizes the man’s talent and never casts him simply the token Latino) and Tito Goya (played by Nelson Vasquez), Mikey’s best friend, fellow inmate. In 1973 Piñero, Goya and Rutgers University professor and poet Miguel Algarin (played by Giancarlo Esposito) founded the Nuyorican Poets Café. His star quickly waned as he spiraled downward into booze, heroin and other drugs and he eventually became homeless. He also kept his hand in with an occasional robbery here and there, his closest friends among his victims. He died of cirrhosis in 1988 at age 40.

Much of the film is taken from the words of Miguel himself, and my favorite scene is his rooftop performance of the poem quoted above, “Seekin the Cause”. This is also the scene that makes me suspect that he should also be given posthumous credit for poetry slam. There are glimpses of the writing and public performance of “Short Eyes”. There is always salsa music in the background and often in the foreground, a tribute to the poet’s love for his culture and origins. A close second favorite scene is he, Tito and Miguel playing in the surf during a trip to Puerto Rico, the first time they have visited their birthplace since their families immigrated.

This film walks the line between straight and fictionalized biography, probably because so many people are still around who knew the subject. I will not comment on the performances (exception below) because every one, even the smallest, shines and complements. It would be as if I ignored the narrative of The Iliad to talk about the beautiful phrases “wine-dark sea” and “rosy-fingered Dawn”. The director, Leon Ichaso, presents the lives of poets in a film that is visual poetry.

Bratt owns this movie as Piñero. If you thought you knew how good an actor he is from “Law & Order”, you really didn’t. No matter how vile, cocky or unlikable Mikey becomes as time wears on, Bratt always makes him understandable, if not sympathetic. Bratt plays the man straight, this is what he was, how he is, and as Bratt plays him you can’t imagine Piñero being any other way. He does not play Miguel as the clichéd tortured artist, or the artist who subsumed his gifts to visceral pleasures and chemical escapism. He doesn’t play him as a man who gradually alienates everyone he once cared about as his star rises and falls. He was a criminal, a man, a poet, and actor, a tender lover and loving son, and a drug addict, and these are the parts that comprise a stunning if not always attractive whole. It is possible to be all of these things at once, and Miguel was.

I strongly urge you to watch this movie on DVD for one of the bonus features: interviews with the cast and crew, many of whom had met and knew Miguel Piñero and who talk about him first hand. Ms. Moreno has a wonderful story to tell about the night she saw “Short Eyes” during its first public run, before it became a critical hit at Joseph Papp’s (Mandy Patinkin) Public Theater.