starring Benjamin Bratt, Giancarlo Esposito, Talisa Soto, Nelson Vasquez
written and directed by Leon Ichaso
by Walter Chaw The problem with disconnected narratives and the (empty) conceit of alternating film stocks of equally shoddy quality is that what is intended as evocation of the character's grimy chaotic shiftlessness can come off as cinematic smoke and mirrors. Was Miguel Piňero a poet of the devil's part or was he just a scrapper in rat's alley? The answer is a difficult one. Like most third world or disadvantaged artists, Piňero acquisitioned the art of the ruling class: Of the three poems recited in their entirety over the course of Leon Ichaso's scattershot biopic Piňero, the first of them hijacks Percy Shelley's 1819 "Ode to the West Wind" (in its shift from Shelley's "withered leaves to quicken a new birth" to Piňero's "candy wrappers in the wind") and the last of them Longfellow's "My Lost Youth." The purpose of that reinvention is, of course, to take on, like Yeats's Leda, the power of the representational tradition of that with which one would prefer to be equated. Failing that, it makes a Basquiat pop-art impression to subtly pervert familiar images--an instant credibility from an almost parasitic revisionism of which Ichaso's film seems to suggest Piňero was self-aware. Regardless of Ichaso's insistence, I still harbour doubts as to the Nuyerican poet's artistic self-knowledge and his long-term viability as a compelling literary voice.
As portrayed by a grungy (but still gorgeous) Benjamin Bratt, Miguel Piňero is all Ratso Rizzo herky-jerky and method junkie clothed in pin-up Guevera chic. His affected cadences rapped to a Salsa slurry convey the beat of the Beats yet little of their authenticity and genius. Shortcomings traced both to an actor overreaching and a poet with enough knowledge to know what graves to plunder, but without the gifts to alchemize the theft into homage. Piňero traces the man's life from his rough-and-tumble roots at the foot of a beneficent mama (Rita Moreno, fantastic) through to his indoctrination as imagistic street hustler, stint in Sing Sing, and "triumph" with his play "Short Eyes" under the patronage of the legendary Joseph Papp (Mandy Patinkin). Piňero parlayed his newfound fame into screenwriting and acting stints on "Kojack" and "Miami Vice" (where he dedicatedly starred as the kind of Latino stereotypes he is now celebrated for deriding) while knocking off convenience stores, rolling ladies for their fur coats, being offended when a beautiful woman (Talisa Soto) pegs his on-again homosexuality, and taking angry fixes up the nose and in the vein. It's difficult to sympathize with the plight of the downtrodden when the oppressed in question is a parasite, a predator, and a devotee to the naked lunch.
Perhaps recognizing the difficulty of its attempted snow job, Piňero discards a linear timeline in favour of erratic jumps backwards and forwards in the life of the poet. As arbitrary as the incessant changing from grainy 16mm B&W to a simply abominable-looking digital video, the temporal confusion resurrects dead characters, replaces Piňero just before events that have just happened, and succeeds in distracting from the ugly futility of the titular loser. Had Ichaso opted for a more traditional narrative method, Piňero's sniping at targets as varied as Pablo Neruda and omnipresent Man in a plea for a Woolf-ian room of his own (hopefully in his "last friend" Miguel Algarin's (Giancarlo Esposito) home) would be more glaringly pathetic. As it is, most of the unpleasantness is either obscured by the film's structural chaos, or just pushed offscreen (as in the disturbing strong-arm abduction of a panic-stricken hooker).
Ultimately, Piňero manages a cock-eyed kind of sense. Slightly out of true, the film finds the spiral of a criminal with a knack for slam poetry without addressing the question of whether this man deserved his Viking's funeral on the lower east side. Leaving a trail of victims in his wake far more innocent than his own self-imposed martyrdom by needle (superimposed at one grandiose juncture over the Empire State Building), Piňero is a disingenuous huck about a disingenuous huckster. His poetry isn't that great either. The lengths to which Ichaso goes to confuse the facts in favour of his own passion for the message is understandable--admirable would be to either give us Piňero without the Christ pose or to find a subject worthy of the ecstasy. Originally published: February 22, 2002.