"To dream my lungs out"
started stealing when I was eight.” Standing amid a crowd gathered to meet and greet at the Nuyorican Poets’ Café, the Café‘s co-founder and playwright Miguel Piñero (Benjamin Bratt) swaggers just a bit. The Almost in spite of himself, he’s working to impress a reporter with tales of his hard-case background. She’s on him because his 1974 prison drama Short Eyes has just been nominated for six Tony Awards. Suddenly, “Mikey” is a celebrity, and it’s intoxicating. Recalling his time in prison and on the streets, the terminally vibrant Piñero loudly resists the vaunted tradition of Latin American magic realism, insisting on the immediacy and authenticity of his own work, a poetry driven by the pains and joys, the intimacies and fragmentations of everyday life.
This first scene in Leon Ichaso’s biographical film, Piñero, sets up a complex series of relationships between the artist and his demons—or more pointedly, between the artist and the various audiences he sought to influence and astonish. While his work was surely expressive and innovative, it was also a form of reportage, a proto-hiphop declaration of subcultural truth, and something of a wake-up call to the mainstream, which was, in turn, happy enough to absorb and profit from this “other” experience (again, much like the phenomenon of hiphop, but on a smaller scale).
When Short Eyes opened at Joseph Papp’s (played here by Mandy Patinkin) Public Theater, it was lauded by critics and playgoers hungry for art they perceived as “genuine”—street, underclass, muscular, and overtly “political.” Short Eyes delivered. Set in prison, its title slang for pedophile, its characters were full of fury and pain, in your face anti-stereotypes (that unfortunately, soon became stereotypes). The play was nominated for six Tony Awards and made into a 1976 film co-starring Piñero (who later acted in Fort Apache The Bronx and tv series like Miami Vice, Baretta, and Kojak). But even with his accomplishment, Piñero—who called himself a “philosopher of the criminal mind”—tried to hang onto his own anger, his opposition to the mainstream. Neither did he ever beat his “street” habits, or his longtime alcohol and heroin addictions. Jailed repeatedly for petty theft and dealing, Piñero died of complications owing to AIDS in 1988.
Though it conveys most of this information (it does not mention AIDS, but instead attributes his death at age 40 to a more immediate cause, liver cirrhosis), Piñero is not a standard biopic. It offers no clear chronology; instead, selected events in Piñero’s troubled life come tumbling at you, rushing, sometimes hard to decipher. The film flips back and forth between time periods, poetry and history, stage productions and moments from Piñero’s experience, black-and-white and color footage, video and film stocks—cinematographer Claudio Chea’s handheld cameras never rest, and David Tedeschi’s editing maintains an equally manic pace. This riotous aesthetic coincides with Mikey’s wildly complicated and contradictory sensibility, his careening rages and fears, deep passions and affections, fleeting interests and resistance to commitments.
This combination of genres and effects also underlines the tensions among Piñero’s own life-strands, his personal, familial, and community histories, and his connections to the world that produced and imprisoned, then embraced and consumed him. Piñero was among the first group of self-identified Nuyorican artists. The film is unusually sensitive to the many layers of identity and identification at work in the designation Nuyorican, and especially the political contexts informing it. Piñero and Rutgers literature professor/Café cofounder Miguel Algarin (Giancarlo Esposito) turn it into a rallying cry against racism and poverty. At the same time, Piñero reveals the difficulties of the identification: when the adult Piñero returns to Puerto Rico for a reading, he’s rejected for what Puerto Ricans see as his rejection of his own heritage.
Moved at age seven from Puerto Rico to the Lower East Side, Piñero early feels jostled and anxious to fit in. His loving mother (Rita Moreno) does her best in a hostile environment, but abuse by his father (Jaime Sanchez) affects Mikey for the rest of his life. The film’s time-jumping structure and sporadic references to the prejudices and class politics that shaped the young junkie’s life suggest there are a number of reasons for his “deviance.” Still, the narrative weight granted the father-son relationship might suggest a reductive explanation: paternal abuse = homosexuality and self-destruction. When his long-absent father comes to visit Piñero as an adult, the son brutally rejects him, unforgiving, still grieving for his lost childhood.
The film hints at this childhood in quick images of young Mikey, dancing with his mother, street hustling, and thieving—here he looks eager for experience, willing to be seduced and to grab at what he wants. For the adult Piñero, desire and pleasure become more fraught. While he’s plainly energized by the celebrity he achieves with Short Eyes, his poetry and acting gigs (even though you see him asked to play junkie stereotypes much like those he resists in his own writing), he also has trouble reconciling his newfound relative wealth and his self-image. He gives away wads of cash (for instance, to a neighborhood bodega he once robbed), but instead of attending a theatrical opening as he’s scheduled to do, he goes off on a tear with a friend, mugging a couple of women for their fur coats before being picked up by the cops.
Similarly, Mikey’s sexual desires remain somewhat obscured (which isn’t necessarily inaccurate, given his wide-ranging appetites and frustrations. The film doesn’t show his sex with men as it does with Sugar, but it does hint at his messy sexual desires, through his relationships with the playwright Reinaldo Povod (Michael Irby) and a prostitute/actor named Sugar (Talisa Soto), and very brief scenes where he solicits or is solicited by a range of characters, including a transvestite who appears as a stereotypically knife-wielding, wig-tearing psycho. While the romanticized relationship with Sugar gets the most screen time, it is also framed, part artifice, part dream: she performs his words, he applauds her performance, and he can never give himself over to her, never let go of his monsters.
For all the film’s spectacle, its visual flash and approximation of street “realism,” its most daring aspect is its willingness to represent Piñero as a vicious, frightened thug. Certainly, it also works a familiar “tortured artist” angle, making him sympathetic, inviting you to understand his bad behavior, but it doesn’t quite celebrate his meanness, no matter how well motivated it may seem. He remains a junkie and a thief, he betrays his friends (stealing appliances from Algarin, fucking with Papp’s opening nights), and he never quite finds a way to fit into the downtown art scene or the Hollywood industry that keep finding ways to use him. At Piñero’s funeral, Algarin reads from his friend’s “A Lower East Side Poem”: “Just once before I die / I want to climb up on a / tenement sky / to dream my lungs out till / I cry.” If Piñero cannot be the realization of this aspiration, it can at least make it visible, briefly.