The Washington Post headline says it all: “HBO’s Mapplethorpe doc does the artist a big favor: It makes him naughty again”
With a title that echoes the scalding indignation of the late Sen. Jesse Helms, HBO’s thorough documentary “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” does just that — it looks intently at the range of beautiful and provocative photographs produced by Robert Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989.
Unless the viewer is seeing the work for the first time (the bullwhip, the tumescence, the rubber suits and constraints), what’s striking about the film is the possibility of becoming inured to the images. We’ve looked and looked at them, senator, and although no one will ever say these pictures are boring, over time they have been co-opted, elevated and revered. To that end, “Look at the Pictures” (airing Monday) follows a group of museum curators as they sift through the artist’s considerable archives for a J. Paul Getty Museum and Los Angeles County Museum of Art retrospective that is so comprehensive it’s actually two exhibitions (currently on view)….
Filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, whose previous documentaries include “Inside Deep Throat” (the porn movie, not the Watergate source) and “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” (an honest and moving portrait of the teary televangelist), seem most interested in the clinical deification that has visited Mapplethorpe’s life and work in the 25 years since Helms, a North Carolina conservative Republican, and others attacked the work and held Mapplethorpe up as the filthiest example of degenerate art they could find.
Ensuing controversies over a 1989 retrospective, “The Perfect Moment,” led to protests and counter-protests. Washington’s Corcoran Gallery famously chickened out of exhibiting it. In the process, Mapplethorpe (already dead of AIDS) became a patron saint of free expression and gay rights.
But as “Look at the Pictures” demonstrates through its absorbing biographical scope, Mapplethorpe wasn’t an idealist, nor was he always a fun guy to be around. (“Life’s about using people and being used by people, that’s what a relationship is all about,” he says in a recorded interview.)
In addition to describing his talent and passion, many friends, colleagues, siblings and lovers attest to the man’s darkest and most temperamental aspects: his opportunism, his drive, his casual and even cruel use of the people around him. It’s a far cry from the wide-eyed dreamer that Patti Smith portrayed in “Just Kids,” her award-winning 2010 memoir of her early bond with Mapplethorpe. (They drifted apart after she hit it big as a singer; Smith is mentioned as little as possible in this film.)
“[Mapplethorpe] looked kind of like a ruined cupid,” the writer Fran Lebowitz tells Bailey and Barbato. “And he was very reliant on his charm. . . . He made great use of it, by which I mean productive to Robert. [He] didn’t think anything was wrong with his ambition.”
One ex-lover, Jack Fritscher, even takes a moment to try to describe how Mapplethorpe was drawn to the sinister side of human nature. (“The demon within. . . . I want to see the devil in us all,” is how Mapplethorpe once described it.)
Just as Fritscher begins to describe how his friend Mapplethorpe considered Satan “a convivial playmate” and perhaps took the sadomasochism and religious martyr imagery too far, he’s drowned out by a lawn mower or some other noise outside the window, followed by a chill wind. It’s a slightly eerie moment and it achieves at least one of the goals for “Look at the Pictures”: It restores a sense of the forbidden to Mapplethorpe that’s been lost in the years of worship.
Yeah, they get it. Read the full review here.
“‘Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures’ on HBO Gives Context to Controversy” is the NY Times headline.
Every generation gets its own “New York values” panic. Monday’s HBO documentary on the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe begins in 1989, months after his death, with Senator Jesse Helms decrying his work on the floor of the United States Senate. The senator had started a crusade against the National Endowment for the Arts’ funding of an exhibition by “a known homosexual who died of AIDS,” whose work included graphic depictions of sex and S-and-M. “Look at the pictures!” he cried.
“Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures,” directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, does just that. But where Senator Helms meant to point to the photographs’ content — the skin, the genitalia, the placement of a bullwhip or a fist — “Pictures,” an insightful work of biographical criticism, puts them in the context of a life and artistic vision. It finds the light behind the heat.
“Pictures” lays out a straightforward narrative of Mapplethorpe’s life, starting with his Roman Catholic childhood in Floral Park, Queens. (One of his first works is a Picasso-esque portrait of the Virgin Mary.) When he was an art student, photography was considered as much craft as art. As Philip Gefter, a photography critic and a former picture editor at The New York Times, says in the film, the genre would gain stature concurrently with the gay rights movement.
Mapplethorpe connected art and arousal early on, experimenting with collages using stills from gay pornography magazines. Mr. Bailey and Mr. Barbato deftly reproduce his vision, showing how he edited the images, adding color and form, recalling both contemporary geometric art and classical sculpture.
These early works anticipate his most famous photos — sampled generously in the film — that could be rawly sexual and cool as marble. In an archival interview, Mapplethorpe likens his work to “being a sculptor without having to spend all the time modeling with your hands.”
The filmmakers capture his rise from every angle, using the artist’s own words and interviewing dozens of family members, friends, peers, models and lovers. (They also spend time with the curators of a retrospective that just opened in Los Angeles.) His contemporaries remember an ambitious, seductive man, charismatic, open and calculating. “He looked like a kind of ruined Cupid, and he was very reliant on his charm,” recalls the writer Fran Lebowitz. “He made great use of it.”
Even Mapplethorpe’s admirers say he could be deeply competitive and jealous. His younger brother Edward, a photographer himself, recalls Mapplethorpe insisting he use a professional pseudonym (“Edward Maxey”). But the subject is also far from the leering pornographer drawn by Senator Helms.
In a way, the film suggests that Senator Helms was not entirely wrong, insofar as Mapplethorpe’s photos aren’t not about sex — some of his models were also his lovers. But they aren’t only about sex, either. They’re about composition and form — just as his portraits and his striking still-lifes of flowers were. They were often the product of his Catholic upbringing, echoing scenes of martyred saints. They’re works of eros and art and life, from an artist who drew little distinction among them.
The film doesn’t editorialize much, about the work or the controversy, but its title says enough. It is at least in part thanks to Senator Helms that this film looks at Mapplethorpe’s pictures and gives them a frame.
Read the review in its entirety here.
“HBO’s ‘Look at the Pictures’ is as explicit as its subject, Robert Mapplethorpe” says the LA Times.
The documentary created by Barbato and longtime collaborator Fenton Bailey was two years in the making, arriving amid a reexamination of the photographer sparked by an unprecedented joint exhibition at the Getty and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The filmmakers insist their timing was coincidental to last month’s opening of “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium,” a comprehensive retrospective at both museums made possible through the joint acquisition of the photographer’s work and archival materials from the foundation he created in his name. “Look at the Pictures” had its Los Angeles premiere March 15 on the big screen of LACMA’s Bing Theatre.
“I can’t help but think that somehow we’re part of this master plan of his,” Bailey says playfully of the photographer, whose gifts included the shrewd marketing of his work and persona. Mapplethorpe’s self-portraits were central, portraying himself in various moods and guises, from street tough to sex toy or a demon in plastic novelty store horns to finally, the fully realized artist facing premature death at age 42 from AIDS.
The full life of Mapplethorpe, who would have turned 70 this year, is told in the documentary, but the film inevitably focuses significant time on the sexually charged images of his most personal work. It opens in 1989 with footage of Republican Sen. Jesse Helms angrily holding a Mapplethorpe photograph on the U.S. Senate floor, enraged that federal funds from the National Endowment for the Arts were involved with an exhibition of the work. He implored his colleagues: “Look at the pictures, just look at the pictures…”
The film explores Mapplethorpe’s relationship with patron, lover and influential collector Sam Wagstaff and the connections between the photographer’s active personal life and crucial phases of his work. He was a perfectionist with incomplete technical skills but had ambitions for Warhol-like fame, nearly approaching his goal at the time of his death.
Among the film’s almost 500 Mapplethorpe images are selections from his “X” portfolio, with carefully composed pictures of bondage, male anatomy and sadomasochistic sex acts. By simply showing the work on camera, the documentary is as explicit as its subject. “He said it’s the most important pictures he ever took, so he put it front and center,” says Bailey. “That was a guiding principal in making the whole film. … He saw sex and photography both as magic.”
The the review in its entirety here.