The rave reviews keep piling in for WOW’s new documentary Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures which is playing the Sundance Film Festival before premiering on HBO April 4th.
For so many people, who were either too young or too disconnected from the art world to have heard it before, the name “Robert Mapplethorpe” didn’t become a familiar one until after his death, when his final exhibition “The Perfect Moment” became the center of a culture war firefight over obscenity, arts funding, and sexuality. Notoriously bigoted Senator Jesse Helms led the charge, challenging – nay, daring – his colleagues to “look at the pictures.” That directive has been repurposed by the documentary filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (Party Monster, Inside Deep Throat) as the title of their documentary profile Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival Saturday in advance of its HBO debut this spring. But it’s also a reminder to consider the artistry of a man whose name would become synonymous with everything but the work; as his brother Edward said in the Q&A following the Sundance premiere, “I know his life is somewhat controversial, and is questionable, but as the title of the film says, look at the pictures.”
Bailey and Barbato certainly give you the opportunity to do that; they fill the screen with his work, from his innocuous (yet striking) flower photos to his inventive portraiture to, yes, the often shockingly graphic depictions of sex acts, S&M, and the like. But they also take pains to contextualize the work to his biography; he grew up in a rigorous Catholic family, for instance, and that influence is certainly present in his imagery and compositions.
…The film seeks to humanize an artist who’d been demonized, but not by ignoring his own demons; the question of his ambition, of whether he sought out “selling out,” is still loaded, still touchy. What’s certain is the degree to which, in his own words, he lived a life “about using people, and about being used by people,” whether it was rich lover/patron Sam Wagstaff, his later lover/model Jack Walls (“We never fought, because he was too self-absorbed to really care”), or his brother Edward, whom he forced to briefly change his last name, so as not to be seen as riding his coattails.
…There’s much to recommend in Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, and the filmmakers do allow some playfulness – they leave in little moments, in those interviews, of wry reactions to his photos, holding just a moment longer on their laughter, or discomfort. These people are still reckoning with this work. We all are.
One of the documentaries sure to be most discussed at Sundance is Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures. The film opens with a reminder of the controversies that swirled around Robert Mapplethorpe 25 years ago, when one of his photography exhibits was raided by the police, and Senator Jesse Helms denounced him in Congress. Time has rescued the artist from the bluenoses, and filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Becoming Chaz) have discovered a treasure trove of material to bring Mapplethorpe—who died of AIDS in 1989—back to life. The film will be shown on HBO in April, at the same time that major retrospectives of the artist’s work will be on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Bailey and Barbato found quite a number of audio recordings by Mapplethorpe himself that they use to punctuate the on-camera interviews with family members, lovers, and admirers. Mapplethorpe comes across as remarkably candid and unassuming, though his ambition was always clear. One of the obstacles and opportunities he faced was that when he was starting out in the 1960s, photography was not considered quite in the same league as the other visual arts. Robert began as a gifted painter but then took advantage of the growing interest in the art of photography.
One question that isn’t raised by any of these witnesses concerns the lasting value of Mapplethorpe’s art. His celebrity portraits are undeniably striking, and his celebrations of black men also have sociological as well as aesthetic value. But in confronting the sadomasochistic photographs that riled the censors, the issues are more complex. It’s somewhat comical to hear the distinguished curators from the Getty and LACMA pontificate about the aesthetic line of the bullwhip that Mapplethorpe inserted into one of his infamous pictures. The artist certainly succeeded in his desire to shock, but do these photographs really have the artistic brilliance that the curators claim?
Free speech is a separate and valid issue that Mapplethorpe certainly championed. No one (except perhaps a few of this year’s presidential candidates) would want to ban art for shocking the squeamish, but the artistic merit of photographs that depict foreign objects inserted into various bodily orifices is a whole other matter. At least the film allows viewers to come to their own conclusions on these aesthetic questions; the subtitle “Look at the Pictures,” does not tell us what to think. But Mapplethorpe’s admirers may not realize that even the most liberal audience members can harbor a few qualms about their hero’s place in the pantheon.
The Guardian says the movie “pulls no punches” and “forces viewers to take long looks at his most controversial imagery, proving that he still has the power to provoke, seduce and enrage.”
“Look at the pictures” squawks a furious senator, brandishing a wad of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs in his meaty fist. Eyes popping, outraged to the point of aneurysm, he provides persuasive support for the theory of writer and Drummer magazine editor Jack Fritscher, voiced later in the film, that the penis is the most terrifying thing in the world. And ‘look at the pictures’ is exactly what co-directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato encourage us to do, in this confrontational and illuminating film. Look at all of them, from the beauty of the flower still lives to the polished celeb portraiture to the eye-popping hard core S&M images.
The input of the eloquent, brilliant, bitchy circle of friends with which he surrounded himself creates a portrait of the man which is every bit as candid as his work.
This frank but accessible documentary couldn’t be more timely, coming as it does just before joint retrospective shows co-curated by the J Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Contemporary Art are set to open in March 2016. The resurgence of interest in and reappraisal of Mapplethorpe’s life and work which the shows will likely trigger should ensure both festival exposure and some theatrical interest.
The documentary uses footage of the two shows’ curators reverently appraising the BDSM-heavy X portfolio (they discuss composition, neatly sidestepping the elephants and bullwhips in the room) and footage of auctions for his notable works to establish his current status in the contemporary art market. Then we wind back to his early life, as an ambitious art student and the boyfriend of Patti Smith, to learn more about the self-created phenomenon that was Robert Mapplethorpe.
This is the not the first time that the prolific directing duo Bailey and Barbato have explored sexually explicit material: Inside Deep Throat looked at the enduring legacy of the seminal adult movie; more recently the pair documented the latest business venture by Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss. This perhaps explains their deft balance of the more extreme elements of Mapplethorpe’s life. They don’t shy away, for example, from Mapplethorpe’s recreational activities at notorious S&M club The Mine Shaft, where he found his thrills and his models. But the audience is not left shackled in a dark room for too long. For every shot of traumatised male genitals, there’s a wryly amusing anecdote from one of the extended circle of colleagues, friends, lovers and models who are only too happy to talk at length about the ferociously driven Mapplethorpe (and in some cases, themselves).
Interviewees include Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry; writers Fran Lebowitz (who ruefully confesses to binning the photos that Mapplethorpe gifted her), Bob Colacello and Fritscher; models David Croland and Robert Sherman; friend and supporter Sandy Daley, porn actor Peter Berlin and Mapplethorpe’s younger brother Edward, also a photographer. Also present is Mapplethorpe’s own voice: in archive material from interviews recorded with him at the height of his success, he is enigmatic, softly spoken, charming but unknowable. Fortunately, the input of the eloquent, brilliant, bitchy circle of friends with which he surrounded himself creates a portrait of the man which is every bit as candid as his work.
Whether you’re an avid follower of Robert Mapplethorpe’s career or just now hearing about him, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures offers a comprehensive look at his controversial oeuvre. Filmmakers partnered with the LACMA and the Getty to bring hundreds of Mapplethorpe’s photographs and illustrations to the forefront of this documentary, shedding light on the ambitious yet flawed artist.
It’s a meticulously researched film that chronicles Mapplethrope’s upbringing as a devout Catholic in rural New York, his young adulthood renting out a small room in Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel with Patti Smith and his eventual death after contracting AIDS. Interviews with Mapplethorpe’s family, models and lovers slowly piece together the picture of a man with no shortage of artistic genius—albeit one who sacrificed personal relationships in the name of his art.
The purpose of this documentary is to mine through Mapplethorpe’s body of work—or, perhaps more appropriately, his work of bodies. It’s here where the documentary is strongest. Despite the graphic nature of Mapplethorpe’s X portfolio, it’s evident that he had an uncanny knack for capturing the unorthodox beauty of his subjects—even those clad in latex bondage gear.
Check out the celebs who were at the first screening in The Daily Mail...