Directors: Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato
Stars: Nancy Rooney, Harry Mapplethorpe, George Stack |
Review by Gilbert Seah
Robert Mapplethorpe. Artist or pornographer? Or a bit of both?
Using two retrospectives at LA’s Getty and LACMA museums as a backdrop, Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey’s film profiles the controversial artist from early childhood, to his beginnings in NYC and his meteoric rise in the art world, to his untimely death in 1989. By then, audiences can decide on their own the answer to the question regarding the controversial artist.
They say that a documentary is only as interesting as its subject. No one could be as interesting as the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe who died from a complication of AIDS at age 42. His works and lifestyle are as intriguing as the man is beautiful and daring.
The subject is only shown in archive paintings and photographs. It is without argument that the man is extremely attractive. As in the words of Mapplethorpe’s ex-boyfriend, “Everyone liked him, men and women. Even dogs liked him.”
The film offers lots of talking heads, from Mapplethorpe’s family, friends and artists, possible since the subject is still ‘recent’, having only passed away un 1989. Unfortunately, the artist himself is not alive or is there any archive footage for him to have his say.
Mapplethorpe’s art doubtless shocked America. The images forces whoever’s looking at them to continually stare and be shocked at what they see – be it genitals, the naked body or bondage S&M. But Barbato and Bailey does not let their camera linger on the pictures. The images are shown fleetingly, perhaps to whet the audience’s appetite to want for more. The images are also explained in context by the talking head experts.
The directors do not offer a reason for Mapplethorpe’s lifestyle or art. But they deliver a good researched background of the artist, leaving the audience to determine for themselves the reason for the choices he made in his life. Robert is shown from his Catholic background as a boy who never failed to attend Sunday mass. His priest, who is still alive, also says a bit about the boy and how different he was. Surprising too, is Mapplethorpe’s first love, who is a female of the opposite sex. Patti Smith and Robert were very much in love, before Robert switched sides. Robert’s drug and decadent lifestyle is also mentioned in the film. A fair bit of screen time is also devoted to Robert and his long term partner and benefactor Sam Wagstaff.
The doc first premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January 2016, followed by the international premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in February, and a world television premiere on HBO in April. The film has been already released theatrically in the US and UK in April 2016. The reason the film is now being reviewed is that it will screen as part of the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) film series entitled ART ON SCREEN”, that begins January 18th, 2017.
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