Black White + Gray

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Palm Springs International Film Festival 

LM Media/Arthouse Films

PALM SPRINGS -- You needn't be an aficionado of photography, erotica, sadomasochism or First Amendment law to know of Robert Mapplethorpe. But Sam Wagstaff, who as Mapplethorpe's patron and lover helped inform his sensibility, is hardly a household name despite his lasting influence as a collector and curator. With his first film, James Crump aims to restore Wagstaff to his place in art history. "Black White + Gray" -- which takes its title from a groundbreaking 1964 Minimalism exhibition that Wagstaff organized -- gathers a wealth of talking-head reminiscences and photographic exhibits. The brief (72-minute) docu is sometimes cursory, sometimes repetitive, but it's a creditable introduction to a fascinating life.

A key witness is Patti Smith, whose connection to Mapplethorpe is well documented. She relays his excitement upon meeting the hyperintelligent, handsome Wagstaff, scion of a New York society family and 25 years his senior. Smith recalls the thrift-shop outings that netted shopping bags full of postcards, snapshots, medical photos and gay erotica -- the beginnings of Wagstaff's world-class photography collection and the inspiration for Mapplethorpe's often controversial work. Wagstaff's collection also formed the core of the Getty's photo holdings when the museum purchased it in 1984.

Before that decade's end, he and Mapplethorpe would both be dead of AIDS. How their relationship changed over the years isn't clear in the film, but there's no question that Wagstaff introduced his protege to the high-stakes world of glamour and money. Some saw them as perfect complements; some saw a master manipulator in Mapplethorpe. The film tends to overstate the divide between boarding-school breeding and downtown debauchery, especially within the heady art and music scene of 1970s Manhattan. As narrator Joan Juliet Buck intones in the slightly scandalized tones of Upper East Side refinement, the supposed culture clash found a meeting place at drug parties in Wagstaff's Greenwich Village high-rise apartment.

In clips from the indispensable "Dick Cavett Show," Wagstaff is debonair, articulate, charming. It's easy to see why Smith's affection and respect for him are undimmed. Undimmed as well is the esoterica he lovingly amassed, which helped to elevate photography's standing as an art and which still delivers a vivifying jolt.

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