'Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures': Sundance Review

Mapplethorpe Look at Pictures still 1 - SQ 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A provocative, troubling doc.

Controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe receives full-blooded treatment in this world premiere documentary.

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.

He had a celebrated affair with singer Patti Smith, then was adopted by art collector Sam Wagstaff, who helped to launch his career. Wagstaff also died of AIDS, but many of Mapplethorpe’s other lovers survive and speak very candidly about the attractions as well as the unbridled ambition of the artist. Other friends, including Fran Lebowitz and Debbie Harry, contribute valuable reminiscences. But perhaps the most telling interviews come from Mapplethorpe’s family members, especially his younger brother Edward, another photographer and artist who had a competitive and difficult but always loving relationship with Robert.

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.

Production company: Film Manufacturers, World of Wonder
Directors: Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato

Producers: Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato, Katharina Otto-Bernstein, Mona Card
Executive producer: Sheila Nevins
Directors of photography: Huy Truong, Mario Panagiotopoulos
Editor: Langdon F. Page
Music: David Benjamin Steinberg
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)

No rating, 108 minutes