PARK CITY, UTAH: 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.
As bio-doc, Look at the Pictures is a fairly straightforward – a perfectly serviceable introduction to the man and his work, starting with his childhood in the suburbs (“It was a good place to come from, and it was a good place to leave,” he says in one of the many well-curated interview snippets that pepper the film), through the lean early years in New York City, as seen in marvelous old film clips, evocative images, and interviews with those who knew him.
One big name isn’t exactly absent, but is conspicuously second-hand; though Patti Smith is seen in clips and is heard in a couple of archival interviews, she apparently did not participate in the film. “Patti Smith wrote Just Kids, and it’s a brilliant book, and anybody who hasn’t read it probably should read it,” Bailey said in the Q&A. “Our thing is, Patti Smith was a chapter in this man’s life, and he was a serial collaborator with many people – all of who he chose, very strategically. And we wanted to tell his story in his words, rather than make it a re-examination of one particular person’s perspective. Her perspective is fantastic, but the book is called Just Kids, and I feel it wonderfully deals with that period. But this film is the whole story.”
That it is – and, it should be noted, it’s not hagiography either. 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.
But there’s no denying the work – the power of it, the provocativeness, the beauty. One of Look at the Pictures’ key accomplishments is how it illustrates Mapplethorpe finding his voice; granted access to his archives, you see images of all these styles he tried on, like ill-fitting garments, before he finally figured out who he was as an artist. (A college friend recalls seeing the famous fisting photo and telling him, with a laugh, “Okay Robert, you’ve found your voice!”)
If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s that the squareness of the format doesn’t allow much of a deep dive into what made (and makes) Mapplethorpe so interesting; they’re so busy covering the biographical bases that there’s precious little time to get analytical. Barbato made an off-hand comment in the Q&A connecting Mapplethorpe with another iconic artist to emerge from the early ‘80s downtown scene: “I think he was more like Madonna, in terms of how the Catholicism really fueled something in him. I think they actually have a lot in common – I mean, she’s sort of a gay man as well. But both of them, at a time, were these incredible artists, but they were also genius at branding.” That’s the kind of thing their movie could use more of.
But taking its confines into account, 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.
Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures screens this week at the Sundance Film Festival. It debuts on HBO in April.