Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, dir. Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato│ The very first scenes of Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures are misleading in their conventionality. Simply establishing that the film originated from the preparation of two twin retrospectives of the photographer’s work, these images seem to belong to a much more straightforward TV biopic-documentary than the film that then unfolds as soon as Mapplethorpe’s work starts appearing on screen.
Faced with some stylised photographs of flowers but many more of erect penises and S&M practices, the curators can’t help showing unease despite being familiar with Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre. Their praises are often limited to half-sentences as they search for the appropriate words to describe what they see, and the same embarrassment is inevitably felt by the audience. Giggling or laughing out loud at the curators’ confusion but also at our own, this screening in Sheffield truly was a communal experience for us spectators, of the type that is too rare these days and which reminds us of one of cinema’s central and original appeals.
It isn’t simply by straightforwardly provoking its audience that Mapplethorpe breaks away from standardised HBO-produced documentaries. These genuine reactions from both curators and viewers also highlight the film’s complex modus operandi and justify its subtitle. As both teams of curators from the LACMA and the Getty Center unveil some of Mapplethorpe’s pictures and painfully try to discuss them, one understands that the best way to appreciate Mapplethorpe is, indeed, to simply look at the pictures. The audience is given the opportunity to do so together with the museum conservators, and filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato adopt this very technique throughout the film as they rely almost exclusively on the photographs themselves.
As the curators establish, two wildly different worlds emerge when looking at Mapplethorpe’s pictures. While more renowned for his often shocking and more or less allegorical photographs of homosexual acts, Mapplethorpe was also a prolific photographer of flowers and simple portraits. The idea behind the twin exhibitions was to humanize the artist and present him as more than a controversial figure, and the film aims to do so itself. In addition to the many photographs found in archives, each interview with friends and family members paints a new picture of the artist. While his ex-girlfriend Patti Smith depicts him as a sweet boy with whom she had a fulfilling sentimental and professional relationship, other later boyfriends describe Mapplethorpe as, for instance, self-centred and obsessed with fame and money.
Given the subject’s status, it isn’t surprising that some of his acquaintances -in particular his exes- would embrace this opportunity to set the record straight about the legend. Yet one would just as well expect HBO to limit the extent of these not-so-attractive revelations in order to preserve and benefit from the myth of the irresistible genius. Bailey and Barbato, by contrast, combine Mapplethorpe’s attractive and repulsive facets with frankness to create a mosaic of his personality rather than an idolizing profile.
The filmmakers do not pretend to offer a comprehensive portrait either. While the artist’s childhood is observed, no pseudo psychoanalysis is employed to make hasty deductions explaining the man he became. Instead, the interviewees repeatedly contradict themselves, but each point of view is respected and contributes to a realistically complex portrait of a perplexing man rather than a known myth.
The spectator is thus let free to make her own judgement on the subject, depending on which of Mapplethorpe’s traits are touching or repulsive to her, in the same manner that one would judge a person in everyday life. Just as the curators are aware of the artist’s entire oeuvre but have their favourite Mapplethorpe photograph, the spectator is presented with various pictures of Mapplethorpe and let to choose her preferred one.■
Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures│ Director: Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato│ Screenplay: -│ Camera: Huy Truong, Mario Panagiotopoulos│ Editing: Langdon F. Page, Francy Kachler │ Music: David Benjamin Steinberg│ Cast: Robert Mapplethorpe, Edward Mapplethorpe, Fran Lebowitz│ Producer: Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato, Katharina Otto-Bernstein, Mona Card│ Production Company: Film Manufacturers Inc.│Country: Germany / United States│ Year: 2016│ Running Time: 109 min.│ International Sales: Dogwoof│ Festival: Sheffield Doc / Fest 2016│