“Your photos are quickly becoming a gallery of the dead.” – Sam Wagstaff played by John Benjamin Hickey in Mapplethorpe
For those of us who came out and launched our youthful exploration of homosexuality just before and in the midst of the AIDS Crisis of the 1980s, the mighty power of the young male libido and the rebelliously volatile nature of young masculinity made for the perfect storm. We weighed the risks of man-to-man sex against the right to self-express, code for having sex with other men, much of which was exploratory and deliriously imaginative. You didn’t even have to take drugs in the process—though many most certainly did—to feel the hedonistic burn.
Ondi Timoner has built a reputation as a filmmaker of documentaries, a medium that certainly pays off in Mapplethorpe, her biopic on homoerotic photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989). The man’s brazenly distinctive vision prompted aggressive efforts to discourage funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for transgressive artistry. This, in turn, triggered defiantly heretical work by other artists intended for publicly funded venues, some of which seemed to ride on Mapplethorpe’s posthumous coattails. Many of those riders also skirted the boundaries of sensationalism.
From the 1980s to the early 2000s, examples of boundary-violating work receiving public funding included a photo of a crucifix in a container of urine, ritual performance art with HIV/AIDS tinged blood, a black Uncle Sam sitting on a giant toilet, dried feces used as a clearly visible component in visual art, a gay man sitting on a toilet reading from Genesis, a naked woman pouring chocolate on her body as a statement against male objectification, among many other acts and art pieces.
Mapplethorpe rates high as a striking subcultural chronicle of what was once termed “gay ghetto” life where “sexploration” was the rule. The film, set in the Big Apple, spans the pre-plague post-Stonewall period and the AIDS Crisis of the 1980s.
Timoner is unflinchingly fair without being judgmental about the sexual and illegal narcotics excesses of Robert’s life as an adult. Matt Smith’s magnetic title role performance surely stands among the most heretical in film history: shimmering in the zone of Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris and the still-unequalled Charlotte Gainsbourg in Nymphomaniac.
Therefore, be warned. Many of the photographer’s inclinations were extreme indeed and are duly rendered in Mapplethorpe. If you’re unfamiliar with his photos, even his flowers have an erotically voluptuous power reminiscent of the paintings of Georgia O’Keefe. Oddly enough, the film’s often graphic depiction of what is unmistakable hedonism in overdrive, has been deemed to not be aggressive enough by some!
On the contrary, Timoner steadily streams Robert’s volatile proclivities and increasing cruelties with a low-key, but merciless matter-of-fact honesty. He hands out cocaine as if it were candy in a dish. When he gives drugs to his own younger adult brother, Edward (an endearingly vulnerable Brandon Sklenar), one can’t help but wonder if this attuned to a negative pattern from their childhood. When confronted with the moral question of whether he feels concerned about infecting others with HIV, he feels no responsibility. Some will call him amoral. Some will call him immoral. In the eyes of the law, however, knowingly passing on the virus is grounds for legal prosecution.
The dynamic script, written by Timoner and Mikko Alanne, from a screenplay by Bruce Goodrich, uses the word “cock” frequently and objectifyingly so—and that’s the point. Robert assures a model “I’ll never show your cock and face in the same frame” with his haunting stylized photo of Andy Warhol floating in the background like a traumatized emissary from Hades.
As his star is rising and his grasp on reality is slipping, Robert says at a planning meeting “We’ve gotta have some cock in the show. People will be expecting some cock.” This phallocentrism appropriately dominates the film, just as it did the photographer’s life. A pagan spirit is evoked opening the floodgates to the freedom championed by the Sexual Revolution which Robert Mapplethorpe and his cohorts absolutely embraced in life, as shown boldly in Timoner’s film.
Pentagrams appearing at points in the visual composition lucidly punctuate the demonic sensibility that the man clearly immersed himself in. This underscores a central assertion of the film: Robert’s profound sense of rejection by his fathers, both the one in the flesh and the one in heaven. In a classic case of projection, we see an early drug-muddled homosexual interaction, which he himself initiates, wherein he equates the adult male object of his desire with the devil. He rationalizes: “Beauty and the devil are sort of the same thing to me and he’s always with me.” In another statement he says that in church he found God and in the Polaroid, he found the Devil. This inner conflict runs throughout and it also reinforces his fervent belief that photography had the potential to rate alongside painting and sculpture as a legitimate art form.
Smith layers various colors into the progression of the character’s arc. His Robert, as fully as any performance in film history you’re likely to see, captures the problem of the gay man who, deprived of living his homosexual adolescence in a way traditionally granted most heterosexual boys, lives that adolescence out as an adult male—adolescence delayed. Smith channels Robert’s unraveling sexual compulsivity through his body, his eyes, and his photographic art. In an early scene he pleads with his girlfriend, Patti Smith (an easygoing Marianne Rendon) not to leave him for fear he’ll turn gay. He seeks a savior in the form of a woman.
When she’s out of the picture, what ensues is a kind of sexual anarchy in Robert’s soul exacerbated by the rejection of the proverbial fathers. Some might deduce that he felt unworthy of love, a feeling that seems to underscore Mapplethorpe’s take on the photographer’s relationship with doting patron, Sam Wagstaff, which Smith and John Benjamin Hickey mine beautifully. They convey a marriage of minds while enjoying one another’s bodies and company. Robert affectionately calls him “old” and Wagstaff calls him his “monkey”.
The patron is genuinely riveted by the dark majesty of Robert’s photos—”no one’s blacks are blacker than yours.” Wagstaff speaks here of the visual shades within Robert’s black-and-white aesthetic. But it’s impossible not to catch a double meaning as it pertains to the photographer’s dark side, and later a triple meaning, as Robert’s response to the resplendent men of color he beguiles and, who in turn, are beguiled by him.
Other photos Timoner puts forth are of a fist used in a kinky act, the famed self-portrait with a whip extending from his rear to signify a devil’s tail, a masked leather stud officiating water sports, and clothespins surrounding the lips of a man we assume is a willing sex slave. Might these be perceived as beautified validations of male domination, degrading humiliation, and the unsanitary?
What’s lost on some of the photographer’s ardent defenders is that the shock effect such imagery understandably ignites defensiveness. Of course this defensiveness is read by them as puritanical and censorious. However, such images have been known to swiftly evoke repellent images of the Third Reich. Art house cinema classics which the photographer might well have seen, like The Damned and The Night Porter, horrified critics and audiences with a similar style, though they never went as far as Robert Mapplethorpe. As controversial as those films were, they unmistakably contextualized their dark eroticism as part of an evil political context. Though Robert Mapplethorpe contextualized his dark imagery very differently, in terms of freedom of pleasurable self-expression, it was still jolting. At initial glance, and even upon a lingering viewing, the content can be quite unsettling and even frightening.
Indeed, Robert nihilistically triangulates exploratory male-to-male sex and fetish, with his art of photography, and his defiance of social norms, not the least of which lies in his perception of the gallery scene as being smotheringly conservative, and ironically, as some conservatives would actually agree, coldly geometrical and dead. After all, sex, like it or not, is life force, and so must art be. He rails against curators and art buyers who can’t seem to grasp that. Iconoclastic in both life and art, he tells a studly man to urinate in a champagne glass for art’s sake, a precursor to a small group sex situation the two go on to participate in.
There’s an impression that the insatiably nonmonogamous Robert may well have infected Wagstaff with the virus. Robert states, “I’ll never know what its like to be 50”, and that he just wants to be famous before he dies. Narcissism established, the more sexually reckless Robert becomes, the more callous he becomes. He fancies himself in cosmic alignment with Michelangelo, entitled to behave beyond accepted norms. Smith goes from sympathetic to far less sympathetic.
Nancy Schreiber’s cinematography evocatively contrasts the steel, brick and mortar urban jungle with the explosive sensuality of both the photos and the interplay with handsome models and lovers from which so many of the images spring. The effect is the naturalistic real world in a dance with the stylishness of the world of sex fantasy and photographic art-making. The result is a richly textured film helmed so perceptively by Timoner.
Many moments are quick and move on with velocity, perhaps an effect of the filmmaker’s documentary roots. In some instances scenes would have benefited from lingering a bit longer with close ups to bring home the deeper implications of given moments. Nonetheless, the Mapplethorpian excesses are unmistakably up there on the screen. There’s no way one can call this a safe film. It wouldn’t have been a generation ago, when Judeo-Christian conservatism was still the waning standard, nor is it now in the age of “zero tolerance”, when erotophobia in the name of justice grips discourse.
Where Mapplethorpe captures the textures of its time with gritty beauty and intense sensuosity, its script is a mixed bag. The co-writers definitely have a good ear for dialogue that credibly mirrors the pretentious New York art scene and the raunchy gay underworld. Robert’s disgust with what he sees as the suffocative standards of the major art galleries is met with pontificating rants and insults at other more assimilationist gays he calls “art snob fags”, which are also quite funny. Timoner is refreshing in that she actually sees the fault lines in the gay subculture, something that the media then, as even now, blur for the sake of presenting queerness as one unified, stereotyped whole, where all members think the same. To what end, who knows.
Thankfully and deftly, Timoner nonetheless makes the rock solid case that whatever you think of Robert’s errant ways, he was an indisputable artistic genius visionary. As the Romantic tradition, kindled soon after the American and French Revolutions, was finally collapsing under the weight of postmodernist nihilism by the 1970s, he still flew that movement’s flag. His transgressive photography was/is achingly gorgeous, breathing the ether of self-destructive bisexual and gay poets like that breathed by Shelley and Rimbaud in service to their medium. Ironically, two great gay writers of the generation before Mapplethorpe, also loved for their romanticism and berated for their decadence, Tennessee Williams and Jean Genet, each died earlier in the ’80s. Had Robert Mapplethorpe been one of their contemporaries, might he have lived longer, made the same contribution, and died of something other than AIDS?
Most of Mapplethorpe’s characterizations are wonderful, but two don’t fit the bill. One is miscast; the other, not shaped enough in the screenwriting.
Rendon’s Patti Smith, is more like a Woodstock flower child than the actual raw punk rock nerve Patti Smith actually was in her young years. When she and Mapplethorpe actually first met and bonded so quickly, as photos show, they both bordered on the feral. What comes across in the film lacks a charge that the actual pair must have had. Its not Rendon’s fault. She’s very likable and a good actress who merits a more suitable role in another project. Moreover, the likability level needn’t be very high to make the Patti role work.
The other performance not realized fully enough is not because of the actor, but because of the writing. This is regrettable because the steely Mark Moses plays the role of earthly father, Harry Mapplethorpe. He’s written as a stereotype of an uptight nuclear family man stuck circa 1957 transplanted into the permissive post-Stonewall era. Even if this was generally true, Harry had to have been more complex. Moses, nevertheless, in the short shrift he gets, is a movingly tormented embodiment of fragile masculine sensitivity. When by chance, he sees some of his son’s demonically-themed and homoerotic photos shot with unleashed abandon, the look on his face devastates.
Moses is the actor who played Paul Young, one of the darkest of characters in the marvelous Dangerous Housewives television series created by gay groundbreaker Marc Cherry, hailed as the contemporary William Inge. Mapplethorpe’s great lost opportunity is that Smith and Moses, two such Class A talents, were not given the material to explore what seems to have been a hauntingly mysterious relationship. It would also put more focus on Robert’s mother, Joan (a heartrending Carolyn McCormick).
That said, Timoner has elicited other standout performances from the rest of the material. A fabulous Tina Benko exudes an ethereal sense as arts maven, Sandy Daley. Imagine a Studio 54 version of Noel Coward’s Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit. Brian Stokes Mitchell brings mystique to Father Stack, a priest from Robert’s childhood who says in a naturally resonant tone, as if it were absolution, “even that which we deem as obscene you make more beautiful than I thought possible.”
Perhaps Mapplethorpe’s most discombobulating component is the relationship between Robert and black model, Milton Moore (a memorable McKinley Belcher III). In their scenes we plunge into the photographer’s psyche and its effect on the innocent. Though Moore was a full grown adult man, he was quite naive. When Robert all but throws himself onto the unwitting young Adonis, it is more than just pedestrian objectification. He is utterly enchanted by the man’s physical beauty, dreamily matched with such manly grace. It transcends mere lust, bordering on the sacred. Tragically, he fails to fathom the deeper implications of his desire and his religiously Wildean exaltation of beauty for its own sake. He doesn’t grasp how scary he has become in the eyes of those unfamiliar with his aggressive personality style.
Robert makes Milton his muse, not recognizing the burden it puts on the model. As with Moses, albeit in a better-written role, Belcher delicately reveals masculine fear of what the homoerotic dimension might unveil, which some will reflexively label as homophobic. However, his burgeoning resistance to Robert is a legitimate protective mechanism against the photographer’s increasingly obsessive personality.
English writer G. K. Chesterton, known as “the Prince of Paradox”, thought long and hard on what Timoner wrestles with, well before Robert Mapplethorpe himself was even born. Though a staunch believer, he warned about overvaluing the spiritual to the neglect of the physical. This he call the puritanical. He equally warned of the overvaluing of the physical to the neglect of the spiritual. This he call the pagan. In conclusion, he held that common sense was the balancing component neglected by those who fixated in both extremes.
An aesthete who died young at age 42, Robert Mapplethorpe, for all his demons, compels us, as Smith says in the film, to still see beauty and perfection in those shadowy realms where we fear to tread and sometimes, which we fear to acknowledge. Whether or not he is to one’s taste, is beside the point. Whether or not one approves of or condemns his lifestyle is irrelevant. Mapplethorpe definitely lifted the art of photography to an exquisite level unlike anything ever before. What he left behind for us to behold is staggering and enthralling. Paradoxically, it is also unwittingly cautionary. Ondi Timonek and Matt Smith have gifted us with a tortured labor of love.
Opens Mar. 8
Lagoon Cinema, 1320 Lagoon Ave., Minneapolis