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Mapplethorpe (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 4, 2020



Starring Matt Smith, McKinley Belcher III, Mark Moses, Carolyn McCormick, John Benjamin Hickey, Tina Benko, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Marianne Rendón, Kerry Butler, Mickey O’Hagan, John Bolton, Karan Oberoi, Logan Smith, Brandon Sklenar, Jason Lopez, Anthony Michael Lopez, Hari Nef, Rotimi Paul, Karlee Perez, Christina Rouner and Martin Axon.

Screenplay by Ondi Timoner and Mikko Alanne.

Directed by Ondi Timoner.

Distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films. 102 minutes. Not Rated.

I must admit I only knew a little bit about Robert Mapplethorpe going into this film. I knew he was a groundbreaking photographer in the 1970s and 1980s, whose photography blended classic Hollywood glitter, still-life flowers, and fetishized gay erotica, in the process breaking down barriers and revolutionizing the art form. I knew he was homosexual and died young of AIDS. Also, soon after his death, a Cincinnati museum exhibit of his works was forcibly shut down by the local government as being obscene, leading to a long and important legal battle about artistic freedom.

I also just happened to know that he was very close with singer-songwriter Patti Smith before either one became famous. In fact, Smith is a major supporting character in the first third of the film – and shows up again briefly towards the end. However, the movie, though referring to her by name quite a few times, never really explains that she was THE Patti Smith. I guess that’s understandable in the early scenes, since this was Patti the young artist, before she started writing and singing.

Still, I feel there could have been some foreshadowing. Then, by the time she reappears, she was already a well-known singer. Yes, she was visiting him in the hospital, but her music could have come up in casual conversation. I happened to know that little biographical fact, but I’m sure it may fly right over the heads of many viewers.

But overall, I really did not know much about the guy and his art.

The main thing I learned about Mapplethorpe from this new film on his life was that the guy was apparently kind of a massive asshole. I mean it, a total jerk; pretentious, self-centered, a user, vain, shallow, mean, sex-obsessed, unfeeling, egotistical, holier-than-thou, selfish, prickly, ruled by his dick, putting his art and himself above everyone and everything else. All he really seemed to care about was fame.

He mistreated family. He mistreated friends. He mistreated lovers. He mistreated models. He mistreated patrons. He mistreated art dealers. He mistreated drug dealers. He mistreated random people on the streets. And when he knew he had contracted AIDS, he continued having sex freely without telling any of his partners that he was infected.

Now, it is certainly possible to make a film about an unlikable protagonist. It happens all the time, in fact. But I’m not going to lie, Robert Mapplethorpe’s massive character flaws made sitting through the film on his life a bit of a chore. Even when he gets sick, it’s hard to work up all that much sympathy for the guy.

So, if you aren’t going to Mapplethorpe for the man, will you go for him as an artist? Perhaps, but even that is a bit of a hard sell.

He was the kind of pretentious jerk who apparently told a prospective model, “Get ready to make history,” even though it was one of Mapplethorpe’s first shoots and the guy was just some dude he picked up off the street. Confidence, or vanity? You decide.

Sadly, the film doesn’t necessarily make a good case for Mapplethorpe’s artistry, other than having lots of other characters – as well as Mapplethorpe himself – rhapsodize on his genius. Even when the other characters comment on his talent, it usually takes the form of babbling nonsense pronouncements like “That’s the blackest background I’ve ever seen.” Uh, okay. Right.

The true revolutionary provocativeness of Mapplethorpe’s work – particularly at that point in history – is circled around, but never quite captured. Particularly with decades of hindsight, the sheer audacity of Mapplethorpe’s work is not quite explained for modern audiences weened on internet porn. Mapplethorpe obliterated the boundaries of what can be done in photography – marrying artistry and erotica – and whether you are a fan or not you have to give him credit for totally changing the landscape.

Luckily for the film, the estate of Robert Mapplethorpe was involved with the production and gave the film access to many of his works, so in quick shots the photos can speak for themselves. While they didn’t exactly make me a big enough fan to seek out more of his work, at least I can understand what all the fuss was about.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2019 All rights reserved. Posted: March 8, 2019.

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