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I just saw Bern Stern: Original Mad Man at the Palm Springs International Film Fest on January 14, 2012. It was an amazing documentary about an amazing man. I had seen many of Stern's photographs in magazines and print advertisements over the years and had never connected them to the the person who took the photographs. The film had a nice mix of interview dialog and still photographs to tell Stern's story. Kudo's to Shannah Laumeister who was the producer, director, artistic director and cinematographer who put this wonderful film together. After seeing the film, I hope Stern can find something satisfying to do with the remainder of his years. I hope I can find a copy of his 1952 classic, Jazz on a Summer's Day.
I just saw this at the Toronto Hot Docs cinema. If you like colours, this movie is for you. I wasn't familiar with Bert Stern, but now that I have seen this movie about his work I can see how unique he was. The contrast between magazine covers from the early 60s to his vision is astounding. The pyramid shot is brilliant. The film flows more or less in a time linear fashion. Bert explains his feelings for the various pictures as we go along. His explanations are short and succinct, you can sort of feel instinctively that he is a visual person and he works out every detail of a shot in his mind, then it all comes together without explanation. I thought the Marilyn Monroe shots with the orange markings were very interesting.
I saw this film last night at the Minneapolis/Saint Paul International
Film Festival. This was the first year I had ever gone to this festival
and this was the first film I saw there. I am by no means a
professional film critic or writer, but I noticed that nobody had
posted anything under User Reviews on the IMDb. So, I thought I would
just give some brief thoughts on the film.
Going into the theater I wasn't really sure what to expect. I will admit, I was quite unfamiliar with Bert Stern. I had seen some of his photographs, but beyond that, I knew nothing of the man. As the movie starts off, it is quite slow, but after a while the pace picks up a bit. Also throughout the film you begin to feel a connection with Bert and start to really like him. By the end of the documentary you will have a smile on your face. Everybody else in the theater really seemed to enjoy it. The thing that sets this documentary apart from others is the fact that it is directed by Shannah Laumeister, Bert's best friend and former (and current?) lover. This offers a unique view into the world of Bert Stern. Bert is somewhat of a stubborn man, he doesn't care for press, and never does interviews. Based on the Q & A with Shannah after the film, he wasn't really to thrilled about he making this movie either. She is able to, however, get stories out of him that he most likely would never tell to another interviewer. This is because he trusts Shannah, and not many others.
Overall, this is one of the better documentaries I have seen. If you are headed to the Minneapolis/St.Paul film festival tonight, I recommend you go and see this over the others. If it is available at other film festivals or other theaters, check it out as well.
Bertram Stern (Oct. 3, 1929 June 26, 2013) was a school dropout-turned-soda jerk in Brooklyn who eventually found his way into the mail room of Look magazine when he was just 16 years old. After serving in the Army, where his talents as a photographer landed him the opportunity to shoot pictures of the beautiful ladies of Japan, Stern won an award for an amazing Smirnoff vodka ad; this led to his legendary career as a portrait and fashion photographer, with famous subjects including Liz and Dick, Audrey Hepburn, Sue Lyon, Twiggy and, most famously, Marilyn Monroe (he also co-directed a highly-acclaimed 1959 jazz documentary, "Jazz on a Summer's Day", snippets of which are seen here). Directed by his third and final wife, Shannah Laumeister (who hoped to be Stern's next discovery but settled on being his wife and muse), this documentary is not (surprisingly) filled with colorful anecdotes on the rich and famous. Stern (who resembled a more-handsome version of Hugh Hefner in his youth) tells very few behind-the-lens stories; he comes off as a would-be self-effacing man, modest to the point of being arrogant about his modesty, who doesn't think he himself a very good subject. Not all of his celebrity photographs are worthy of the praise he has received (some of the women, with their faraway eyes and sad mouths, look rather hard), although his advertisement layouts are still striking today. This is not an incisive look at the enigmatic Stern, but that's not due to Laumeister's lack of effort. Everything is here for a great film-record of Stern's life, but he appears to have taken the best chapters to his grave. ** from ****
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
To me the power of this documentary was in the display of the stunning
photographs of Bert Stern. To me they were not only stunning but could
be highly provocative and erotic, capturing the personality of the
person (usually a famous woman) that was being photographed.
The film traces Stern's career as he began to receive notoriety with his highly successful advertising campaign for Smirnoff Vodka(interesting to note that due to the moral codes of the 1950's women were not allowed to appear in liquor ads). He went on to be a major contributor to Vogue magazine, in the 60's. Also, Stern created the highly controversial movie posters and ads for the 1962 film "Lolita", which not only stirred up the censors but the general public.
Considered to be his most famous shoot was the "Last Sitting" photos of Marilyn Monroe shortly before her death, in '62. They captured Marilyn's sensual naked body covered in part by jewelry or sheer wraps. Just a note here that a number of photos in the film reveal either bare breasts or full frontal nudity of women, but to me they seemed professional and certainly not smutty.
I saw that Stern passed away earlier this year at the age of 83, as he was over 80 when the movie was being shot. He's telling the story of his life to the filmmaker Shannah Laumeister, whom he calls his muse while she maintains they have been soul mates for many years. Stern seems emotionless and monotone as he reveals his life, and possibly depressed at times.
There is some history of his personal life, which includes failed marriages due to womanizing and drug use. He became addicted to amphetamines which eventually led to his hearing voices, mania, and agoraphobia. He lost everything including his career and his money and ended up in Spain at the home of a friend.
Amazingly, having to return to the States for a divorce hearing, he made a startling comeback by photographing pills out of "The Physicians Desk Reference Book", for what became "The Pill Book", selling 17 million copies to date. It seemed to me there was a lot more to his story than was revealed, but I didn't really care as I was more interested in his photographic work.
As mentioned, the strength of this documentary was seeing the amazing ability of Stern to capture an image with his photographs. To me they seemed timeless, brilliant, and unforgettable.
I saw this documentary at the MSP International Film Festival last
night and I just loved it. It didn't hurt that Shannah Laumeister, the
writer and director, was there to provide additional and very personal
perspective on this remarkable man. I hadn't recognized Bert Stern, but
I learned that he directed Jazz on a Summer's Day, which I saw at a
film festival in Seattle a couple of years ago and which is one of my
all- time favorite movies.
Stern was imaginative, artistic, and extremely successful at what he did. His career gave him many opportunities, including access to many of the most beautiful women in the world, and his photos are simply amazing.
My wife, on the other hand, didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I did. It would be interesting to know if the film generally appeals more to men than to women.
One distressing thing we learned from Ms. Laumeister is that no one has archived Stern's extensive collection of negatives. Unfortunately, that probably means that the colors have deteriorated over time and will continue to do so. It's interesting that the next movie we saw at the festival was the restored version of 1902's "A Trip to the Moon."
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