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Tries to cover too much in 108 minutes, but always interesting
Always absorbing doc on the life of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. I appreciated getting to see so much of his work, and having more of a context of his life story to put them in.
It's funny how time, internet porn, etc has somewhat dulled the shock of his hyper-explicit gay S+M photos, but while that might have distressed Mapplethorpe, who clearly loved playing the provocateur, it makes it easier to look at his terrific of body of work as a whole, neither excluding or obsessing over the sexual images, but integrating them. Seen now, the most interesting thing about them is how beautiful they are aesthetically, but also how absolutely controlled, carefully framed, beautifully lit. In that way they are weirdly de- sexualized, not matter how 'out there' the activity. And seeing them next to, say, Mapplethorpe's images of flowers, you realize that his work has a strict aesthetic language that treats a flower and a penis the same way (and indeed, the flowers often have phallic looking elements, and the phalluses look abstract and almost made of marble.
On a personal taste level I wish the doc might have gone for less breadth and more depth. By trying to cover just about every major element and event in Mapplethorpe's life, there just isn't screen time enough to dive deeply into his art, his relationships, his mind or his heart. It's almost like the film functions more as an introductory overview than a detailed examination.
I did like that the film neither lionizes nor demonizes Mapplethorpe as a human being. We see a fascinating man driven by ambition and a need to make his mark to the point that he could be very insensitive or even hurtful to those around him. But I still was touched and saddened by his story, and by the sense he never really found happiness despite his artistic success.
On the other hand, I wasn't thrilled by some of the supposedly off the cuff and 'fly on the wall' discussions between current day curators and critics who provide some very awkward exposition. Creaky exposition is creaky exposition, whether in fiction or documentary. And having these learned art scholars ask each other questions and tell each other things that they clearly all already know feels a bit dishonest and a touch dorky. Personally I'd rather have a good old fashioned talking head lecture me than have false badly 'acted' conversations that would never have happened without a camera and an audience. But that's a small and personal nit-pick.
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