Film Review: “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures”

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Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, 2016
dir. Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato

★★★★★

Controversy was Robert Mapplethorpe’s middle name, and in this documentary, Bailey and Barbato pain a picture of his life which does not play up the controversy, but rather shows the true art behind his pictures. The film focuses primarily on his active years as an artist, though it does go into some detail of his personal life, because as we discover later, a lot of his inspiration, a lot of the imagery he played with, came from his upbringing and sustained his creativity throughout his career.

Mapplethorpe was an astoundingly prolific photographer and artist, and in this film, we are introduced to many, many, many of his pieces, from the most popular ones, to a few obscure ones, to the very first pictures he ever took, of his sister, on their porch. That adds more layers to the artistic narrative the filmmakers are trying to tell, and they are very successful in conveying that for Mapplethorpe art was all-consuming, though not unambitious. This is very important because often documentaries which tell the stories of artists tend to gloss over their relationship with success, or at least with the ambition to be successful, but here, Mapplethorpe is described as ambitious from the beginning. He wanted the success, the fame, to be as much of a household name as Andy Warhol was, and even the tragedy that his true success would only really come posthumously was not lost in him, as he set up a fine arts foundation to keep his art alive.

What is most interesting about this film is that it is uncompromising in telling this artist’s story as frankly as possible. While some talking heads gush with praises, other are not as positive, which is refreshing to see in a documentary about which a famous artistic figure. But then again, we can tell he was very much loved in the art world, not only for his art, but for the way he treated art, as a true profession. One of the interviewees comments on how in the 70s artists were being unproductive because of all the sex and drugs, but Mapplethorpe would always be producing something, which he respected, and his printer mentioned that he photographed until the very end, until he could no longer get out of bed.

By using these talking heads along with audio excerpts and clips of interviews with the man himself, the filmmakers do remarkable work in building his story from various angles, while managing not to get lost in their own narrative. It is cohesive, and just long enough that you wish you could keep watching. It is beautiful to look at, the style of it very unique and interesting, and overall it is a touchingly poignant biographical documentary about an uncompromising artist that was entirely himself until the very last minute.

review by Mariana Duarte

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