Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures debuts on HBO April 16th
BY JOE FARAGHER
I was lucky enough to attend an advanced screening of the new HBO documentary, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures at LACMA last night. This was a complete coincidence. I am not going to pretend to have been privy to this documentary or the fabulous event that accompanied the screening. An old friend had a plus one and was thoughtful enough to invite me along. It seemed like it would be ritzy and fabulous and weird (indeed, my friend and I allowed George Takei to cut us in line for food which is a moment I shall always cherish) Honestly, I walked into the evening underdressed and vaguely cognizant of Mapplethorpe; I knew the bare-bone information that would float me through a conversation if someone threw his name into the mix. You know, the buzz words: Fisting, Black Penises, Sometimes Flowers. I had no idea of his connection to Patti Smith, of just how revolutionary his work was, or the incredible life he led which tumbled into such a tragic passing. I wasn’t knowledgable of Mapplethorpe and I also don’t feel compelled to pretend to have been, because it speaks to the tremendous impact the documentary and his work left on me as a young queer artist and a regular queer and also just a regular human.
Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the film’s directors, as well as everyone else involved, did a fabulous job. An artful approach to documenting an artful existence is important, and in this case was quite a success. The interviews are cut together beautifully and do not shy away from capturing awkward moments or the genuinely brilliant personalities that surrounded Mapplethorpe. On the issue of name-dropping, the languid and robe-clad David Croland, who was one of Mapplethorpe’s first models, remarked “I can’t help it that all the people I know are fantastic.” Mapplethorpe himself said there was an inherent humor in his work, and I am happy to report that the documentary is hilarious at times, honest the whole time, and thoroughly moving (in like, the right way). Here is an artist who was an unashamed narcissist, obviously. I am not usually of the mindset that one has to be an asshole to be a successful and truly great artist. I do not think that mastery is ever an excuse for treating people like shit (for instance his brother, Edward Mapplethorpe). He was a master and he was a narcissist and life frequently presents us with these unsettling grey areas. These are just the facts. His photographs are unbelievable. All of them. They capture something that shoots straight into your soul. I did not live through the worst parts of the AIDS crisis. I do not know and hopefully never will know what it means to experience that fear and terror that so many have, that which people have described to me in vivid detail. Documentaries, co-workers, mentors, survivors telling me of this plague and despair and hopelessness. It wasn’t until last night when I saw the self portrait of Mapplethorpe holding the skull cane, acknowledging his own death, that I felt it grip my own bones. I really can’t describe the feeling beyond that it was spiritual and in the dark of the theatre I felt the first honest tears for the whole matter linger in my eyes. For that moment I will always be indebted to the makers of this documentary and to Mapplethorpe himself for taking that photograph.
I was struck by how much Mapplethorpe echoes Oscar Wilde’s life and career in many ways. Brilliant, charming, unafraid to use those skills for the sake of personal ambition and survival. Both occupied a powerful dichotomy. Wilde was simultaneously the artist, the bright conversationalist, the brilliant author of beloved works and the fragile, self-loathing closeted homosexual who could not resist the slender, handsome Lord Alfred Douglas (arguable the most wicked twink in history) even though it ultimately meant his life. Mapplethorpe literally debuted his work at two different shows at two different galleries on the same night. The portraits and flowers occupied one, the BDSM shots another. Mapplethorpe was luckier than Wilde in that he was able to use that dichotomy in his favor and that is probably why Mapplethorpe more fully realized his potential genius and mastery where Wilde fell short (Wilde himself bemoans that he has not come to the true peak of his work in De Profundis). Both grew up Catholic and were fascinated by Catholicism. Mapplethorpe, as the documentary explores, reinvents the imagery of Martyrdom in the context of sexuality, which is so keen and gorgeous.
How can someone be described as anything short of a genius when he replicates Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of St. Thomas” as a finger in an urethra (“Lou”) and the photograph has the same breathtaking impact? We also see Catholicism creep up in Wilde’s work, particularly in The Picture of Dorian Gray. In some darkly poetic way both were terribly punished for being homosexuals ahead of their own time.
I must say, the iconic fisting photograph, “Helmut and Brooks” (as it is modestly titled) made me ill when it came onscreen. Why should I lie? I was physically sick. I literally thought I would vomit in the theatre at LACMA, of all places. And then who would I be? The ignorant young man who vomited at the fancy Mapplethorpe screening. I imagined a scene in which George Takai shook his head, embarrassed of the ignorance younger generations are bringing to the already worn and battered table that is LGBT history. It is precisely what happened to me, though, that speaks to the importance and impact of the work. I forced myself to look at the photo this morning for an extended period of time, which again made me ill. But as I looked at it, wincing and wishing I were dead and never wanting to engage in acts of sodomy again, I couldn’t deny that it was a beautifully composed photograph. The perfection that Mapplethorpe dedicated to his work is indisputably present. Eventually, I came to regard the image as exclusively a thing of beauty and now I want it framed in my living room. Fortunately for my family and friends, I am poor and cannot make that happen. The photo made me confront a dark part of myself, a granule of internalized homophobia, disgust and contempt for another human being who would enjoy such a thing, and come to peace with it. Not only peace, but respect and admiration. “…My whole point is to transcend the subject. …Go beyond the subject somehow, so that the composition, the lighting, all around, reaches a certain point of perfection. That’s what I’m doing. Whether it’s a cock or a flower, I’m looking at it in the same way. …in my own way, with my own eyes.” These words from Mapplethorpe, as featured in the documentary, were my favorite.
I look forward to attending the exhibits at LACMA (which opens this coming Sunday March 20th) and the Getty (which opened this last Monday March 16th). Both run until July 31st. The documentary, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures debuts on HBO April 16th.