SHOULD I SEE IT?
Those familiar with the Robert Mapplethorpe’s provocative and controversial art will be intrigued to see the late artist receive the biopic treatment.
Polarizing as he was, Robert Mapplethorpe makes one intriguing character to feature in a film of this type.
This is Matt Smith, perhaps best known as the Eleventh Doctor from British series “Doctor Who”, as you have never seen him before.
I wish all involved were as brave and unrestrained as Mapplethorpe seemed to be in real life. This feels very guarded, calculated, and made not to ruffle all that many feathers.
For someone as wild and unhinged as Robert Mapplethorpe, a by-the-book, highlight-reel biopic is likely the last type of movie that should be made about him.
Overall…this just is not a very good movie. Smith holds himself back and one wonders if director Ondi Timoner truly understands the shock and awe around Mapplethorpe, both while alive and after his passing.
He is the photographer behind Patti Smith’s striking black-and-white album cover, “Horses.” He is also the photographer behind the 1980 photo of a man’s crotch, clad in leather, which adorns the poster of the movie about his life, Mapplethorpe. With a dedication to shooting beautiful pictures of flowers, famous celebrities, and children, Robert Mapplethorpe also shot thousands of explicit erotic pictures, many of gay men, putting a camera’s eye on gay sub-culture in the New York City he called his home.
At the time of his AIDS-related passing in 1989, Mapplethorpe, posthumously, would have his work stand at the center of a national debate on obscenity, arts funding, and something of a moral culture war taking shape in America at that time. Documentaries and first-hand accounts have shown us that Mapplethorpe was definitely a provocateur, sometimes arrogant and narcissistic, but also someone who believed he could, as Smith described in her 2010 memoirs, “elevate aspects of male experience…and imbue homosexuality with mysticism.”
In Ondi Timoner’s new film, we get the conventional biopic treatment of an artist who was anything but ordinary and linear. Mapplethorpe (Matt Smith) begins the film in an Army ROTC uniform, completely disinterested in what’s happening around him. He will soon leave school and meet a young Smith (Marianne Rendón), and they would begin dating and move in together to the famed Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, circa 1969 or so.
The visual artist within him comes alive, we are led to believe, when visual artist Sandy Daley (Tina Benko) gifts a Polaroid camera to him and he begins taking pictures of everything. With Smith, the couple kept things going as long as they could. By 1972, Smith and Mapplethorpe break up, and Mapplethorpe, gay, begins engaging in near-constant sexual trysts and one-night stands.
The foundation of Mapplethorpe’s love of photography may have been borne out of the immediacy of a Polaroid camera, but absent from Timoner’s film is what drove him to take his photography and art in such a graphic, distinctive direction. Mapplethorpe’s interest and participation in sadomasochism and BDSM photography is widely known and apparent from his work. Why though? What caused Robert to have this interest, desire, or fetish? Was there a specific reason this was so prevalent in his art?
We really never get an answer. Things just are what they are, which makes Mapplethorpe a frustrating film to watch and think about. Without context for what drove Mapplethorpe to explore these avenues of expression, we are recipients of a paint-by-numbers, run-of-the-mill episodic story of one eccentric artist's highlight-reel of a life. And for as much as Smith allows himself to give to an oftentimes strong performance, the screenplay by Timoner and co-writer Mikko Alanne never digs much beneath the surface.
Though many of Mapplethorpe’s most explicit and controversial images are shown on screen during the film, Smith still seems restrained from fully embracing the Mapplethorpe persona. Obviously, this film could be significantly more explicit than it is - which is not something I necessarily think would be a wise choice. What would help is having a reason for us to care about Robert and his art. Mapplethorpe's script just doesn't have the chops to deliver us to where we need to go.
Timoner recreates much of 1970s and 1980s New York in an authentic way, and the acting is largely effective enough to keep us watching. Rendón has a nice turn in the film’s opening hour, while John Benjamin Hickey has some standout moments alongside Smith as Sam Wagstaff, a long-term partner of Robert’s for many, many years.
However, with a muted screenplay and a possible fear to go truly "all-in" on the Mapplethorpe story, we are left with nothing much to take away from all the film as a whole. Basically, the artist is presented as a closeted gay man, who loved taking pictures, eventually came out, used erotic imagery to make a name for himself, saw fame and attention turn him caustic and cruel to those closest to him, only to succumb to HIV and AIDS in 1989, dying at the age of 42.
Whether you love, respect, appreciate, detest, or are repulsed by the man’s work, Robert Mapplethorpe was a far more complicated figure than Mapplethorpe's screenplay or leading actor seems willing to share with us. In that regard, the film feels almost cowardly by the end - a curious irony when telling the story of one of the most fearless and polarizing visual artists of the last 50 years.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Matt Smith, Marianne Rendón, John Benjamin Hickey, Tina Benko, Brian Stokes Mitchell, McKinley Belcher III, Carolyn McCormick, Brandon Sklenar, Kerry Butler, Hari Nef, Mark Moses, Karan Oberoi, Rotimi Paul, Karlee Perez, Mickey O’Hagan, John Bolton.
Director: Ondi Timoner
Written by: Ondi Timoner, Mikko Alenne (screenplay).
Based on a previous screenplay written by Bruce Goodrich.
Release Date: March 1, 2019
Samuel Goldwyn Films