By Mina Radovic.
Robert Mapplethorpe is one of New York’s famous black-and-white photographers of the 1970s: coming out after the Warhol generation and in touch with the underground, Mapplethorpe is remembered for his distinct use of monochrome composition, imbued with a sense of rigid formalism coupled with controversial and often bare body subject matter.
Ondi Timoner’s Mapplethorpe is a fast-paced, kaleidoscopic tour through Mapplethorpe’s life from the early 1970s, his entry into photography and work with a range of celebrities and clients, through to his death in 1989 at the age of 42. Well known for his scruffy appearance and off-centre demeanour, English actor Matt Smith, as the title character, does his best to balance the diehard antics of the photographer represented with the more conscientious conduct of personal relationships. Most of the film follows a straight pattern, and there is very little deviation from that pattern. The circular “rise and fall”’ arc is there, the Scorsese-patented inverted narrative opening and diverging musical punk-rock score are present, the punk half-baked sense of 1970s America on drugs, already well worked out in Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997), is again re-visited, with little difference. As Timoner’s Mapplethorpe wanders through relationships, through cities, through life, he constantly seems to be on the edge, but his way of life keeps chipping away at his personality. He becomes more distraught, worn out, and broken as the film goes on. Mapplethorpe shows little change, with critical conclusions that other characters vocally express about him having little effect. This is the case in one scene where Mapplethorpe rather unconvincingly proclaims love to Milton and Milton retorts to him, saying that “he does not love him but only himself.” It’s a modern attempt at the archetypal narcissism of Dorian Gray but without the cathartic edge, equally stripped of exposition of internal torment.
The Georgian master filmmaker Otar Iosseliani made a film that was aired on French television in the 1980s. It is entitled Sept pièces pour cinéma noir et blanc (1983) and, despite filming the urban spaces of Paris, collages which many of the French filmmakers covered in the 1960s, Iosseliani did the unexpected. He shot the film in the same spirit he made his quiet rural epics Pastorale (1975) and Falling Leaves (1966) and thus showed the Paris and its urban life in a way rarely seen on celluloid. By isolating specific details, such as sweet clumsy dogs climbing to wash in a fountain on the street, men bragging on at each other on a park bench, or a lively parrot gawking away in its cage, and adding a syncretic sound score, accompanied by odd ethereal, disconnected voices and even an accordion straight out of his earlier village societies, his city becomes not inflated, but deflated. His vision is alive because what we see is unusual, peculiar; people and objects come and go, many seems out of place, and the impression is one of continuous and changing movement. We simply do not know what could come next. In capturing the unexpected and creating this fluidity, Iosseliani captures the urban space as a living organism.
By comparison, the mise-en-scène of Mapplethorpe presents a problem: besides the caramel-coloured cars and punk décor of 1970s New York that could resemble any Warhol or Akerman surface, there is no real sense of the city or its internal rhythm. The soundscape is mostly commonplace, with a numbing punky track expectedly accompanying the meandering life style of Mapplethorpe in the first half of the 1970s, as represented roughly in the first half of the film. The redeeming qualities of the film come out only when the art of the actual Robert Mapplethorpe (and not his Smith double) enters the frame. Any fluidity comes from integrating the work of the real Mapplethorpe into the film, whose compositions invade the viewer as lightning-sharp snippets, images that appear briefly on screen and reveal the fruit of this self-destructive struggle.
However, perhaps the most redeeming element of the film Mapplethorpe lies with the uncanny physicality displayed by Smith towards the end of the film, with the sickness invading his body coupled by rough raw coughs really bringing out his corporeal breakdown. The timely question of Mapplethorpe’s parents, devout Christians and authority figures against whom the film shows him as unconsciously rebelling, being redeemed to him is also addressed. His father, a pastor, visits him at his studio and finally gives him the recognition he was waiting for: he acknowledges the beauty of his works and even participates in a photography session with him.
Somewhere in the midst of a continuously charged life style, Mapplethorpe may have found peace. In the final scene in Mapplethorpe’s hospital room, shadows of photographs appear silhouetted onto the hospital walls, a light begins to cascade across the room, Mapplethorpe remembers the person he loved most and says, “take the picture.” As he finally breathes his last breath openly, with a smile, the film closes. Despite severe sentimentality and lack of pathos, Timoner manages to transplant events of the life of New York’s photographer Robert Mapplethorpe on screen. The film could have yet presented a more fleshed out adaptation of that photographer’s life and work. Being far too condensed and focused on the external chronology of his life, rather than its internal significance, Mapplethorpe has a way to go before reaching its desired cathartic depth or conveying the living urbanity of that period in American history. The work of Marlon Riggs may be its antipode, or rather an antidote.
Mina Radovic is a doctoral researcher at Goldsmiths, University of London. He holds a Master of Arts in Film Studies and German Language, Literature, and Linguistics from the University of St Andrews. A FIAF-trained archivist and filmmaker, he regularly contributes to international film and academic journals and runs the Liberating Cinema Project.