“Robert took areas of dark human consent and made them into art.” – Patti Smith, Just Kids
Capturing the life and times of one Robert Mapplethorpe was always going to be recklessly ambitious. Perhaps even impossible to achieve chronologically or comprehensively. There are so many facets and nuances to the artist, that to touch on them all would be to cram them in, which this bold yet sadly flat biopic does in spades, sometimes successfully – ‘you’re the Jekyll and Hyde of photography’, ‘I’m playing chicken with the avant-garde’ – but more often not. Mostly it merely lays out the starry moments, from the Chelsea Hotel to the meatpacking district, to his final exhibition at the Whitney, shiny pennies on the artists walk to fame and infamy – at first, strutting, then floundering, his manner both petulant and profound.
All that could go wrong with this sort of tale, went wrong, from the miscast lead, to patches of hack dialogue, to unwitting celeb worship. But the mise en scène is sort of beautiful, and Matt Smith‘s efforts are touching, his truly major fault not being the Adonis Robert was (which is unfair) – so it left me confused. And somewhat numb.
Maybe that’s poetic justice. Cutting out the viewer from the interior of the artist, just like the artist did to his forever derisive, autocratic father (Mark Moses), and as an extension, to a judgmental God – in order to breathe. Mapplethorpe never learned the technical aspects of photography, and knowing now what I did not know before – his father was an engineer with a hobby in photography, especially the technical part, one spent in the dark room – it makes sense. As does the BDSM. And interpersonal cruelty.
The life of a godfather of contemporary photography was one of rebellion, self-glorification of the shamed and the unloved. Catholic boy that he was, a severe splitting between extremes was to be expected, and his desperate need to reconcile the two sides. So were the symbiotic relationships, with Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón), his soul twin, with Milton Moore (McKinley Belcher III), his fetishised muse, with his loyal brother Edward (Brandon Sklenar), and not least, with the genius collector Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey), his lover, companion, and de facto, the pinnacle in sugar daddies. Probably no one would have heard of Robert if it weren’t for Sam. And that’s also poetic justice.
Like many children of malignant narcissists, Robert spent his life redeeming beauty back from the devil. As collateral, he gave the horned one some of his best tunes – his astonishing, impeccable images, and his body, confirming that the only difference between the sacred and profane in art is perspective. Or, to quote Dylan on this – you gotta serve somebody.
No matter if depicting the darkest of desires, or the most delicate of flowers, Mapplethorpe’s lighting was always divine.
No wonder the art of light and darkness was his final choice of expression.
Inevitably, it’s most poignant part is its last third, the AIDS end. A tragic time of decaying of the spirit and the flesh amidst a collective catastrophe. The film also does not shy away from the decent of Robert’s mind at the time, and his inherent selfishness.
‘You don’t love anyone, you love yourself.’ – Milton tells him when exiting.
In his final conversation with the priest sent by his loving and equally terminally ill mother (Carolyn McCormick), Father Stack (Brian Stokes Mitchell) who gave him his first communion, Robert says he does not believe in God, just beauty. And perfection. Spoken like the devil. You do not defy that which you do not believe in. Mapplethorpe’s black mass aesthetics always told one story, only.
Then he takes pics of Father Stack, teasing him that we all have the devil in us – ‘I wonder where he is in you?’. When the priest looks at him sternly, Robert chuckles ‘I think we got it.’
Before he died Mapplethorpe created his foundation supporting HIV/AIDS research and advancement of Fine Art photography. He remains one of the most controversial artists of the 20th century, his work sparking lasting national debates on obscenity in art.
As for where Robert’s divine soul wound up, I suspect it’s not in a dark room, anymore.