Listen, if you’re worried you won’t see enough cocks this weekend, I’ve got a movie for you.
If you’re a big enough fan of Robert Mapplethorpe’s contributions to American art, queer rights and hedonism that you will enjoy seeing his professional path reviewed book-report style, then I once again have a movie for you.
But Mapplethorpe doesn’t manage to solve the biopic riddle in any particularly interesting way. If you hoped Hollywood would render his remarkable life and career in an artistically enriched fashion on par with the photographer’s own boldness and visual acumen, then I’ve got bad news.
There’s nothing wrong with the picture, technically speaking. It just doesn’t do anything with its subject – neither the titular man nor the period and city that surround him.
Director Ondi Timoner has managed a perfectly cromulent recounting of the photographer’s rise through the attendant clichés of successful artists of his era: street-urchin origins, a creative incubation among the like-mindeds of the Chelsea Hotel, a chance encounter with an enduring patron, a slow-boil rise from first sale to first show to first realization that he’s too famous to blend into a crowd, a drug habit complete with unnecessary assholery toward loved ones, a lonely-penthouse version of success, an early and ugly and determined death.
Timoner just hasn’t found anything else interesting along the way. There’s a school of thought that biopics aren’t obligated to deliver their own artistry, that it’s enough to let the subject’s genius lead the show while attaching no flair or frills. If that’s your thought – and especially if you’re not entirely sure why Mapplethorpe matters so much to the history of every artistic space and work and creator you’ve ever cared about, who in one form or another took advantage of space he helped hew out – then this is a movie for you. Neither you nor Timoner has anything to feel ashamed of in that.
But Mapplethorpe’s peculiar genius for tone, framing, and explosive subject matter captured on its own terms but still made universal by his presentation of it? You’ll find nothing of that in Timoner and cinematographer Nancy Schreiber’s film. They suffice in loose replication of the telltale traits of Mapplethorpe’s own work: A grey-white-black color palette, a balanced and austere frame.
But where Mapplethorpe’s photographs achieved a blunt aggression that elevated his subjects, embracing them in order to confront gallery audiences, Timoner and Schreiber’s flick just tickles at the same ingredients without crafting a meal. The pacing is part of the issue – it takes almost 20 minutes to figure out whether or not you give a shit about the people you’re watching wander New York, beyond just knowing that one of them is Patti Smith – but not the only stumble.
This is a conventional film, the camera static and pointed at the people and actions that the screenplay says make up this or that scene. There’s nothing particularly creative or engaging about the resulting presentation. It simply bops along through the key beats of Mapplethorpe’s life – or rather, the period of his life that starts well after he’s left home (no probing the filial pieties and familial heritances of a transgressive visual genius here) and ends too abruptly with his hospital death just months before a touring retrospective of his work would become a main battleground in the tiresome culture wars of the ‘90s.
Shaping a biopic of someone so easily imitated but impossible to live up to is a brutal artistic task. Robert Mapplethorpe’s real-life eye and camera were always going to star. It’s just a shame Timoner couldn’t find anything very interesting to do with his own.