(*homocinematically inclined)

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Reverend's Reviews: Mapplethorpe, Apartheid & Prison Viewed Through a New Lens

Plenty of artists have been the subjects of movies over the years. Vincent van Gogh, Michelangelo, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock, Caravaggio, Diane Arbus and Jean-Michel Basquiat are but a well-known few. Several of them have been LGBTQ. Now, we can add gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe to the list. One of the most consequential and controversial artists of the 20th Century, he is being newly represented by the biopic Mapplethorpe, The Director's Cut. A re-worked version of the original 2018 release, it is now available for viewing via Hulu and VOD.

The film marks the narrative feature debut of acclaimed documentarian Ondi Timoner and stars Doctor Who alum Matt Smith in the title role. Mapplethorpe, The Director’s Cut features an all-new soundtrack and offers restored scenes depicting the artist’s childhood love of photography, his embattled relationship with his father, and his lingering yet ambivalent connection to the Catholic Church in which he was raised. It also more deeply explores Mapplethorpe's love affair with rocker Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón) and his subsequent, pivotal romance with powerhouse art collector Sam Wagstaff (played by current Tony Award nominee John Benjamin Hickey). We see the development of his precise, erotically-charged photographic style along with his climb toward mainstream recognition. His eventual success was only briefly halted by Mapplethorpe's untimely death from AIDS complications in 1989.

The story behind this new, revised version of Timoner's film is almost as tumultuous as its subject's life. Producer Jamie Wolf saw an early cut of Mapplethorpe and was especially impressed with its reverberant quality, which she felt effortlessly transcended the traditional biopic. Wolf, who is quietly known for her creative hand as a producer (Newtown, City of Gold, The Truffle Hunters), has a particularly strong commitment to enabling a director’s vision. When she learned the original version of Mapplethorpe had been altered for its theatrical release, Wolf recalled an article by Richard Brody in The New Yorker which chronicled Kenneth Lonergan’s long journey to restore the original cut of his 2011 film Margaret, after a version he did not endorse was first distributed.

Wolf and partner Geralyn Dreyfous persuaded the Samuel Goldwyn Company, distributor of the 2018 release, to allow them to follow the Margaret road map and create a director’s cut of Mapplethorpe. Wolf tapped Nathalie Seaver, Executive Vice President at Foothill Productions, to work with her on the project, which was expected to be a three-month endeavor. However, with their meticulous attention to detail – which included adding an original score by Drazen Bosnjak and a new soundtrack assembled by Michael Turner – the film's re-working stretched to over a year. Having seen both versions, I can attest that the new Director's Cut is a significant improvement. Smith's performance is especially impressive.

Director and co-writer Ondi Timoner has built her reputation as a documentarian, accomplishing the unusual feat of garnering two Grand Jury Prizes at the Sundance Film Festival with her film Dig! in 2004 and We Live in Public in 2009. Timoner’s first exposure to the work of Robert Mapplethorpe came when she was 12 years old. “I had a calendar of Mapplethorpe’s flowers,” she says. “I absolutely loved it, but I had no idea that there was this other side to his photography.”

The photographer’s famed floral portraits, especially of the white calla lily, have now rippled across generations. But many of his other images, including full-frontal male nudes, were considered so transgressive that much of his work was covered up at an early exhibition in Boston and could only be viewed by lifting up an obscuring curtain.

As Timoner reveals in the film's press notes: “My goal in making this film was to make an anthem for artists. I make films about difficult visionaries, about people who are unable to turn away from the quest, even when they come up against doubt and ridicule and struggle, as well as the penalties often involved. Robert Mapplethorpe set out to make people bend to his vision, to embrace what they deemed obscene, and worship it as holy. That’s an incredible thing."

Reverend recently had the pleasure of speaking further with the multi-talented Timoner via phone about her new Director's Cut:

: Can you talk about the process of making your film?
OT: I originally optioned the rights to a script by Bruce Goodrich. In exploring (Mapplethorpe's) life, I learned how he comes into his art and that led him into his sexuality. His art was the bridge to this life that he saw as beautiful. No matter how you feel about some of his controversial choices, like knowingly infecting people with AIDS, he lived his life authentically and there is beauty in that.

REV: How was your collaboration with Matt Smith?
OT: He's fantastic, an incredible artist and also a serious intellect. Originally, James Franco was cast but my then-9-year-old son, who was a Doctor Who fan, suggested Matt. (Matt and I) had lots of debates on set about every little thing I'd written. He was so right for the part, jaw-dropping. We shot the whole movie in 19 days and started at the end of Mapplethorpe's life. Matt had to lose weight before we began shooting. He remains a good friend and an ally to this day. My son actually hit it off with Matt and they're still friends.

REV: Did you receive any reaction to the film from Mapplethorpe's brother Edward (who is also a photographer) or other family or friends?
OT: I did. I didn't have any help from Robert's brother while making it, but Matt and I met to tour the Guggenheim Museum one day and coincidentally bumped into Edward. He said he loved the film! Robert's last assistant, Brian English, also saw and loved it.

REV: You are primarily a documentarian but do you plan to make other narrative films?
OT: Yes, I actually have a script I've written about my father's (Eli Timoner) meteoric rise and life called A Stroke of Genius. He founded Air Florida. He passed away recently but I was able to spend his final weeks with him and went through the script page by page with him. He had a stroke when I was 9. It's another movie set primarily in the 1970's, like Mapplethorpe.

REV: That sounds great! What would you say is the most important legacy of Mapplethorpe's work or life?
OT: I think that, hopefully, one can see the poignancy in him living truthfully, to see the price he paid for that but also the value of that. His legacy is the beauty of his work. That will never end. He made photography a collectible art form, and he helped to advance the LGBTQ movement through his art.

32 years after his death, Robert Mapplethorpe's influence undeniably lives on!

It was also 30-some years ago that I learned about apartheid, the shockingly racist policy of South Africa's then-government. Although black activist Stephen Biko was murdered in 1977 while he was unjustly imprisoned, I was largely unaware of his story or the horrific conditions his people were living under until the release of Richard Attenborough's 1987 film Cry Freedom. Thankfully, apartheid was dismantled in the 1990's through a combination of Nelson Mandela's leadership and international pressure.

Untold until now is the equally disturbing story of gay white men who lived under apartheid. Oliver Hermanus's 2019 film Moffie (a word that was the Afrikaans equivalent of faggot) is finally being released in US theaters and on VOD this Friday, April 9th, from IFC Films. It was an official selection at that year's Venice Film Festival and won the Mermaid Award for best LGBTQ entry at the Thessaloniki International Film Fest. Then COVID hit and unfortunately but understandably delayed release plans.

Set in the early 1980's, Moffie depicts the travails of 17-year old Nicholas Van de Swert (played by the very photogenic Kai Luke Brummer). It was national policy at the time that all white boys over the age of 16 had to serve in the South African military for two years. It was assumed that all such boys were heterosexual, but Nicholas is gay so necessarily closeted in light of social mores that treated LGBTQ citizens almost as badly as the country's black citizens.

Nicholas and his fellow recruits have to endure a sadistic sergeant, difficult desert conditions, and a war against neighboring Angola. On the plus side, he falls in love with the similarly closeted Dylan after they spend a night sharing a sleeping bag while on patrol in the desert. Dylan is eventually discharged and sent to a psychiatric facility for "treatment," but Nicholas continues to carry a torch for his special friend.

Adapted from an autobiographical book by Andre Carl van der Merwe, Moffie is a revealing, moving and occasionally sexy exploration of South Africa's treatment of gay men under apartheid. The movie is chock full of sweaty, frequently naked young men but doesn't feel exploitative. Jamie Ramsay's naturalistic, intimate cinematography helps in this regard. So do the sympathetic performances of all the actors involved. While I was wishing for a more upbeat ending to the film after Nicholas and Dylan are reunited, the happiest ending to this or any apartheid-era story is that apartheid no longer exists.

Writer-director Jon Garcia already has a substantial gay following thanks to his three-part, Mormons-in-love saga The Falls. Garcia's latest release Luz (newly available this week on VOD) marks an impressive, more accomplished development in the filmmaker's career. Moving on from same-sex LDS missionaries, Garcia relates the romance that gradually develops between two cellmates in a men's prison.

Mafia driver Ruben (a great, vulnerable performance by Ernesto Reyes) is sentenced after an accident that resulted in the death of his boss' trans girlfriend. The slightly older, more experienced Carlos (Jesse Tayeh) takes Ruben under his wing... and more. After Carlos is unexpectedly released from prison, Ruben has to wait three more years until his own term ends. Once it does, he sets out to find Carlos with conflicted feelings of both retribution and desire. Ruben also seeks his deaf daughter, who has been taken in by mafia boss (and Ruben's cousin) Julio.

While Luz hits some of the same emotional notes as The Falls, the film benefits from a tighter narrative as well as some more graphic sex scenes than its predecessors. Reyes and Tayeh also give more professional performances than Garcia's previous leading men. In addition, Luz has a genuinely happy ending, which is rare among the recent LGBTQ films I've seen. One can become illuminated while streaming Luz.

Reverend's Ratings:
Mapplethorpe, The Director's Cut: B+
Moffie: A-
Luz: B

Reviews by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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