Mapplethorpe is a tepid biopic of an incendiary artist
Let’s be very clear: I was excited to see this movie. Robert Mapplethorpe is an interesting figure. Patti Smith’s sometimes lover was extraordinarily polarizing during his time on the art scene. Everybody knows at least one of his images, even if you weren’t sure who shot the shot. Ondi Timoner’s documentary-style filmmaking (this is her first narrative film) includes actual footage of Mapplethorpe and co. spliced between the narrative, as well as footage from the gorgeous 70’s/80’s Bohemian, Heroin chic, New York City. Timoner embraces the phallic nature of his art. There’s peen in a movie about peen! And lots of it!
So why is this movie so lame?
Why wasn’t it an actual documentary, since those moments are the most successful parts of the film?
The movie is the stuff of straightforward biopics:
Man starts one way (straight laced, Christian, in the army), changes and adapts as he finds himself (discovers drugs and photography), falls in love along the way (with many different partners, men and women), struggles with family (said straight laced Christian dad and brother who idolizes him), and dies in a tragic, but ultimately inevitable (AIDS complications), way. I wish it didn’t boil down so cleanly, as the real Mapplethorpe’s life was anything but paint by numbers.
At the center of the movie, Matt Smith (boasting an incredibly convincing New York accent), is an almost picture-perfect Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith’s performance is multi-layered and well-studied. Robert is a gangly character with big eyes and an endearing slouch and half-hazard way of moving through the world. It isn’t until a camera is put into his hands that he feels truly alive and able to commit to the person he wants to be. Smith is simple and isn’t acting too hard, which makes it easy to follow him, but as the movie goes on, it becomes clear his performance belongs in a better film.
Marianne Rendon’s Patti Smith (famous Rowan University, my alma mater, drop out) is not even a shade of the real Patti. Her and Mapplethorpe’s “meet cute” is better suited to Garden State than the Just Kids memoir stars. Robert is pouting on a bench, and Patti bounces over to him, puts her arms around his neck and tells him to pretend to be her boyfriend. She has nowhere to stay, you see, so they go back to his apartment and she dances around in a striped shirt with no pants on and they have sex, so she stays.
They pretend to be married so his parents accept him, and when she meets them, she wears wacky shirts because “wooooaaaahhhh, she’s just so DIFFERENT and STRANGE.” But then one day Patti, the love of his life, storms out because she’s upset that he’s taking pictures of men and not of her. Robert persists, stating “If you leave me, I’ll turn gay.” This happens because the truth (Patti staying by his side for most of their young lives, through thick and thin) isn’t dramatic enough?
Robert is left on his own and quickly meets a whole bunch of people who only exist as plot devices. Eventually, Robert finds a rich boyfriend in Sam (John Benjamin Hickey, in a performance that is simple and affecting). Sam gives Robert the camera he uses throughout his art world rise, as well as an apartment. So, kids, get a rich partner and you’ll be aight.
Then the photos begin. The men pulled off the street. Robert’s cocaine addiction and his super sketchy ways of seducing young men (particularly young, beautiful, black men) and sweet talking them to undo their pants so he can take pictures of their penises. The abandonment of everybody, including his little brother (Brandon Sklenar) who is trying his best to be a famous photographer like his hero brother. It’s hard to watch while our society is enveloped in “me too” culture, and I hope that’s a connection Timoner is making but I’m not 100% certain the connection is on purpose.
Mapplethorpe is only 102 minutes and feels a lot longer. When flashes of Mapplethorpe’s actual pictures appear onscreen, the movie becomes alive and immediate. We’re reminded of what made him so incendiary in the first place. His work was kinetic and intense. It was dangerous and taboo. Robert was an enigma. He was quiet and temperamental, the type of person folks who love “tortured artist” stereotypes are drawn to. Robert died of AIDS related illness at age 42, but before he did, he spread the disease to a lot of unknowing people. I appreciate embracing the subject matter’s less than desirable traits, I just wish this movie was better at capturing the things that made Robert special in the first place.
Read Just Kids if you’d like an intimate portrayal of the man behind the camera. Patti Smith captures a time and a place in much more vivid imagery than this plodding tale suggests. But if Mapplethorpe is any indication, Matt Smith will be putting out more beautiful performances and Timoner is a stylish filmmaker with a bright future. I hope the movies in their futures are more on par with their talents.
-What is the MPAA’s beef (heh) with front bits? Butts are cool. Boobs are usually fine. Penis and vagina is out. (Unless they’re Viggo Mortenson or Michael Fassbender and your contract insists you must show pee-pee.) Matt Smith’s front bits are always tastefully hidden, even as he gets up from a naked rendezvous. Does Robert never showing us his privates act as the filmmaker’s way of metaphorically, and literally, showing that he is always in hiding? Or is it because movie stars are reluctant to show bitsies? Food for thought.
-From Just Kids by Patti Smith:
“Robert trusted in the law of empathy, by which he could, by his will, transfer himself into an object or a work of art, and thus influence the outer world. He did not feel redeemed by the work he did. He did not seek redemption. He sought to see what others did not, the projection of his imagination.”
This paragraph describes Robert Mapplethorpe in more detail and specificity than the movie Mapplethorpe.
Mapplethorpe opens in Philly theaters today.