Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures

You notice something interesting when you check the IMDB page for the upcoming documentary Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures. Four names are listed under "Cast." They go in alphabetical order: Debbie Harry, Fran Lebowitz, Robert Mapplethorpe, Brooke Shields,

If you expect to see much of Blondie front-woman Harry, or model/actress Shields, you will be disappointed. They are on screen for no more than two minutes out of the 108 minute run-time. Lebowitz, an iconic New York writer who knew Mapplethorpe before he became famous, has a lot more to say. And of course, the man himself, through a good deal of archival footage and recording, permeates the entire story.

But the cast list does not include many crucial players, like model David Croland or Robert's brother Edward. The contributions of these lesser-known speakers give the movie its deepest insights.

The reason this is interesting is because this IMDB oversight stands as a good metaphor for the movie. Though it begins with the most well-known and notorious part of Mapplethorpe's career, the attacks leveled against him after his death by Jesse Helms and other conservatives on the floor of the United States Senate, directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato make it a point to move the bigger names to the background and focus as much as possible on the man and his life.

To that end, you will not get much new insight into the controversy that surrounded Mapplethorpe's posthumous "The Perfect Moment" show, which met with censorship in Washington, DC and Cincinnati. Nor will you see several photographs of children that became notorious at the time for their juxtaposition in a show that featured a great deal sexually explicit material. For those who want the complete Mapplethorpe experience, this may seem like a missing piece. But Bailey and Barbato's decision does allow you to see the artist and the man in a somewhat new, and perhaps somewhat clearer light.

Make no mistake, there are plenty of graphic, in-your-face, photographs on full display. Sadomasochism, fetishism, and penises galore. If you consider such work to be pure vulgarity of no artistic merit, there is no reason for you to watch the documentary. But if you have the stomach for it, a fascinating portrait develops.

Mapplethorpe, like his sometime friend and long-time rival Andy Warhol, was a supreme egotist. His main goal in life was to be famous and that drove him to use people. As such, it is easy to trace a line from Mapplethorpe to our current breed of celebrities who seem to devote most of their energies to staying in the public eye. But Mapplethorpe, unlike so many today, had some skills to back up his ambition. Though not a technically proficient photographer, he had a powerful impulse to find new ways to create imagery. He married that to a perfectionism which compelled him to keep working until he achieved his desired result.

And he has one other thing that may be most important of all. He was fearless. He unapologetically offered up his entire life in his work. His obsession with sex. His fascination with sin. His love of flowers. Whatever he experienced, he put into his photographs for the viewer to accept or reject. In that manner, even more than in his obsession with fame, he has influenced modern celebrity culture. Whether this is a good or bad thing can be debated.

Bailey and Barbato, who have been documenting sex and drugs and New York culture for more than 20 years, get great mileage out of the lesser knowns who speak about the Robert they knew. Models Robert Sherman and Ken Moody tell a great story about the creation of one of Mapplethorpe's most iconic images. Journalist Bob Colacello offers pointed insight into Mapplethorpe's early years, when Colacello admits that he, like everyone else, fell in love with the beautiful iconoclast. And younger brother Edward, who would himself go into photography, delivers the most poignant moments in the film. Edward clearly hero-worshipped his older brother, and was treated brutally. The love and sadness he still conveys, more than 20 years after Robert's death, is palpable.

If there is a missing piece to Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, it is the limited glimpse we get into his artistic motivation. We know he wanted to be famous and do things that had never been done, but we never really learn why he was drawn to this particular type of imagery. That may be an impossible task - to see into the artist's psyche - and yet, we do get tantalizing glimpses. These come almost exclusively from a very open-minded priest who knew Mapplethorpe as a young man and admired his creative sensibilities. There are many fleeting references to the manner in which Catholicism may have influenced the art which are never developed. Bailey has noted that he sees similarities between Mapplethorpe's career trajectory and that of Madonna.

Whether adored or reviled, Robert Mapplethorpe was a key figure in the development of late 20th century American art. Do not tune into the new movie (premiering on HBO, April 4), to see Debbie Harry or Brooke Shields. Tune in to look at the pictures themselves, and to see a portrait of the man who dreamed them.