Mapplethorpe: The Director’s Cut
Directed by Ondi Timoner
Samuel Goldwyn Films

When I watched Mike Leigh’s 2014 film, Mr. Turner, I knew little about its subject, British Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner, who, before he died in 1851, arguably revolutionized painting. I knew little of the man—his personality, his art career, his relationships. I had seen some of his paintings before and had been struck by their lumimous visions, so much drama in something as simple as a red sunset or a dark-ash sea or a sky swept into a typhoon. When I watched the film, I hoped its creator would make good on that storytelling maxim: Tell the readers something new about something they care about.

And I did learn something new—that his artistic star ascended early; that he had awkward, abusive relationships with women; and that he sometimes touched on social issues in his paintings. On the last score, I still search out the fiery, hellish sky that spans Slavers, Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying (1840), with its murky slashes of waves almost swallowing any signs of life, yet, among the manacles, limbs, a leg, outstretched arms, remain for one vital moment longer so that the viewer can witness the brutality.

When the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is your subject, as it is in Mapplethorpe: The Director’s Cut, the maxim, Tell the readers (or in this case viewers) something new about something they care about, becomes a tall order. We are awash in information (lore, as well) about the photographer: biographies by Patti Smith and Jack Fritscher, to name two; academic treatises, panel discussions, and magazine articles; documentaries and news clips about “obscenity” and federal arts funding.

We are also awash in his own images. They live in our bedrooms and in museums around the world. In the past couple of years, I have seen two shows in New York City, where I live, without even trying. Even now, glancing up from my laptop as I write this, I see that my roommate has on his bookcase shelf a weighty tome of Mapplethorpe photographs.

So, I didn’t envy director Ondi Timoner, who wrote the script with Mikko Alanne, and lead actor Matt Smith their task, trying to tell viewers something new about something they care about. They succeed. Timoner resists the explosive whirlwind of his later life and instead opts for the steady breeze that builds into cool stardom. Here we see evolution, not revolution.

MAPPLETHORPE director Ondi Timoner and lead Matt Smith. Photo courtesy O. Timoner

Even monumental shifts are presented quietly, presenting a rather isolated Mapplethorpe as both timid and self-assured. Indeed, the most emotional scene belongs to Milton Moore (McKinley Belcher III), Mapplethorpe’s model and lover, who, disgusted with the photographer’s embrace of white-privileged desire, smashes a glass-framed portrait on his way out. The film hangs together with a series of beautiful moments of interiority, like when Mapplethorpe waits on a fire escape for his brother, Edward (Brandon Sklenar), to arrive, or waits in bed with Patti as their dreams take shape, or when he waits outside a leather bar to gather his nerve, or when he waits for death in a hospital bed, flashes of his life fluttering like a camera shutter. Like many artists trying to make a name for themselves, the film seems to say, Mapplethorpe became good at waiting.

The film deftly catalogues Mapplethorpe’s biography, from his Floral Park rebellion to his friendship with Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón), and from his frustration to the doors of the art world slammed in his face to his meteoric rise, thanks in part to Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey), his mentor and lover. We are invited to witness his deep dive into craft and a queer imagistic space he created where calla lilies coexist with kink, his burgeoning sexual agency (including its racial politics), and the pain of familial rejection, sharpest, perhaps, when he receives a bouquet of flowers he thinks is from his father. Smith captures Mapplethorpe’s “shy pornographer,” as Wagstaff calls him in one scene, with an intelligent expressiveness. Throughout, Smith plays him as that boy we see at the start of the film, taking pictures in a church, trying to make sense of its iconography and his relationship to it, a Möbius strip of sorts made of the sacred and the profane. Along with cinematography and set design that lovingly recreates New York in the 1970s and 1980s, and direction that aims for plain honesty above all else, Smith’s portrayal is like the propulsive heartbeat/drumbeat that underscores a montage of some of Mapplethorpe’s more iconic photographs in the film’s title sequence.

In one scene, after Mapplethorpe has gained some fame, the photographer tells a group of sex partners: “All these art snobs think they’re so cutting edge. I take out my portfolio and I show them the bullwhip up my ass. If they blink or they look away then they just can’t handle it because they’re not so fucking cutting edge after all.” Later, however, he plays gatekeeper himself, when brother Edward and he are in the same show and the bill features both of their names, two Mapplethorpes. Robert insists that Edward change his name, ostensibly to prove himself in the art world sans any coattail riding. His loft has become a castle, and he inhabits to some extent the role of gatekeeper. I wish the film explored this tension more in a final act, but maybe that kind of synthesis was not possible. Mapplethorpe’s life, like many others who died of AIDS-related complications, was cut short. We cannot follow them into their elder years, like we do with J.M.W. Turner, and see the wisdom gained; we only see the wisdom in the making.

Mapplethorpe: The Director’s Cut is streaming on Hulu, Amazon, iTunes, GooglePlay, Kanopy, FandangoNow, and Vudu.

Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.