Mapplethorpe: Look at the pictures

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Scandal suited Robert Mapplethorpe. He wore it proudly, like a scarlet cloak. . .

That notoriety has evolved, these days, into a hushed, academic reverence. His photographs are not produced in court on charges of obscenity now, but hang on the walls of major galleries around the world (the National Gallery of Australia owns over 60 of them). The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation sells tasteful notecards and Limoges porcelain decorated with his images of flowers. Despite this latter-day respectability, we should never ignore the power of his images to brutally shock and challenge how we view our bodies and ourselves. A new documentary film from Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, released in Australia this month, is an important reminder of his importance as an artist who used a camera.

Mapplethorpe was a complex, ruthlessly ambitious figure: an egoistic pansexual charmer, more than willing to use relationships to further his career. This is as nothing, however, next to his mastery of photography. Whatever his subject, the image – always in black-and-white – creates a still space around it, compelling the viewer’s contemplation and challenging us to see it (and our response) afresh.

Mapplethorpe first came to prominence for portraits taken when he was living with Patti Smith at New York’s Chelsea Hotel in the 1970s: not only of Smith’s fellow-musicians like Iggy Pop, Deborah Harry, and Laurie Anderson, but established figures, including Truman Capote, William Burroughs, and Susan Sontag. He was soon a sought-after portraitist. There were his exquisite photographs of flowers too, familiar now from ubiquitous calendars and posters. It was photography of the human body, though, which Mapplethorpe commanded as his own terrain.

Between zoology and pornography lies – sprawls – the art of the nude.

Mapplethorpe refused to acknowledge any distinction between these categories, judging the tasteful ‘artistic’ nude a hypocritical fiction which denied an essential part of our humanity. As Sir Kenneth Clarke acknowledged in his seminal study on the topic, ‘No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even if it be only the faintest shadow – and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals’.

There is often more than ‘vestigial’ erotic feeling aroused by Mapplethorpe’s nude studies, mostly of beautiful, young black men.

‘Photography and sexuality have a lot in common,’ he explains. ‘Both are question marks, and that’s precisely what excites me most in life.’

Friends and lovers, dancers, porn stars, and body builders (including Arnold Schwarzenegger) were all called before his camera to create images full of this questioning. Whatever is pictured – however shocking – has an anatomical exactitude emphasised by the lighting, by the precision of black-and-white film, and most of all by Mapplethorpe’s skill with the camera. Each image invites contemplation. The poses are often reminiscent of classical statuary, with an abstract beauty of form, heads cropped out so that a face does not distract from our focus on the naked body. The studies of body builder, Lisa Lyon, are typical. Lisa is sexually provocative as she poses naked but for a wedding veil or coating of dried mud, yet also challenges the viewer’s reaction as she simultaneously flexes her enormous muscles. Is this art? A porn shoot? A bodybuilder’s catalogue?  The only answer is yes to all, and more . . .

Many of Mapplethorpe’s images are far more overtly erotic. Acts of sexual penetration and nudes with erect penises are recorded with the same skill, dispassionate curiosity, and artistic gaze as Mapplethorpe gives to the unfurling petals of an orchid. Patti Smith comments on these photographs, ‘As Cocteau said of a Genet poem, “His obscenity is never obscene”‘.

In 1989, the refusal of Washington DC’s Corcoran Gallery to display an exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s photographs sparked a national controversy in the US about art and obscenity. Senator Jesse Helms fulminated publicly about the images, dismissing them as ‘blasphemy’. In the following years, reproductions of his photographs were periodically confiscated as illegal pornography, including a seizure by South Australia Police in 2000. In all cases, the photographs were eventually judged to be not ‘obscene’ and returned. In response to this condemnation, some critics have described his images in defensive, highly aesthetic language, rhapsodising in precious terms about how they resemble Renaissance paintings.

The perceptions of Mapplethorpe’s photographs as both pornographic and deeply serious art are actually both true. He intended these images to be challenging. ‘He loved to get a jolt out of people,’ recalls a friend in the documentary. In doing so, he dares us to contemplate these scenes innocently, without judgement, and to examine our own tumble of responses: shock, arousal, curiosity, awe, and even humour. In the words of Roman dramatist, Terence, Mapplethorpe’s challenge to the viewer is, ‘I am human; nothing human is strange to me’.

When Jesse Helms waved a sheaf of Mapplethorpe’ photographs in the US Senate, excoriating their obscenity, he shouted, ‘Just look at the pictures!’ as though this were enough to condemn them. In a fitting irony, film makers, Bailey and Barbato, have taken Helms at his word, and used the phrase as the title of their new documentary.

Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is showing at Palace Cinemas in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide during May and June 2016, as part of the Essential Independents: American Cinema Now series.

 

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Image: Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Polio: the great terror

Polio epidemics were an annual source of terror until 50 years ago, leaving thousands of children dead, disabled (having to wear metal callipers on their legs), or condemned to life in an iron lung, like a coffin with your head sticking out.

I wish every ‘anti-vaxxer’ in the country could read this book, which I review in this month’s Australian Book Review.

Do you want to know a secret?

A secret, once told, is a secret no longer . . .

Once shared, a secret hardens into ‘a fact’, one of those awkward, sharp-edged pieces of reality that we have to accommodate in our lives. Have you ever kept a secret from those closest to you? No? Not one, ever . . ? We all do at some time, of course (even it’s a matter of being ‘economical with the truth’). The universal excuse we make is that it saves hurting people’s feelings. And that’s not something easily dismissed.

But what would happen if our deepest secrets were made brutally visible to everyone? If some Edward Snowden of the heart decided the world would be a better place without lies? What would be the consequences of truth? This is the terrifying question at the heart of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, which Simon Stone has adapted in his first movie, The Daughter.

Film versions of stage plays are notoriously difficult to carry off, usually trapped in a box of static interior action (with the occasional exterior shot for atmosphere). In The Daughter, Stone does not attempt to make a film version of his acclaimed Belvoir Theatre adaptation of The Wild Duck, but re-imagines the play again entirely against the backdrop of the Snowy Mountains. The extended opening scene shows a beautiful, still high country landscape. Vast banks of mist cushion the mountains, as though insulating them from harsher realities beyond. At last the crack of a gunshot shatters the peace, and the action begins.

Oliver (Ewen Leslie) works at the local timber mill which is closing down. He breaks the news to his wife Charlotte (Miranda Otto) and daughter, Hedvig (Odessa Young). They are a strong, loving family, and you feel they are tough enough to weather this challenge. Oliver’s father, Walter (Sam Neill) lives in a caravan behind their house, pottering around and looking after wounded animals and birds (wild duck alert). Modest domestic scenes between the four of them are surprisingly moving, a testimony to superb acting talent as well as Stone’s script and direction.

Up at the ‘big house’ meanwhile (filmed at Camden Park House, NSW), the local landowner, Henry (Geoffrey Rush), is preparing for his marriage to Anna (Anna Torv). She is young enough to be his daughter, but it only seems crass when someone points out the age difference. They clearly love one another. The closure of his timber mill has been shrugged off; Henry evidently has plenty of other assets. Christian (Paul Schneider), his son from a first marriage, returns after 16 years in the US for the wedding. When Christian meets Oliver (they are old school friends), a spark arcs between the two families. A circuit is closed, and the destruction of their peaceful existence begins. Henry’s carefully-named son is like a serpent bringing the curse of knowledge into their garden of innocence. If he cannot be happy, then nor shall anyone else.

As Christian exposes the secret, and then the secret-within-the-secret, everything leads back to his father, Henry. Geoffrey Rush loves vaudeville and clowning and draws on these traditions in some of his film roles, but he has a nice line in buttoned-up, conflicted middle-aged men too. It is a delight to see him act so minimally here by force of character it seems, rather than through grand speech or gesture. Henry is nothing but polite and considerate to the other characters. He is anxious to please and do the best for everyone, providing generous packages to the workers at the mill when it closes. Yet in the end, everything is his fault. It could also be said that nothing is his fault either. The action of the play unfolds with the inevitability of a Greek drama, as though it were all fated to happen.

Henry’s crimes and misdemeanours might be blamed on his sense of privilege, but secrets are not the prerogative of any social class. Adjusting other people’s view of the world, by what we say and do not say, is intrinsic to how we operate. Secrets great and small are part of the human condition. Exploring the consequences of this was Ibsen’s project, and is Simon Stone’s too in this new movie. It seeks to understand not to condemn.

While the men in the story are rendered helpless or crumble under the weight of the truth, it is the two main female characters who remain strong and decisive. Charlotte rushes into action to prevent the secret escaping, desperately trying to hold the hold the men together as they emotionally collapse. It is Hedvig, her fifteen year-old daughter though – as luminously played by Odessa Young – who is at the centre of the movie. She is the kind of girl you might have yearned to have as a friend at school: intelligent and conscientious, tomboyish and sexually adventurous with her boyfriend, always ready with smartass remarks yet warm, loving, and close to both her parents. When she, too, learns the secret, Hedvig’s reaction is the most mature of all the characters. By this time, though, her father has been reduced to a snivelling, angry mess, unable to respond. She then takes the decision which reverberates long after the closing credits.

For his debut movie, Stone wisely ensured he had some of the best in the business on his team: Jan Chapman as a producer, Andrew Commis as cinematographer, and Veronika Jenet as editor, among others. His direction is assured and subtle, as in the slow, horrific exposure of Christian from fresh-faced prodigal to the demonic messenger he truly is, haunting the corridors and shadows of the great house where he grew up, and where actions first became secrets. Particularly impressive is the way Stone works with his actors to convey emotional intensity and meaning through scenes of quiet intensity, as when Hedvig silently watches from the school bus when her boyfriend packs up to leave town without having had the courage to tell her.

The Daughter is a masterly film.

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HelenHayward

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As babies we find out a lot about the world we are born into by deciding what we want to swallow and what we want to spit out – the good from the bad, the delicious from the gross. Before we have words we put the world in our mouth. We love things by chewing on them. Our likes and dislikes, what we want and what we don’t, are sucked on or spurned. Whatever we can grab we mouth. Or we’ll just stare at it, lying on our backs in a nappy.

On growing up we quickly become expert in what we don’t want – our No is nearly always more energetically defended than our Yes. Our whole world, as children, is reassuringly black and white. Either we embrace it or we keep at bay. What is bad is yuk, to be mistrusted and quickly gotten rid of. What we…

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