Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Dec 12, 2022 1:52 pm 
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Laura Poitras's big new documentary focuses on several subjects, all united by her good friend the photographer and activist Nan Goldin. Goldin narrates, starting with her unhappy childhood in the Boston suburb of Arlington overshadowed by the suicide at 18 of her older sister, who threw herself in front of a train. It's more than hinted that Goldin's parents' upbringing of both sisters was damaging. The life is one thread, growing into the other thread of her art, lurid-beautiful confessional photographs that in turn grew out of her lifestyle, the hard drugs subculture of the Bowery in New York in the Eighties, and the intimate lives of her many friends, including photographer David Armstrong, whom she'd known since they were in their teens in Arlington, Mass.

The snapshot aesthetic of these images at first was rejected by gallerists she showed her bundles of photos to. Nonetheless they were the fruit of a keen aesthetic eye, and a dogged determination. Whatever else she was doing she was snapping, like Larry Clark, the photographer-speed freak in Seventies Tulsa whose ever-present camera his fellow addicts learned to respect. But while Clark's technique wasn't Ansel Adams, his images were classically austere black and white. Nan's were intense, gooey color, not to the gallerist's taste. (As a devotee of classic photography one may have set Nan Goldin's work aside, despite buying Sally Eauclaire's 1981 The New Color Photography.) Finally someone told Nan to bring more, she came with a boxload, and her career was launched.

The slideshow with music "Ballad of Sexual Dependency" (including Velvet Underground, James Brown, Nina Simone, Charles Aznavour, Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Petula Clark) also became a book. Now Goldin's work is in many museum collections. This inclusion becomes significant in Poitras' documentary because later, Goldin became addicted to OxyContin, and after what sounds like multiple rehabs, together with a group of artists, activists, and people living with addiction in late 2017 she founded the activist organization known as PAIN or [url=""]P.A.I.N. Sackler[/url], focused first of all on "the toxic philanthropy of the billionaire Sackler family," who, PAIN's website says, "ignited the opioid overdose epidemic with their blockbuster drug, OxyContin."

The unity of Poitras' film arises in part from the fact that the activism Nan Goldin has led against the Sacker family, pressing, ultimately with success - a positive outcome of the film - for multiple museums to stop accepting donations from the Sackers and, importantly, to take down the Sackler name in so many museum spaces, the "Sackler Galleries," "Sackler Wings," and the Temple of Dendera in the Metropolitan Museum in New York - these demonstrations have been staged in great museums, the Met, the Guggenheim, outside the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre, the Smithsonian, the Victoria and Albert, you name it - and they have been artistic happenings in themselves. The one at the Guggenheim, with its little clouds of "prescriptions" quoting a Sackler prediction that their new drug would cover the country, is particularly visual, but so are the showers of plastic pill bottles with custom PAIN labels, floating in the pool of a museum atrium. The Louvre was the first to take down the Sackler name from its museum spaces, but then the Guggenheim followed, and many others. Unfortunately, the US opioid epidemic continues to increase.

Nan Goldin is an engaging and articulate figure and everything this film has to say about her, her life, her work, and her campaign against opioids, is important and relevant and has a hard, intense edge to it. On the big screen the famous slides of the life in the Bowery take on the luminosity and beauty they were always meant to have. There is also a segment about AIDS. It is good, and important, to hear from David Wojnarowicz, the painter, photographer, writer, filmmaker, performance artist, songwriter/recording artist, and AIDS activist prominent in the East Village art, a contemporary of Goldin's who lived in the East Village and died of AIDS in his thirties. (His wonderfully titled book Memories that Smell Like Gasoline is back in print.)

With all this going on, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is both a personal and a collective work. It stands as a kind of collaboration between Poitras and Goldin. One might be tempted to say this is a departure - till one realizes that the 2014 Citizen Four is also a kind of collaboration, with Edward Snowden. This film doesn't have quite the immediate drama and thrust of that one, but it has plenty of thrust and drama nonetheless. Toward the end, there is news of how the Sackler family has salvaged its wealth through siphoning off money and then declaring bankruptcy of their company, Purdue Pharma. The legal proceedings including an online session in which two Sackler family members are forced to be confronted by alleged victims, including Goldin. But despite all this, the film is neither a documentary about the opioid crisis nor a demonstration of the Sacklers' complicity in it. It's a film about Nan Goldin's life, art, and activism.

All The Beauty and the Bloodshed, 113 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 3, 2022, where it won the Leone d'Oro, the first top prize of the festival to be awarded to a documentary since Gianfranco Rosi's 2013 Sacro GRA. The film has been shown in over two dozen major international festivals, includinyg Toronto, London, and (Oct. 7) New York, where it was the Centerpiece Film. US theatrical release Nov. 23, 2022 (NYC), Dec. 2 (LA). Screened at AMC Kabuki Dec. 11, 2022. Metacritic rating: 90%.


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