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(The amazing Sound Unseen music, film and art festival in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN) ran November 14-18.)

Like most Americans, I was first introduced to Matt Smith as the 11th incarnation of the Doctor on Doctor Who. That’s why a part of me will always feel a little scandalized by his darker roles. His performance in Womb haunts me to this day. I feel a bit like his mother when I see him bare his ass for extended periods of time on screen. “My stars, Matthew!” I think. “Is that really necessary?”

In regard to a biopic about “the Shy Pornographer,” Robert Mapplethorpe, it is necessary. Mapplethorpe would hate to be pigeonholed in such a way, but his legacy is, essentially, photos of butts and penises. This is acknowledged in the film when Mapplethorpe preps his colleagues for an upcoming exhibition. Even though Mapplethorpe aspired to be a “modern Michelangelo,” he knew that, “people will be expecting some cock.”

Mapplethorpe Director Ondi Timoner (Dig!) also knows this. More importantly, the woman knows how to capture difficult artists. She makes it seem perfectly reasonable – crucial, even – for the subject to get angry when someone tells him his behavior hurts people. It’s a tale as old as time. Hurting people is part of the process.

I went into this film knowing only the Patti Smith segments of the story, from her 2000 autobiography, Just Kids. Smith was exceedingly kind and forgiving every time she mentioned “Robert.” So, I wasn’t fully prepared for the extent of his dickery in Mapplethorpe. But Timoner does her best to telegraph his narcissism from the outset. The film opens with a young, uniformed Mapplethorpe regarding his reflection in a mirror, then kicks off the story with the (slightly fabricated) meeting of Patti and Robert in 1967.

Matt Smith’s natural charisma is his secret weapon in believably portraying the beautiful young artist who cast a spell on the New York art scene. And then there’s the accent. When Smith uttered his first lines, I steeled myself for the tell-tale syllables, which so often betray British actors. But they never came. Before long, his affected inflections blended seamlessly into the character. Smith embodies Mapplethorpe right down to the look behind his eyes. He is brash, sensual, and frank about his drive to create art no matter who drowns in his wake.

Cinematographer Nancy Schreiber utilizes the magic of 16mm and interspersed super 8 footage to time travel, despite crippling budgetary restrictions. Much of the film takes place in studio apartments and galleries, with very few exteriors. In a way, this serves the character, making him seem insular and focused on nothing but art. In reality, he got out a lot, which is how he met his many subjects in the underground LGBTQ scene of 1960s to 80s New York.

The narrative posits that Mapplethorpe had three formative romances. The first is Patti Smith, who is supportive, but leaves him when she grows tired of his lying. The second is Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey), Mapplethorpe’s most enduring partner and benefactor. The third is Milton (McKinley Belcher III), an African-American model who ultimately felt racially objectified by Mapplethorpe. As AIDS overtakes the LGBTQ community, Sam quips that Mapplethorpe’s work is becoming “a gallery of the dead”.

Mapplethorpe doesn’t shy away from the artist’s orientation, and does a decent job of portraying the complexities of non-traditional sexuality in a time when being out was both criminal and life-threatening, but having to hide also catalyzed the AIDS crisis.

Raised Catholic in Queens, a part of Mapplethorpe always believed in a vengeful, homophobic God, which the film illustrates in the form of a bad acid trip. That horrible lie was complicit in his untimely death. It wasn’t right for Mapplethorpe to keep amassing sexual partners whilst knowingly transmitting a death sentence. But sex between consenting adults should never warrant shame or punishment. It’s a horrific coincidence that AIDS is sexually transmitted and worked its way into a promiscuous culture. God doesn’t slut shame. People do that.

This is an honest film above all else. It doesn’t excuse Mapplethorpe’s transgressions, but it manages to celebrate his work in spite of them. Mapplethorpe was truly enchanted by the male member, regarding it as one would an orchid. He sought to provoke, but he also longed to normalize the sexual spectrum through his art. Timoner’s film honors his mission statement.

– Jessica Baxter (@tehBaxter)

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Jessica Baxter is a visual media critic with a background in filmmaking (including the 2005 award winning horror comedy short film, Snow Day, Bloody Snow Day). She began writing on the internet circa 2006, and spent 10 years as the Seattle City Editor for Not For Tourists. She’s been a contributing writer for Film Threat, Hammer to Nail and Screenrant. She also produces and co-hosts the podcasts Paid in Puke (covering female-driven films) and Really Weird Stuff: A Twin Peaks Podcast. She lives in Seattle, WA with her spouse, kids, and too many pets. In addition to movies, she loves singing, cool clouds, and pie. Follow her on twitter (for now) @tehbaxter and on BlueSky @thebaxter.

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