At some point in the future, if we haven’t already, every artist who made their mark on the 20th century will have a documentary about them. Most will be informative in the Wikipedia/”American Masters” sense, interesting to people who already have an interest.
There was a stretch where these films were borderline therapy sessions for children of important people (eg The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack by the daughter of folk singer Jack Elliot o My Architect by the son of the architect Louis Kahn). Others have successfully adopted a hyper-specific point of view, such as Gerhard Richter Painting (the last word is a verb, not a noun) or I Can’t Stand Losing You: Survive the Policewhich juxtaposes rock guitarist Andy Summers (considered the Police’s least interesting member thus far) and his “direct from Babylon” stock photos that he snapped from concert tours of yesteryear.
Laura Poitras’ film about photographer Nan Goldin, All the beauty and bloodshed, is interesting because they are essentially two films in one which, in the end, combine to create a complete picture of its subject. It’s extremely intelligent and deeply moving, and it wins by winning essence of Goldin’s current and past work, without trying too hard to imitate his style. The film, which won first prize at the Venice Film Festival (extremely rare for a documentary), is among the best of the year in any category.
Goldin may seem, at first blush, a notch down in gravitas for a typical Poitras subject. His previous films have profiled Edward Snowden (Citizenfour), Julian Assange (Risk), and people with direct ties to Osama bin Laden (The oath). You wouldn’t expect a photographer who made his name shooting drag queens at loft parties to be next on the list.
This is in no way denying that previous work (there is ample evidence in All the beauty and bloodshed than Goldin’s resume rules), but the 69-year-old artist currently has a new quest: an activist against the loathsome Sackler family. And she is getting results.
The Sacklers, of course, are the billionaires behind Purdue Pharma, the company that made OxyContin, lying to doctors about its harm. (Watch the series Stupid if you want to get stomach sick.) Goldin herself got hooked on the stuff after surgery and nearly died. She then realized she had a unique opportunity to impact the family in a way few others could: She could use her influence as a contemporary artist to shame art institutions that, for years, have received donations from the Sacklers in exchange for naming rights. After staging elaborate (and, it shouldn’t be surprising, very camera-ready) protests at venues like the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, her group (and those aligned with her) have been in able to make definitive changes. (Good luck finding the “Sackler Wing” in many of these places now.) The Sacklers, while found guilty by many courts, have gotten away with largely no problems thanks to loopholes in nearly every arena other than the world of art.
Riding with Goldin and company as he takes direct action is played out in counterpoint to a look back at his biography. Luckily, most of Goldin’s life (at least the really interesting stuff) has already been carefully curated: she’s been the source of his artwork. His breakthrough was putting together a “happening” called The Ballad of Sexual Addictiona slideshows his photographs of downtown characters set to music in a cool space. No two showings were ever the same, and she fed off one night’s response to make adjustments the next. Those who attended were there, in part, to see for themselves, but then they went on to make art and film and live robust, show-inspired lives. Goldin’s work has become the eye of a self-replicating hurricane.
Poitras takes his time going through these images (sometimes set to music that was actually used at the time, like the Velvet Underground and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) but more often than not the counterpoint in sound is new Goldin interview footage which is honest about his not too great upbringing. While none of this has been kept secret in his work—such as his older sister’s suicide, Eisenhower’s very conformist attitudes of his parents, his strange awakening, and previous bouts of addiction—it all comes to a substantial revelation at a climax. . In short, while the film appears to be going in two unrelated directions, there was a great deal of consistency to his great life’s work. (You can, and should, watch the movie yourself to piece together.)
All the beauty and bloodshed it’s a deep film, but it’s also a lot of fun (provided you’re not too tense). Nan Goldin isn’t a shocking artist, per se, but some elements of her life are a bit shocking. The way she paid for the cab ride from the Bowery to a Midtown gallery to dodge boxes of photos got a kind of “come back again?” out of me. Poitras’ other films may appear superficially more “important,” but this is certainly his most watchable.