With a title that echoes the scalding indignation of the late Sen. Jesse Helms, HBO’s thorough documentary “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” does just that — it looks intently at the range of beautiful and provocative photographs produced by Robert Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989.
Unless the viewer is seeing the work for the first time (the bullwhip, the tumescence, the rubber suits and constraints), what’s striking about the film is the possibility of becoming inured to the images. We’ve looked and looked at them, senator, and although no one will ever say these pictures are boring, over time they have been co-opted, elevated and revered. To that end, “Look at the Pictures” (airing Monday) follows a group of museum curators as they sift through the artist’s considerable archives for a J. Paul Getty Museum and Los Angeles County Museum of Art retrospective that is so comprehensive it’s actually two exhibitions (currently on view).
The care and rigorous intellectual regard with which the curators unbox and discuss Mapplethorpe’s belongings and photographs — many of which document the most hedonistic and sadomasochistic aspects of gay male sexuality in New York in the 1970s and ’80s — marks a considerable distance from the context and grit that created them.
Filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, whose previous documentaries include “Inside Deep Throat” (the porn movie, not the Watergate source) and “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” (an honest and moving portrait of the teary televangelist), seem most interested in the clinical deification that has visited Mapplethorpe’s life and work in the 25 years since Helms, a North Carolina conservative Republican, and others attacked the work and held Mapplethorpe up as the filthiest example of degenerate art they could find.
Ensuing controversies over a 1989 retrospective, “The Perfect Moment,” led to protests and counter-protests. Washington’s Corcoran Gallery famously chickened out of exhibiting it. In the process, Mapplethorpe (already dead of AIDS) became a patron saint of free expression and gay rights.
But as “Look at the Pictures” demonstrates through its absorbing biographical scope, Mapplethorpe wasn’t an idealist, nor was he always a fun guy to be around. (“Life’s about using people and being used by people, that’s what a relationship is all about,” he says in a recorded interview.)
In addition to describing his talent and passion, many friends, colleagues, siblings and lovers attest to the man’s darkest and most temperamental aspects: his opportunism, his drive, his casual and even cruel use of the people around him. It’s a far cry from the wide-eyed dreamer that Patti Smith portrayed in “Just Kids,” her award-winning 2010 memoir of her early bond with Mapplethorpe. (They drifted apart after she hit it big as a singer; Smith is mentioned as little as possible in this film.)
“[Mapplethorpe] looked kind of like a ruined cupid,” the writer Fran Lebowitz tells Bailey and Barbato. “And he was very reliant on his charm. . . . He made great use of it, by which I mean productive to Robert. [He] didn’t think anything was wrong with his ambition.”
One ex-lover, Jack Fritscher, even takes a moment to try to describe how Mapplethorpe was drawn to the sinister side of human nature. (“The demon within. . . . I want to see the devil in us all,” is how Mapplethorpe once described it.)
Just as Fritscher begins to describe how his friend Mapplethorpe considered Satan “a convivial playmate” and perhaps took the sadomasochism and religious martyr imagery too far, he’s drowned out by a lawn mower or some other noise outside the window, followed by a chill wind. It’s a slightly eerie moment and it achieves at least one of the goals for “Look at the Pictures”: It restores a sense of the forbidden to Mapplethorpe that’s been lost in the years of worship.
Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (109 minutes) airs Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO, with encores.