I have to confess that I came to Frank Pierson’s film Dirty Pictures (2000) with some serious biases. As my readers from late in the last century know, I never joined the Robert Mapplethorpe fan club. I still consider him a skilled portraitist but a second-drawer neo-pictorialist, with a sideline in directorial imagery concentrating on the gay SM scene. So I never understood the extraordinary fuss made over him and his work by his admirers.
(Full disclosure: An encounter with Mapplethorpe and his lover-cum-patron Sam Wagstaff, and Wagstaff’s subsequent attempt to get me fired from my New York University adjunct teaching position as a “Marxist,” did not dispose me kindly toward either of them as individuals, though I do my best to sort such baggage out and set it aside in my writing.)
Moreover, I don’t much care for the docudrama as a filmic form. I’d rather watch a standard documentary film or video than a staged reenactment of an event, anytime. I know how the story comes out, after all, it’s already on the record; in that case, I prefer journalism to fictionalization or dramaturgy. I distrust projects that blur the line between sociology and theater. Call me old-school.
So this film starts out with several strikes against it, from my standpoint. It tells, or more precisely re-tells, the story of Dennis Barrie, the director of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), who in 1990 went on trial for showing the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective “The Perfect Moment,” organized by the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) in Philadelphia. This case, Cincinnati v. Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, constituted one of the key battles in what became known as the Culture Wars, which I won’t try to recap here; plenty of sources on that exist for anyone too young to remember those days or somehow oblivious to them. (The Wikipedia entry on this subject is a good place to start.) To make a long story short, Barrie and the CAC were acquitted of all charges by the jury, a legal precedent with free-expression ramifications that make my assessment of Mapplethorpe’s achievement pale by comparison.
To my surprise, I’ve ended up appreciating the film. Released on cable TV’s Showtime channel in 2000, a decade after the event, it’s distant enough in time to take a measured, meditative look at this cultural moment. Ilene Chaiken’s screenplay hews fairly closely to the facts (at least as I understand them). I haven’t compared the public statements and courtroom proceedings as depicted here with the actual news stories and transcripts, but they come close to what I recall as widely circulated quotations from those sources.
I could have done without the subtext concerning the effect of this struggle on Barrie’s home life with his wife and two young sons, but it was probably inevitable; you wouldn’t have gotten this film made in Hollywood without it. And it does make the point — a crucial and often-ignored one — that the experience of getting censored (or having an emotional involvement with someone who gets censored) has a deeply demoralizing effect. I can attest to that from first-hand experience.
The film departs from the cookie-cutter docudrama mode in two ways. First, by incorporating bits of archival film footage of George Bush, Sr., Pat Buchanan, Sen. Al d’Amato, and Sen. Jessie Helms fulminating against Mapplethorpe, the National Endowment for the Arts, and other spawn of the devil, augmented by passages from a film of Mapplethorpe himself talking. Second, by breaking the frame periodically for short snippets of interviews made especially for this film, featuring some of the actual protagonists, as well as some observers of and commentators on the cultural scene of the time, from various sides of the spectrum: Fran Lebowitz, Bill T. Jones, Mary Boone, Salman Rushie, William F. Buckley, Susan Sarandon. This reminds me, both formally and stylistically, of what Warren Beatty did in his 1981 film Reds; it’s effective in giving the viewer an ongoing sense that the film is grounded in fact and intends to consider the multiple perspectives, pro and con.
I think it achieves that goal. Moreover, old-school though I am in relation to the docudrama mode, I have to take into account the fact that the majority of the present generation (now two full generations younger than me) doesn’t really consider a historical event to have happened unless they’ve seen a color movie of it — and not just a color documentary film in the classic mode, but a fictionalized version with a cast and director and ace cinematography. World War II for them isn’t William L. Shirer plus Margaret Bourke-White at Buchenwald; it’s Band of Brothers plus Schindler’s List. They’re willing to learn about history, politics, current events; it’s just that Michael Moore has to drive an ice-cream truck around Capitol Hill to get their attention. (I think of this as Dead Poets Society Syndrome, but that’s another discussion.)
To his credit, director Frank Pierson doesn’t shy away from discussion of the content of Mapplethorpe’s imagery — unlike the expert witnesses called by the CAC/Barrie defense team, who come across as studies in elitist obscurantism. (That’s particularly true of Janet Kardon of the ICA, who curated the show.) Pierson also insists on showing many of the toughest and most controversial Mapplethorpe gay/SM images in the film, full-screen, some of them more than once. He also doesn’t flinch at pointing up the art world’s pandemic insularity, or the snobbism embedded in its circle-the-wagons response to the Culture Wars, or the dazzle-’em-with-bullshit quality of the art-world experts’ testimony.
The cast, headed by James Woods as curator Barrie and Craig T. Nelson as County Sheriff Simon Leis, does a thoroughly workmanlike job of making their characters plausible and engaging. I don’t know Barrie, so I can’t speak to the logic of casting Woods in that role; but while I think he’s a fine actor he always exudes an undercurrent of self-serving amorality that doesn’t stand his character in particularly good stead here. However, he received several nominations for his performance, and the film won a 2001 Golden Globe award for Best Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for TV. I think it deserved it, for taking on a charged and difficult subject and keeping the focus mainly on the issues involved, or at least on the way those issues were understood at the time. All in all, it treats its themes in an even-handed, thoughtful, and determinedly unsensationalized way.
That doesn’t make it a great film. But it’s a watchable one. It also includes material (those interviews and news clips) difficult or impossible to find elsewhere. The Culture Wars constituted one of the rare moments in American history in which photographs and photography took center stage in the national consciousness. It was the medium’s most “teachable moment” to date. I don’t think that moment got taught well. Many of its embedded lessons got overlooked or misrepresented, not least as a result of the art world’s reliance on formalist mumbo-jumbo to justify and defend work being challenged on its content.
With that said, if I wanted to take a class of students back to that moment, to teach it myself again today some two decades down the line, I might well start with this movie. Not my highest praise, I admit. I hope that, for Pierson and Chaiken and Woods and company, as Randy Newman sings in a very different context, “Now that may not be love/But it is all right.”