Thursday, September 27, 2007

More VIFFery: Black White + Grey and One Way Street on a Turntable

Two very different documentaries at this year's film festival touch on the work of Frankfurt School theorist Walter Benjamin, one peripherally, one centrally.

1. Black, White + Grey: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe

An interview with James Crump

James Crump's Black, White + Grey: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe, begins with a quote from Walter Benjamin, taken from “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century:" "The collector is the true resident of the interior. He makes his concern the transfiguration of things... The collector dreams his way not only into a distant or bygone world but also into a better one." It's a brilliantly chosen epigraph: the idea that the collector is creating a sort of personal utopia, a better world, more suited to his tastes and needs, is extremely important to Crump's film, which deals with a very significant, though now neglected, collector and tastemaker, who, it seems, used art in very much this way. Sam Wagstaff - patron, older lover, and upper-echelon passport to a young and ambitious Robert Mapplethorpe - did much to get photography taken seriously as a fine art form and as an investment; he did even more to help Mapplethorpe. Unfortunately, he has nearly been forgotten, today - something which Crump sets out to rectify. Based on the interest in his film, I'd say he succeeds.

I interviewed James Crump for Xtra West - it's in the issue that just came out today. I thought I'd offer a few interesting outtakes here. Crump talked about discovering various images that had never been seen before, when doing research at the Getty (where Wagstaff's photography collection ended up).

"Sam had a Leica camera, and had always shot snapshots. Since he was a kid, he was interested in photography; he was part of a camera club at Hotchkiss, for instance. And he took those autoportraits with that Leica, and so when – there’s over ten thousand of those snapshots. A lot of them have not been seen or reviewed – they’re still in the drugstore developing envelopes in which they were sort of reposited at the Getty. And so when I was doing my research – I was fascinated by it. They were definitely private images." Some of these - autoerotic self-portraits - have never been seen before, and appear in the film. "It’s a daunting collection of snapshots, and he wasn’t a very good photographer, actually, but the autoportraits I thought were suggestive and really interesting, and showed a side of him that he wasn’t always sharing. I thought they were really interesting documents."

Wagstaff, as my Xtra West article details, came from an upper crust, conservative background, part of which meant - as the film details - he had to remain closeted and attend deb balls and such. Mapplethorpe's former roommate and close friend Patti Smith talks in the film about how it was the one area of Sam's life where she sensed deep pain. The younger, more daring Mapplethorpe - engaged in more open rebellion towards the values of his working class Catholic upbringing - served as Wagstaff's guide to the darker realms of S&M and gay sex clubs, and was a liberating force for Wagstaff, 26 years his senior (the bulk of my Xtra West article deals with this). Though the film doesn't show anything too shocking or in-your-face, it's not because such images don't exist (the famous image of Mapplethorpe with a bullwhip stuck in his ass can be viewed here, by the way. Stick THAT on your desktop!) As the director explained,

"There were sex photographs taken of Sam by Robert. I never saw these, but I tried to find a collection that I was told about by a dealer who is no longer alive in New York City named Richard York; he once wrote me and told me that there were sex photographs of Sam by Robert, and I think also they did some autoportraits together of themselves. But I never saw those. But I did see – Sam photographed young guys, for instance, in some sexual situations, and those were part of that snapshot collection in Los Angeles. They’re probably of legal age, by how they look, probably 18-19-20 years old..." Crump "wasn’t able to use those," alas, and still get his documentary shown to a wide audience.

The film sensitively, if briefly, also deals with the issue of AIDS. Both Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe died of it, the older man in 1987, the younger in 1989. Mapplethorpe - I'm told one of the first artists to document the devestation wrought by the virus – took photographs of Sam during his illness, Crump tells me. “There’s a contact sheet in the film, very near the end of his life. It’s six pictures on a page – those represent that period.” A 1978 portrait of Sam by Mapplethorpe served as the cover of Sam’s memorial card.

“I think Sam was very discreet about it. Everyone I talked to said he didn’t talk about it. It was kept very quiet. I think people were surprised by how swift it went through the gay community, and how it decimated so many people so fast,” Crump says. He can only speculate on Wagstaff’s feelings, based on what people who knew him said. “I think he was probably just resentful at not having more time to do what he wanted to do. As Patti Smith says in the film, he was annoyed by it, by not being able to keep on with what his passions were.” \

According to Patricia Morrisroe, Mapplethorpe's biographer, the younger man was somewhat resentful that Wagstaff spent much of his last year amassing a collection of American silver for a planned show, since he saw it taking away from his inheritance. In fact, Mapplethorpe would also inherit the silver, along with the bulk of Wagstaff's money - which he used to set up the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, shortly before he died. Not everyone who knew both Mapplethorpe and Wagstaff speaks highly of the photographer in the film, though Patti Smith - who is probably the warmest of the people interviewed - emphasizes that Robert really loved Sam.

Crump informs me that though he appreciates the impulse to collect, he isn't really a collector himself. "I’ve got a few photographs and I love them, and I’ve come across them through being close to the photography market and photography community for a number of years, but I wouldn’t call myself a collector." Crump had edited two books for Arena Editions on the work of Robert Mapplethorpe. "One was called Pictures, which was the sex photographs – that was 1998. The second book was in ’99 or 2000; it’s called Autoportrait. It’s the early self-portrait Polaroids by Robert Mapplethorpe."

Some of the film's detractors have felt that the film fails to delve deeply enough into Wagstaff's sexual life, as did I, in fact; perhaps I'm just more interested in S&M and inner conflict than I am in the history of photography. Still, the film shouldn't be criticized too harshly; it does what it does well enough that it's a bit perverse to fault it for not doing something else entirely. Crump's film is a tad chilly, but very informative - I liked it more on second viewing, actually. It will have its first Vancouver screening at 4:30 PM Friday, at the Pacific Cinematheque.

2. One Way Street on a Turntable

I think I liked this film more than any other film that I've seen and completely failed to understand.

I was challenged in my viewing of it on various counts. I am acutally unsure of the relationship between this film and the work of Walter Benjamin (which, I confess, I don't know that deeply; nor do I know the previous work of experimental documentarian Anson Mak, nor have I been to Hong Kong - the place central to the film, though I hesitate to call it either its "subject" or "setting"). The title, and perhaps some of the spoken text in the film, refers to a famous non-critical piece of Benjamin's, offering advice to writers and critics. I can't really say how exactly this relates to the film's subject, though; the film is a meditation on "movement" "rootlessness," and being "fixed" in a city that is ever changing, and probably thereby a meditation on identity. To complicate matters further, I have imperfectly previewed the film - the version I've seen was quite glitchy, with large chunks missing and imperfect subtitles; the spoken text read throughout the film (by a non-native speaker) was often difficult to understand, and the English quotes that appeared onscreen attributed to Benjamin didn't seem to match up with those in the piece I just linked. Add to all this the complex nature of the project, and there is much that I still haven't processed - though I did see at least 40 minutes of the film, and... well... it sure was interesting.

Let's put it this way: for anyone interested in experiments with the film form - regardless of whether you're conversant with the Frankfurt school or Hong Kong's history or such -- this is a really striking and lovely experience. The turntable reference in the title alludes to sampling technology; much of this film is made up of audio and video samples, often manipulated, juxtaposed with split-screens, and layered atop one another. At the peak of its complexity, there were four screens playing different images, all of Hong Kong. Some were archival -- some black and white, some colour --and played in apposition to grainy, altered super 8 footage of a woman who I presume was the director wandering around the city. Three distinct soundtracks played against the four screens: one channel was English, one in - oh, hell, I'm not sure if it was Mandarin or Cantonese; can I just say "Chinese" and not sound like a vulgarian? - and one audio track of schoolchildren singing. At one point, the English and Chinese narration switched channels -- all this jam-packed into about three minutes of film. Not all of the film is quite that busy, and there are many quiet and meditative passages, as well, but the overall effect is not unlike watching Burroughs/Balch cut up experiments (download "The Cut Ups," in particular, if you're not sure what I mean); it's a lot to process, but the very challenges of processing the unusual grammar of the film are stimulating and engaging. You'll be happy to surrender to its rhythms for the sheer aesthetic pleasure they provide, even if you completely give up hope of accessing the film's theses. And if you happen to be a cultural studies critic from Hong Kong - I envy you your being able to draw that much more deeply from this film than I. Find me in the audience and explain it to me: it plays October 1st at the Granville 7 and October 4th at the Cinematheque.

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