Saturday, June 16, 2007

Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe, at AFI Silverdocs

Black, White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe. (2007, Sundance Channel / Arthouse Films / Media GMBH, dir. Robert Crump, USA / Germany, not rated but probably would be NC-17, 75 min).

This documentary was shown in the Roundhouse Theater right next to the AFI/Silver at the Silverdocs festival (in Silver Spring, MD). The theater is normally a stage, with a 4:3 screen for DVD projection available. Some of the volunteers wore T-shirts that read "Independent Thinker."

The title of the film describes how it looks. There are a lot of stills, many of them by photographer Mapplethorpe, in black and white. Many of them are fantastic-looking industrial machinations from decades ago. Mapplethorpe’s reputation is, of course, well known: it drew the ire of Jesse Helms in Congress, and it almost got a museum director in Cincinnati prosecuted for obscenity. Just a few of the nude shots (that appear to have minors) do make one wonder about legality. Other shots simply show the more exaggerated aspects of the leather gay scene in New York.

The movie tells the full life story about art collector Sam Wagstaff, born to privilege, but coming of age in the 50s and forced to live a double life as a gay man. Born in 1922, he would serve quite honorably (if covertly) in the Navy during World War II as an officer, following a family tradition, and probably could have been a subject in Randy Shilts's book "Conduct Unbecoming" although I don't recall his being mentioned there. There is a lot said about the psychology of collecting things that I relate to; toward the end of his life, Wagstaff sold his collection, and started collecting silver! The photos show Wagstaff in time-lapse, from a young (quite handsome) to a middle aged man, quite gaunt, eventually to die of AIDS in 1987 at 65. His relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, 25 years younger, does seem to be one of love, and Wagstaff was very much the sugar daddy – and Mapplethorpe (who came from a working class background in Queens) was himself quite breathtaking to look at in the shots. Gradually, poet Patti Smith gets to know them.

Many other figures of the age (including Truman Capote and Andy Warhol) get shown, and some speak, especially Vanity Fair editor Dominick Dunne.

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