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"Mapplethorpe" isn't all black and white

Photo credit:
Samuel Goldwyn Films

Matt Smith (Dr. Who) brings to light the young adult times, and death of controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the film "Mapplethorpe."

Smith embodies the artist who in the early 70s stunned many in the art community and beyond with his black and white pictures of male BDSM pornography. Those photos are now appreciated in the art world but it took several years of struggling and harsh criticisms, to get them recognized as such. This film gives us an unflinching look at that journey. 

Mapplethorpe was his own worst critic on many levels especially in the beginning when he wasn't sure about his sexuality.

In the film, we meet Mapplethorpe just as he drops out of the Pratt Institute in New York where he was studying Graphic Arts. Lost and unsure about the business of living, he stays in New York and continues to sketch eventually leading to a meet-cute with future punk icon Patti Smith, someone who would become a confidant, lover and lifelong friend. 

Although Mapplethorpe's drawings we undeniably provocative, their acid-induced imagery often left them divided among critics. It wasn't until the artist could focus his compositions through the lens of a camera that he made a bigger impact. 

Still in the closet and riddled with blinding Catholic ideologies, Mapplethorpe is arrested in his sexual development. The movie portrays him as bisexual at first; he continues his physical relationship with Smith,  but that might only be because, in the beginning, he thinks sleeping with another man will send him straight to hell.

With the help of Smith's wages and the sale of Mapplethorpe's hand-made necklaces, he seems to be on the right path with his sketches, but a chance meeting with artist Sandy Daley would change his life forever. Daley offers him some advice after he stubbornly refuses her suggestion to become a photographer, saying the medium takes too much time to develop and besides he wants to be a modern day Michelangelo. 

"You think if Michelangelo had a camera he wouldn't have used it?" asks Daley handing him a Polaroid. 

This single gift will change his life forever because he immediately adopts the medium and appears gifted in his mastery of it. 

Enter David Croland, a New York model involved in the underground scene who becomes one of Mapplethorpe's many muses and lovers, essentially providing Mapplethorpe with a breakthrough moment of sexuality which leads to light bondage. The film implies that this is Mapplethorpe's first same-sex encounter although it's also hinted that he has done it before but hasn't told Patti. You see, He believes being with her doesn't make him gay.

Smith does leave and that's when the film gets to what we have all been waiting for; Mapplethorpe's inspiration and obsession with the male (and female) body, especially the private parts, and the pictures that made him a legend. His longtime companion curator Sam Wagstaff would ensure Mapplethorpe's place in art history. 

The movie is everything "Bohemian Rhapsody" isn't; an unflinching look at a flesh and drug-filled decade crammed full of unbound creativity. This was the era of Andy Warhol and Studio 54 when pop art was only beginning to take root. But while Warhol was painting soup cans Mapplethorpe was snapping frames of manhood in different stages of rigidity often sleeping with the models afterward. And just for good measure he also sexualized lilies, although no one was the wiser. 

Smith plays Mapplethorpe like a bashful but self-absorbed sex symbol. Not particularly stunning, Mapplethorpe's attractiveness comes from his drive and talent. He's to photography what Freddie Mercury was to music. Smith is as confident as his subject and director Ondi Timoner shows no mercy to either of them. 

"Mapplethorpe" uses his real photos throughout the film as transitionary devices or samples of timeline. For those who may have only seen a few of his pieces, these tiny cinematic bookmarks help you understand his true genius. 

The film is not rated and there's a lot of good reasons why. Scenes of male frontal nudity, rear nudity, sexual situations and close-ups of male genitalia are uncensored and uncut.

One of the main issues I had with Mapplethorpe has nothing to do with its provocative parts. The LGBT icon dies of complications due to AIDS and like so many films before it, the director decides to play down the physical ugliness of the disease for a more flattering death scene close-up. For a film that's so unfiltered, to flinch at the end just seems disingenuous.

"Mapplethorpe" is a biopic that doesn't take its subject for granted and thanks to great performances all around, the film is another important example of an LGBT icon who challenged his critics by forcing them to appreciate his undeniably groundbreaking work. Full of the scintillating images we know him for, "Mapplethorpe" might be tame in a post-Tumblr world, but viewers will realize why his genius was too graphic for its time.

Thank goodness this film was made. 

"Mapplethorpe" is playing at the Ken Cinema through March 27.