Filmgoers tend to assume they’re watching “the director’s cut” of pretty much every movie we see. But despite having the job title that suggests final arbiter of “my film,” that’s often not the case. Producers and studio execs are shorten and reshape movies to suit their own commercial instincts all the time.
I didn’t see “Mapplethorpe” when it dribbled out a couple of years back. It came and went without a thought, so why not give director Ondi Timoner another crack at it? I mean, if Zack Snyder gets $75 million do-overs, what’s the harm?
Timoner, a documentary filmmaker (“Dig!,” “We Live in Public” and the climate sell-out “Cool It” were hers), added 12 minutes to the film for its re-release. What we see on the screen now is more of former “Doctor Who” Matt Smith‘s spot-on American accent and solid impersonation of the controversial photographer/artist/provocateur. But the film is a choppy series of sketches and snapshots that don’t really take us inside the man’s head.
The framing device, a tweenage Mapplethorpe (Logan Smith) taking his Kodak into a cemetery and then the family’s Catholic church, shooting arresting (perhaps homoerotic) closeups of the iconography in the stained glass, statuary and Christ on the Cross, hints at a “theme” to the man’s life’s work.
He was looking at religion in a way sure to provoke his humorless engineer father (Mark Moses).
But there was a lot more to Mapplethorpe’s eye, a photography of striking contrasts between darkness and light, still-lifes that stand-out, and yes, a fascination with nude males and sexual organs, homosexual sex and the BDSM world of New York in the post-Stonewall ’70s.
His screen biopic feels malnourished, almost from the start. There was no money for an impressive supporting cast, so his first love/first muse, punk poetess Patti Smith is played by the little known look-alike (sort of) Marianne Rendón of TV’s “Imposters.” The best-known supporting player is veteran character actor John Benjamin Hickey, who plays Sam Wagstaff, the gay collector who became Mapplethorpe’s lover and biggest backer, launching him to fame.
In tracking Mapplethorpe’s rise concurrent with Smith’s rising status as a punk icon, none of Smith’s music was licensed, no effort was made to show her performances, some of which Mapplethorpe attended.
And the late life controversy, which put him in the spotlight in his last year before dying of AIDS, feels skimmed over.
What Timoner spends her screen time on is the sexual part of Mapplethorpe’s journey, that gift, from a new artsy neighbor (Tina Benko), of his first Polaroid camera, the pursuit of men to model for him as he made jewelry to help support himself (Smith carried the financial load), his first seduction by such a model (Thomas Philip O’Neill) on through his days haunting New York’s gay bathhouses, photographing the leather boys cavorting within.
A friend nicknames him “The shy pornographer,” and there’s plenty of rejection from the “gatekeepers” of the New York art world before Wagstaff meets him and becomes his champion.
Notoriety turns to fame and that leads to celebrity portraiture — most famously, Schwarzenegger, Roy Cohn, Debbie Harry, Andy Warhol. And along the way, his brittle relationship with his family is trotted out just often enough to remind us of the original rejection, by his Dad.
Here’s how the script handles the passing parade of the ’70s and eqarly-80s. Mapplethorpe to Patti — “Did you write a song I can dance to, yet?” She never did.
Patti to Mapplethorpe — “Did you hear about Jimi?”
“Janis and Jimi, so f—–g sad.”
“Let’s go down to the Stonewall.”
There’s just enough of the art to remind us that he had talent beyond the mere ability to stir up controversy. And Smith gives us just enough of the artist’s arc — “rebel” in the military corps at the Pratt Institute (he dropped out), to enthusiastic and poor up-and-comer to jaded and arrogant, rich and famous — to keep us interested.
But there’s no flow to the film. The episodes feel like abrupt stand-alone scenes, each meant to carry the story forward, but not really connecting to each other organically.
I’m glad Timoner got another crack at this “Basquiat-ish” life. But this “director’s cut” doesn’t appear to have done the film or its subject any favors.
MPA Rating: unrated, sexually explicit content, drug abuse, nudity, smoking, profanity
Cast: Matt Smith, Marianne Rendón, John Benjamin Hickey, Tina Benko, Thomas Philip O’Neill and Brandon Sklenar
Credits: Directed by Ondi Timoner, script by Ondi Timoner, Mikko Alanne and Bruce Goodrich. A Samuel Goldwyn release.
Running time: 1:55