We gave it a B
Look at the Pictures takes its name from a hysterical Senator Jesse Helms speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, in which the super-Republican was apoplectic over government funding for a photography exhibition by flower-petal-and-penis obsessed artist Robert Mapplethorpe. “I don’t know if the television cameras can see it or not, I’m gonna be fast enough so they can’t,” Helms bawled. “I don’t even acknowledge that the fellow who did this was an artist. I think he was a jerk.” On the last point, Helms had a point. In its most compelling moments, this full frontal HBO documentary by The Eyes of Tammy Faye directors Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey challenges us to dislike the art universe demigod and free speech figurehead who Fran Leibowitz dubs a “ruined Cupid.” Most interesting is Mapplethorpe’s photographer brother, who describes being forced by Robert to change his last name.
But the cradle-to-grave formula (Mapplethorpe was born into a Catholic family on Long Island, NY and died of AIDS in 1989) and standard-procedure talking heads give the movie’s structure a square, PBS quality that’s at odds with its subject’s unorthodoxy. Barbato and Bailey do deliver on the promise of their title, over-curating the film with hundreds of the photographer’s images. And not even in the most graphic episode of Real Sex has there been this much male genitalia on HBO – including Mapplethorpe’s S&M shocker “Pinky Inserted Into Penis,” which is glimpsed twice.
Though an undoubtedly fascinating journey into the artistic mind (and the 1970s and 80s New York City), Look at the Pictures never quite breaks free from the lionizing of Mapplethorpe and appeasing people who already defend him. For 90 minutes, the film seems to be heading for a deep inquiry into the legislation of morality and the art vs. pornography argument, but it never comes. Helms’ angry effort to shut down Mapplethorpe exhibitions is chronicled for about two minutes, and that’s too little time for such a dynamic public square debate. But in the letters that HBO is going get after Look at the Pictures airs – there lies the power of his provocations, even two decades after his death. B