Sunday, January 22, 2023

A spoiler-filled essay on ALL THE BEAUTY AND THE BLOODSHED*****

Laura Poitras (CITIZENFOUR) returns to our screens with the beautifully constructed, deeply affecting and passionately argued ALL THE BEAUTY AND THE BLOODSHED.  The movie plays as a multi-layered narrative centred on the incredibly talented, ground-breaking and straightforward photographer Nan Goldin.

The kernel of the film is Goldin's activism against the Sackler family, pedlars of Oxycontin as made famous most recently in the superb miniseries and book Dopesick. Goldin became addicted to Oxy having being medically prescribed, and now clean has founded a group called PAIN to agitate for the Sacklers to be brought to justice AND for their artwashing to be unpicked.  This is incredibly effective because Goldin is in the permanent collections of so many of the art institutions that the Sacklers have funded.  The Met, the National Portrait Gallery, the Louvre et al, then have an awkward decision: have Goldin withdraw her art OR take the Sackler name down from their marble halls. When we finally see the actual Sackler heirs being forced to listen to Goldin and other victims' testimony, it's a brutal and provocative moment. What are they really thinking?  Is their guilt sinking in? And does this really provide justice and closure for the survivors? Can anything?

Wrapped around this kernel is the story of Goldin's adult life - a life that seems to have been in permanent agitation and activism on behalf of the marginalised and despised. As a young photographer she falls into the 1970s and 1980s art scene in New York, living a financially perilous but artistically meaningful life.  She lives and chronicles the ballroom scene, whorehouses on The Deuce, and the cruel refusal of government to fund anti-AIDS research. Her indie artshow in support of AIDS victims contains an essay so controversial - an indictment of the Mayor of New York, the Federal Government and the Catholic Church - that it's debated on the Senate floor. So maybe - without wanting to wish chronic pain and addiction on her - Goldin was EXACTLY the artist-activist we needed to fight the opioid epidemic - an artist particularly attuned to institutional failure and the sacrifice of an entire generation of people for profit.

The final, outer layer of this film is perhaps the most tragic and the most revealing - and it is that of Goldin's childhood in conservative suburban hell.  Her big sister was a brilliant, gay woman whose family were utterly unprepared to handle her, and so was shipped off to successive mental institutions until she killed herself.  It's this story that brackets the film and it's shocking to see Goldin's immaculately dressed polite parents at the end of the film contrasted with the emotional turmoil we've seen for much of its running time. Perhaps Goldin seeks accountability, or understanding for her sister's treatment?  We hear her joke and laugh with them, so maybe she has found some kind of peace. And perhaps we have to just chalk it up to a different time, and that hurt people hurt. But the "different time" canard is exploded by Goldin's life and art. In each generation we need people like Goldin to explode the safe so-called morality of settled beliefs and rocket us into a more evolved progressive era. We all owe Goldin a debt for being part of that - and this film is an incredible chronicle of the toll it took and the battles still being fought.

ALL THE BEAUTY AND THE BLOODSHED has a running time of 122 minutes. It played Toronto and Venice 2022 where it won the Golden Lion. It went on release in the USA last year and goes on release in the UK on January 27th.

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