Sunday, October 21, 2007

Black White + Gray

Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe Remembered by Cinematic Retrospective

This bio-pic turned out to be informative, if relatively tame for a retrospective about the relationship of a gay patron of the arts and his famous photographer lover best remembered for graphic, homoerotic snapshots featuring shocking sights like a bullwhip in a tight place and genitals on a hot dog bun. Nonetheless, Black White + Gray is a decent documentary for anyone wishing to become superficially reacquainted with the ambience of the downtown New York art scene of the Seventies and Eighties.
Samuel J. Wagstaff (1921-1989) was apparently proud of his aristocratic roots including his boarding school upbringing, Ivy League education and serving in the Navy during World War II. This led to his toiling away on Madison Avenue during the Fifties, in an unfulfilling job in advertising.
Lucky for him, by 1973, he had inherited millions which enabled him to come out of the closet, start collecting both art and people, and generally get his freak on. He also began indulging in mind-altering drugs because of how they inspired him to shed his every inhibition.
Eventually, Sam found a kindred soul in Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), even though this youngster some 25 years his junior came from the other side of the tracks. Robert, who had grown up in a blue collar corner of Queens, had studied at Pratt Institute for awhile before dropping out to try his hand at taking portraits with a Polaroid camera.
With Sam serving as his well-connected and deep-pocketed benefactor, Robert’s career skyrocketed, as did that of their close friend, poet/punk rocker Patti Smith. And by the time both guys would succumb to AIDSs in 1989, Mapplethorpe would be an icon with shows at the Whitney and other leading museums, this despite the continual controversy caused by criminal allegations and confiscations of his pieces which would dog him to the end of his days due to subject-matter involving children and sadomasochism.
Black White + Gray actually is more a homage to Wagstaff than to Mapplethorpe, as it openly bemoans the fact that the former is all but forgotten when the latter probably wouldn’t have had much of a career without Sam. But the narrator’s protestations to the contrary, this pair seemed perfectly suited for each other, one, a much-needed moneyed muse, the other, an irreverent iconoclast.
Gay kismet!

Very good (3 stars)
Running time: 72 minutes
Studio: Arthouse Films

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