Mixing Nan Goldin’s Activism and Art with Stirring Doc

This review was first published on Sept. 11, 2022, after the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Fesitval.

Less a biography than an act of communion, Laura Poitras’ “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” This is a challenging task. What can you tell us about Nan Goldin, the self-revealing artist? What can a documentary portrait about Nan Goldin bring out that Goldin — a photographer who arguably revolutionized the artform with her candor — hasn’t already explored? Click here to see more “Citizenfour” director wrestle and conquer those thorny questions is one of the many thrills of Poitras’ masterful, Venice Golden Lion–winning film.

It examines a single narrative through a half century of cultural, political and artistic heartbreak. “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” The Great American Novel is in many ways documentarian form. Split into seven chapters, the film could just as easily be split into as many genres: Here is an elegy for a lost generation and a call to action for the here-and-now; an urgent exposé about the opioid crisis and an intimate family drama about the weight of abuse; a travelogue across art and American history (are they so different?) and a war film, set on the battlefield of the world’s most famous museums.

For all the moving parts “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” At her core, she is an intimate and simple woman who believes art and activism are one in the same.

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Poitras weaves two distinct threads through its seven chapters, balancing documentary and timeline formats. One side of the film uses direct cinema to document direct action. The other is embedded with Goldin and P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) over a three-year stretch; on the other side, Poitras opens an archival treasure chest to retrace Goldin’s life and artistic evolution from the 1960s onward. Neither competing with nor complementing one another, the strands jointly form the double helix of Goldin’s artistic DNA.

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Goldin is today an artist at the very top. She’s world-renowned several times over, secure in her legacy and well displayed in all the most prestigious galleries — and as the film then sets the clock back, it retraces her path from suburban malaise to Boston’s 1970s drag scene to the Bowery of the underground 80s to a period of artistic ferment in Berlin and all the way to the morning, in March 2018, when Goldin strides into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to leverage her accrued cachet in a war on the Sackler family.

Maybe you’ve seen the name. The pharmaceutical billionaires behind the privately held Purdue Pharma, the Sacklers spent three decades pushing OxyContin, apparently fully aware of the opioid’s lethally addictive properties; they are also, not incidentally, some of the art world’s most profligate donors. Herself a recovering addict and high-profile photographer, Goldin sees those elements as intrinsically linked — what she calls an act of “blood-money laundering” The corridors of high-culture.

Though investigative reporting from New Yorker writer (and film interviewee) Patrick Radden Keefe has shown the family’s direct culpability in the opioid crisis, the Sacklers have remained shielded by a legal system designed to side with capital. Goldin however has her own capital. This gives her the ability to hold flash-mob demonstrations in high-culture cathedrals with Sackler Wings. Demanding that such institutions sever ties with the tainted family, Goldin recognizes that even if the Met, Guggenheim and Louvre throw out the protesters, they’ll never get rid of her photos.    

It’s impossible to imagine how they could. She began bathing Boston drag queens with loving glows that were unique to their era in her early years. Her breakout appearances in her late 80s are proof of this. “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” Goldin’s photos overflow with life in all of life’s extremes. Intimacy is a key to the photographer’s work. She reveals both her and those she has gathered from friends, making it a symbol of someone anchored within a group. Poitras doesn’t overthink the matter and instead gives her subjects the spotlight. She allows the long-running slideshows of Goldin to unfold, with the photographer narrating.

The focus of the slideshow is always on one person, just like in a Goldin slideshow. If Goldin has an original voice, she’s by no means sui generis. Contrary to popular belief, Goldin is both a conduit and a product her larger surroundings. So focusing on Goldin would mean allowing all her surrounding photographers to see her work.

Poitras is able to do just that. She lends the film a choiral quality by extending her interest in Goldin friends, such as painter David Wojnarowicz, photographer David Armstrong and Cookie Mueller. The fact that all are seen through Goldin’s intimate, catch-of-life photos gives such sequences an immediate quality; the fact that all have since passed on makes the film feel like a ghost story.

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Poitras leans towards that aspect. This is just one of many qualities Poitras has. “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is a sterling act of restoration, an archival valentine that scans and showcases photos and films (including Vivienne Dick’s “Liberty’s Booty” and Betty Gordon’s “Variety”It is vibrant in many ways. Goldin captured the moment before she took her camera, and we’re transported to that moment when those images are projected on a large screen. The absence of any contemporary interviews with (nearly all of) those subjects imparts a more-than-bittersweet tinge to the life we see flickering on screen.

Sometimes those silences can become unbearable. And if at first Poitras’ interplay between yesterday and today shows an artist honing her voice and an artist deploying it, once the film moves into the late ’80s, and the peak of the AIDS crisis, the cross-cutting technique takes on a different resonance.

A whole chapter dedicated to the Goldin-organized exhibit “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing,” the film makes pointed comparisons between the AIDS and opioids epidemics, contextualizing Goldin’s activism in both as part of a larger continuum. In both cases, framed side-by-side within Poitras’ construction, we find Goldin swimming upstream against stronger political and social currents, swapping government contempt in one for bureaucratic fecklessness in another. In both instances, Goldin relies upon community and creativity for moral resistance to art.

Then there’s the family question. The film’s evocative title stems from a medical report written about Goldin’s older sister, Barbara. A casualty of early-’60s conformity in general and of her own taciturn clan more specifically, the older Goldin spent years in and out of psychiatric facilities, even if the only thing “wrong” It was clear to her that she was not born in the right place and time. Nan Goldin’s photo-journalistic candor is typical of Nan Goldin’s. She reveals abuse that her mother endured, linking it to a generationally passed trauma which ultimately led to her younger sister taking her own life.

Film’s final act is a tragedy in the family. This acts as both an inciting instance that forces the main character out of her house and toward the world outside. Later it plays as a kind of coda, a capstone that subtly reframes the artist while clarifying Poitras’ governing structure. Goldin explained that the problem was silence. A victim of abuse, Goldin’s mother was unable to break hers, and would pass those devastating effects down to her late daughter.

For the photographer, the lesson — the key that unlocks her intertwined art and activism — is to break that silence, to end that cycle of shame, to speak up and speak out, to see and make people feel seen. 

“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” In U.S. theatres, Nov. 23

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