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Black White + Gray Area

(L-R) Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe, the subjects of Black White + Gray

By Michelle Orange

That fact that Tribeca is filled with what are essentially competent television biographies of figures who would never make it past a preliminary production meeting at A&E has both good points and bad. The good, of course, is that we get to learn of people other than those who sell advertising; Anita O’Day and Scott Walker are two on offer at Tribeca this year. But the bad is that the format is so tried and true that many filmmakers see no reason to deviate from it.

Perhaps a sale to a television network is the goal for many festival directors, and who could blame them? Not one hour ago, after limping away from a six-hour movie marathon in a theater complex, I found myself contemplating a wall of boxed cinnamon buns beside an elderly lady at my local grocery store. She turned to me and said, “I remember when four of these were 99 cents -- we’d each buy a box and take them to the movies. When we’d leave the theater: Whoops! No more cinnamon buns!” I laughed and said it’s a good thing what you eat at the movies doesn’t count, and she said, “That was a long time ago, I don’t go to the movies anymore. Now everything is on TV anyway, why would I go to the movies?”

Well, I don’t know that James Crump’s Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe is going to convince my C-Town crony to break her embargo; perhaps -- and perhaps ideally -- she’s right and it will end up on TV anyway. Crump has the format down, and Wagstaff, whose relationship with Mapplethorpe came in some way to define the lives and careers of both men, proves an apt and ample subject. The marquee handsome Wagstaff, a privileged, pedigreed WASP and “deb’s delight” in the 1950s, was secretly gay and not-so-secretly loathing his life in advertising. He returned to school to study fine art at NYU and got into curation during a time -- very different from today, it is observed -- when a museum curator or collector could function almost like an artist him or herself.

Taking an interest in photography when others in the art community turned up their noses, Wagstaff quickly gained the reputation as a tastemaker and began amassing a collection of late 19th-century photography, a lot of it anonymous, with a special eye on the poignant and perverse (decapitations especially seemed to do it for him). When Wagstaff met Mapplethorpe in the early '70s, bells were said to ring and a match was made, though some commenters acidly note that the 26-year-old from Queens saw nothing but a cash cow. Patti Smith and Dominick Dunne make appearances, but even better is the peek into Wagstaff’s collection (ultimately he sold it to the Getty Museum), which brings to bear the film’s most interesting idea: that a collector can use his carefully selected pieces to construct something of a self-portrait. The sad coda is that both men died of AIDS, during the first and hopefully the worst assault of the “gay cancer” against New York’s art community.

Speaking of New York’s art community: Ed Burns, everybody! Purple Violets is Burns' return to writing and directing following 2006’s terrible The Groomsmen, and returns us (i.e. me) to the impossibly shiny New York of Suburban Girl. In Black White + Gray, Sam Wagstaff is said to have lived in a penthouse apartment overlooking Washington Square park, where, one visitor notes with distaste, even a brief survey made it clear that it was a place where a lot of sex was being had. There doesn’t seem to be any sex happening in the agonizingly haute apartments of Patti (Selma Blair), Brian (Patrick Wilson), Michael (Ed Burns) and Kate (Debra Messing). All four went to NYU together; Patti and Brian broke up in Washington Square Park, Michael and Kate had sex there, and 12 years later the girls run into the boys at a swanky restaurant.

Kate is married to a lout (Donal Logue, doing a cockney accent) and has given up on her once promising writing career; Patrick is a best-selling pulp fiction writer, longing for some highbrow credibility; Michael is a lawyer and Kate is a teacher. The story follows both couples (though mainly Patti and Brian) as they find their way back to each other citing unfinished business. The story is not bad, the bigger problem is that everyone but Burns is grievously miscast. Messing is actually terrific as a foul-mouthed, bitterly wronged woman, but it’s hard to get around the fact that she can’t credibly play 33 anymore, particularly beside someone like Blair, who has the body of a 12-year-old boy. And both Blair and Wilson could not be less believable as the madly gifted literary talents they avow each other to be. It’s not just the Banana Republic beauty and irritating collection of designer sweaters and boots; it’s the fact that neither actor can even pretend to have the crack -- to paraphrase a friend of mine who was paraphrasing Leonard Cohen -- that lets the light get in. Burns gets all the great lines and he makes the most of them, but none of the couples, particularly Logue and Blair, who are supposed to have been married for seven years, but most crucially Blair and Wilson, generate the barest fraction of the sexual energy I bet Wagstaff’s Washington Square penthouse was putting out on any given Friday.

The Third Wave is volunteer worker Alison Thompson’s wrenching document of the time she spent in Sri Lanka following December 2004’s cataclysmic tsunami. Thompson, who also spent six months at Ground Zero following Sept. 11, and her boyfriend, Oscar Gubernati, intended to spend a week or two lending their services in the small village of Peraliya, where no organized aid had yet arrived, but ended up spending over a year trying to help the devastated local population rebuild. Much of the footage (including the seemingly endless task of corpse collection) is hard to take, but imperative nevertheless; Peraliya is one of countless villages that were forgotten in the relief efforts, and only two and a half years after one of the worst natural disasters the world has ever known, who now speaks of it? It is pointed out by frustrated Sri Lankan emissaries that much of the pledged international aid money simply failed to arrive.

A ragtag crew of people from around the world ended up coming to Peraliya, and worked to build a school, a medical center, flagging down passing aid trucks for food and supplies on the fly. Thompson doesn’t shy away, however, from including the footage from about three months into their stay, when the local population and that of surrounding villagers began to turn on the volunteers, each one suspicious that they were not receiving as much as their neighbor. Dastardly human nature threatens to taint the morale and the work of the volunteers, and the problems in communication and flagging stamina are closely and unflinchingly observed, mainly by the Sri Lankan who manned the camera when Thompson’s nursing duties took precedence. In the face of almost unthinkable circumstances, almost unthinkable generosity prevailed; despite the tragic context, it will do your heart good to watch The Third Wave, to remember and maybe even to do some good yourself.

The natural disaster of Afghanistan’s punishing drought is rivaled only by the unnatural disaster of the Taliban. While documentaries about this region and this regime began to flow forth after Sept. 11, narrative films are fewer and farther in between, with 2004’s Osama the last one before Zolykha’s Secret, Horace Ahmad Shansab’s humble, impassioned feature. Shansab follows an Afghan family trying to live quietly as the threat of the Taliban (and the ensuing international conflict) grows ever closer. It is a feeling almost akin to relief to see these stories finally being told by Afghans, in Afghanistan, where one worries that almost all aspects of civilized life, including art, are in jeopardy; it is a relief also to see Afghan life presented as something other than the Other. Though Shansab clearly has good storytelling instincts, the quality of the sound and images is very poor, and the performances tend toward stiffness. Given a little more time and, God willing, the means, he could be a key lifeline for Westerners into a country and a war whose ongoing difficulties have taken a back seat to those of Iraq.

Steep and The Power of the Game trace the passions and the passionate devotees of extreme skiing and World Cup soccer, respectively. Steep features some truly unbelievable photography and the seemingly inevitable death of one of its subjects. There is a lot of wide-eyed exultation over the purity of the high one gets while skiing down or leaping off of 50-degree slopes, especially for the first time, but once the Americans got a load of the practice (and quickly commodified it), the dream became not just “I want to ski,” but “I want to be in ski movies.” The only rationale that made sense to me for putting one’s self in such peril was a love affair with gravity, its endless pull and when almost all of the men (only two women appear) who break bones like they're dinner plans say that the risks they take are worth it -- spectacular visuals be damned -- I still want to slap them.

The Power of the Game is a Michael Apted affair, so we get to hear his vaguely bemused, British voiceover in between Up Series installments. This is a National Geographic production and, as such, seems better suited for television; I could even envision the commercial breaks in between disparate segments, which look at various countries competing in 2004’s World Cup in Germany. It’s a little airless but smoothly done, and while soccer is often lauded as the sport that does much to unite the world, it is as often shown to divide it as well. I can’t say I understand the fanaticism behind soccer any better for having watched it, but who could explain a phenomenon that inspires a band of Iranian women who, after arguing their way into a stadium to watch a soccer game that the government has banned them (and all women) from attending, hold up an Iranian flag and scream in support of their country?

Discuss these and other Tribeca titles at Spout:

Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe
Purple Violets
The Third Wave
Zolykha’s Secret
The Power of the Game

Posted at May 3, 2007 7:39 AM

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