Director: Laura Poitras
Having spent two decades taking the US government and military industrial complex to task for violating civil rights (be that confronting practices at Guantanamo Bay or in collaboration/study of whistle-blowers and whistle-blower facilitators), the prospect of Laura Poitras turning her attention to renowned and beloved NY photographer Nan Goldin might sound like a left-turn. But to assume so would betray a limited knowledge of Goldin’s life and activism. A daring, boundary-pushing figure from the fringes of the art scene, Goldin decimates the line between the personal and the political and, with her sprawling yet honed documentary, Poitras exhibits the range and implications of this.
As the founder of P.A.I.N. (Prescription Intervention Activism Now), Goldin counts herself as a survivor, having been through the wringers of addiction to OxyContin, the pain medication spearheaded by Purdue Pharma, a corporation overseen by members of the obscenely wealthy Sackler family. Sackler’s philanthropy has extended most conspicuously into the artworld itself. For Goldin and her fellow activists, the Sacklers’ culpability amounts to an egregious unprosecuted crime; their prestige at galleries and museums a symbol of hypocrisy that sticks in the craw.
It seems only natural, as the sociopolitical climate of our corporate world intensifies, that Poitras’ brand of patriotic activist cinema should turn its eye on the ungovernable walls of big business and the super-rich. In Goldin she has found a likeminded soul. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, then, shares dual purpose; both a vibrant autobiography backed up by a wealth of evocative and artful material, and a document of a grassroots challenge to the establishment.
The first hour of the film builds the former, educating the uninformed viewer without patronising, and playing host to a treasure trove of Goldin’s incredible photography. Goldin’s own battle against addiction is placed in the context of a forever-raw family tragedy (one that goes back generations as implied by late revelations). Having fled a family that seemed all too eager to abandon her first, Goldin found refuge in the New York of post-punk, no-wave, the Deuce and the community rehabilitation of Tin Pan Alley. She was embraced by an entwined underground cross-pollinating art, anarchy and queerness. Her nakedly autobiographic photography (both figuratively and literally) broke ground and evidences a heady history of those years. Backed by choice cuts from the likes of Suicide and The Velvet Underground, Goldin’s curated slides provoke feelings through juxtaposition. The order of images as considered as their fleeting yet frozen content.
Then AIDs, and loss. Goldin acknowledges the inspiration she found in likeminded organisation Act Up, whose work during the height of the epidemic remains monumental (see the essential French film BPM (Beats Per Minute) for an exquisite dramatisation of their efforts in Paris). Goldin and her group stage “die-ins” at their targeted institutions; laying on the ground en masse, strewn with empty prescription bottles and faked blood money.
For Goldin and her peers, the quest is deeply, profoundly personal; something that the Sacklers’ comparative anonymity throws into even greater relief. For Poitras, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed feels like a resurgence and reaffirming of her politically-minded craft, especially in the wake of the convolutions brought up in her self-reflexive Julian Assange exposé Risk. This feels personal for her, too, and in drawing from Goldin a bare-knuckled and bloodied backstory, one senses in Poitras a rebirth of her own.
If All the Beauty and Bloodshed lacks the fly-on-the-wall, accidental-thriller aspect that made her Oscar-winning Citizenfour such an immediate hit, it worms its way in in other ways. Chiefly through a snowballing of empathy. In a manner commensurate with Edward Snowden – the focus of Citizenfour – one senses in Goldin an act of self-sacrifice in making herself and her life a humanising weapon against the system; putting her own neck on the line; leading by example. Poitras’ film is her (latest) megaphone. She details close friendships, the losses of which are cuts across the heart. David Wojnarowicz. David Armstrong. John Waters collaborator Cookie Mueller. At one point the battles against AIDs and against Sackler are likened to a World War, so monumental is the sense of scale and loss. For Goldin there is no self-delusion. Any successes that P.A.I.N. achieve are elated surprises. The assumption, damningly, is that they’ll be met with indifference.
The film details a mixed report. Wins feel blessed, compromises feel, well, compromised. Filmed in part over the course of the current COVID-19 pandemic, eventual legal proceedings against Purdue and the Sacklers lead to a kind of confrontation, albeit one taking place on a video conference call. Here All the Beauty and the Bloodshed teeters toward the possibility of catharsis, but life isn’t quite so neat in its narratives. There’s nothing here as telling as Anwar’s breakdown at the end of Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn’s The Act of Killing. Nothing so personally victorious or revelatory. The best we get are cracked facades. But those cracks tell, arguably, just as much.
Come the end, Poitras dovetails back to the origins of Goldin’s pain, to family tragedy and questions without full answers. The film’s title comes from clinical documents pertaining to Nan’s sister, lost to suicide decades earlier; an extreme form of activism all of its own. Looping around this way has the effect of making the grief involved seem inescapable. Which it is. It’s kept alive, like a zombie. Kept upright by denials, by refused culpability, by the scars it has wrought in others. By it’s manipulation by the Sacklers, whose engineered opioid crisis is a monster that dwarfs all others in this tale.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is the personal and the political. It is their inseparability. For the communities it represents, it’ll cut raw. Draw blood, maybe. One hopes that the angry voices within draw further blood across the battle lines, too, where culpability is cushioned by privilege. Through activist cinema, one hopes, the unfeeling can find their humanity once more. One crack at a time.
1 thought on “Review: All the Beauty and the Bloodshed”
Will see this eventually.
Doing this early each new month. https://opinionoftheday650548878.wordpress.com/2023/02/02/films-watched-in-january-12/
How many of these have you seen of heard of? Interested in communicating with film fans. Loads of other subjects talked in my blog too.
Ps. My crowdfunder page. Details in a nutshell in the link. Trying to raise awareness. https://www.crowdfunder.c.uk/p/help-out-a-struggling-writer