Aren’t biopics terrible? The sidewinding arcs, tangents and strings of unrelated events that comprise a lifetime’s experience are terribly suited for the compact storytelling demands of a conventional feature film. Yet nevertheless this bafflingly popular genre persists, smushing unruly lives and careers into a one-size-fits-all formula like a child’s Play-Doh press. Doesn’t matter if you’re watching a film about Queen Elizabeth, Alan Turing or Freddie Mercury, it’s all basically the same movie. This is how director Ondi Timoner’s “Mapplethorpe” manages to accomplish the unimaginable: It makes Robert Mapplethorpe dull.
The iconoclastic photographer died of AIDS in 1989, leaving behind a raging controversy regarding an eight-city tour of his exhibit “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment,” which juxtaposed stark black-and-white portraits of flowers and celebrities with explicit BDSM imagery. I’m old enough to remember the political firestorm when Mapplethorpe’s photos came to the ICA back in 1990, prompting some of us well-meaning, if a bit pretentious, young high schoolers to wear “FEAR NO ART” buttons on our jean jackets.
I saw the pictures on PBS — hooray for public broadcasting — and can still vividly recall how startled I was by the effrontery of those engorged members, photographed as objects of rapt fascination in a way I don’t think the world was quite ready for yet. This 15-year-old kid from the suburbs certainly wasn’t, as the memory of those pictures still lingers with the shock of the new — an introduction to an adult world sinister and alluring, about which I had no idea.
There’s nothing like that sense of shock in Timoner’s film. In fact there’s nothing outrageous about it at all, which is quite a feat considering how much screen time she devotes to those infamous photographs. The movie dutifully runs down a list of memorable moments from Mapplethorpe’s life in tediously linear, Wikipedia-entry fashion, beginning in 1967 when young Robert (played by English actor Matt Smith, of “Dr. Who” and “The Crown”) quit the ROTC and shacked up in a New York City squat with future punk legend Patti Smith.
The rocker wrote about this time quite movingly in her gorgeous 2010 memoir “Just Kids,” a book you’d be better off staying home and reading instead of going to see this film. She’s played here by Marianne Rendon with an almost adorable all-wrongness. (Squeaky-clean and smiling, her Patti Smith has shaved armpits.) Robert and Patti eventually end up living at a curiously sanitized vision of the Chelsea Hotel, where Sandy Daley (a blank Tina Benko) loans him her Polaroid camera and the rest is art history.
Soon Robert’s donning a leather motorcycle jacket and sneaking off to the Mineshaft for afternoon quickies, while sometimes lover and full-time benefactor Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey, working wonders with what little he’s given) helps make his work a phenomenon on the downtown gallery scene, which at the time was just beginning to accept photography as a fine art. “Mapplethorpe mania has hit New York!” we’re informed by a newscaster in lieu of any actual, like, dramatization.
Reportedly shot in 19 days on a minuscule budget, it’s a threadbare-looking picture short on extras and exteriors with stock footage standing in for most of the establishing shots. (They only seem to go outside when the movie can afford a vintage car for the characters to stand near.) But this paucity of resources wouldn’t be such a problem if it didn’t also extend to the vision behind the project. Timoner — who co-wrote the script with Mikko Alanne — brings no palpable passion nor any particular point of view.
This comes as a sad surprise, as Timoner’s delightful 2004 indie rock documentary “Dig!” is an invaluable chronicle of intramural artistic squabbling over a certain brand of quote-unquote authenticity that she captured just moments before such struggles ceased mattering to the popular culture at large. One would think she’d have more insight into Mapplethorpe’s life beyond that he slept around an awful lot and could be a real bastard when he was doing too much coke.
The short list of great (or even halfway decent) artist biopics engage with the art itself, like the way last year’s formally fascinating “At Eternity’s Gate” found director Julian Schnabel searching for cinematic equivalents to Van Gogh’s brushstrokes. I’ve always had a soft spot for how Oliver Stone mimicked Jim Morrison’s bozo Dionysus bombast to make “The Doors” embarrassingly overblown and awesome, just like their songs. But my pick for the best biopic is Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There,” which exploded the entire genre by reflecting and refracting the many sides of Bob Dylan into a prismatic portrait as elusive and inscrutable as the artist himself.
Meanwhile, Timoner and cinematographer Nancy Schreiber stage Mapplethorpe’s photo shoots in the flattest, most pedestrian manner imaginable, complete with corny “ah-ha” moments and a confounding absence of eroticism. The filmmakers often utilize the cheesy and self-defeating device of cutting to full-screen shots of the actual famous photographs every time Smith clicks on the shutter, unwittingly and repeatedly exposing the massive artistic gulf between this movie and its subject.
“Mapplethorpe” opens at the Kendall Square Cinema on Friday, March 8. Producers Eliza Dushku and Nate Dushku will be in attendance at the 7:05 p.m. shows on Friday, March 8 and Saturday, March 9 for Q&As following the screenings.