‘All the Beauty and the Bloodshed’ Is Incendiary

We tend to talk about art and politics as if they were both ingredients in an unstable emulsion, separate elements mixed together in varying proportions in the hope of creating some kind of stable whole. But All Beauty and Bloodshed, a documentary about photographer Nan Goldin by director Laura Poitras, offers a different perspective on this relationship. To treat art as something that can exist apart from the world from which it came, the film insists, is to turn it into a tool for cleansing evil. Just look at the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, the company responsible for manufacturing and pushing OxyContin to the world as a safe pain management tool. Their staggering wealth owes much to that highly addictive drug, and for years their names graced plaques in august institutions like the Louvre, the Tate and the Guggenheim – all murmuring patrons passing by to see crowd-funded exhibitions. that played a major role in the opioid epidemic. There’s an electric thrill the first time we see Gold and other activists break the silence of the Temple of Dendur gallery by shouting slogans and throwing pill bottles into the reflecting pool. It seems like they’re bursting the bubble of respect the Sacklers were allowed to surround themselves with and letting real life rush in.

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Goldin, a popular photographer best known for an ever-evolving slideshow called The ballad of sex addictionwhich is based on her personal experiences over what is now decades, has never had any use for respect. All Beauty and Bloodshed, a portrait of an artist and activist, traces Gold from rebellious teenager to outsider chronicler to art world giant to Purdue protester. But it’s not a biodoc in any standard sense, thank goodness—Poitras, whose career has revolved around the War on Terror, is far too ambitious a filmmaker to insert herself into such an inherently stuffy format. All Beauty and Bloodshed it is instead an incandescent work that examines Goldin’s personal life, her evolution as an artist, and her subsequent turn to harm reduction advocacy, and realizes that they are part of the same journey. At the heart of the film is always Goldin’s determination to pull back the veil of honesty and reveal all the ugly, glorious truths behind it, be it her childhood, her sexuality, the stigma attached to sex work, the crisis of AIDS, or with the polite illusion that prescription drugs cannot destroy lives.

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If Goldin and Poitras seem like an odd couple, the tension that comes from their collaboration is what gives All Beauty and Bloodshed its vitality. (Goldin is the film’s producer and was given a say in which material from her interviews made the final cut.) Goldin is not a subject prone to self-mythologizing, and while Poitras doesn’t exactly take the role for her , she sees in Goldin’s life something sweeping and epic. It begins and ends with Goldin’s older sister Barbara, who was rebellious and eccentric, institutionalized by their parents and died by suicide at 18, whose words, from her hospital notes, gave the title to the film. In between are a trove of Goldin’s photographs and other archival material that follow him from foster care to living with drag queens in Boston, and then on the Bowery in the 70s and 80s and into a scene filled with hard drugs and bigwigs like Cookie Mueller and Vivienne Dick and Maggie Smith, supporting herself with go-go dancing and, later, sex work, which she talks about for the first time in the film.

Goldin’s chronicle of this legendary stretch of New York history serves as an indirect self-portrait and at other times a very direct self-portrait. After a tumultuous relationship with a man named Brian ended with him beating her so badly he broke her orbital bone, she took pictures of her battered face. The photos were another chronicle of the hard truth and another challenge to stigma. But they also, she says, kept her from going back to him. like All Beauty and Bloodshed The juxtapositions between Goldin’s photographic record of life and her activism highlight that allowing, even requiring, people to confront often-hidden truths has power in itself. Goldin founded the band PAIN after he was prescribed Oxy for wrist pain in 2014 and developed an addiction that consumed him for years to come. The work we see the group do culminates in a court-mandated hearing in which three members of the Sackler family are forced to sit and listen as opioid survivors address them directly. When Goldin and her band fly in recipe form from the spiral platform inside the Guggenheim to rain down on the central atrium, it’s an act as beautiful as it is incendiary. Of course it is – it’s a work of art.

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