The brilliance in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

Director: Laura Poitras Featuring: Nan Goldin Running Time: 113 minutes

So much art aims to say something big, the trick is having the means and motive to find something truly worth saying. The bigger trick still might be for the artist to expand beyond the belief that once the work is done, their work is done; that the ability for art to inform, affirm, assert and transgress are the only means by which the artist can carry out those actions. 

Such an individual would rightly wilt in the presence of Nan Goldin, the photographer whose life, works and activism are the subject of Laura Poitras’ latest documentary, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. Goldin’s own considerable presence ensures that Poitras makes a big leap forward from her docs following the likes of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange – exploring Goldin’s contributions both to the art world and to protesting against it, the photographer and filmmaker combine perfectly, expanding the lens not just to cover a famous transgressive, but their world that’s worth transgressing for. 

Goldin built her career as a photographer through the Queer communities of Boston and New York in the 70s and 80s. Her striking, emotionally open photos, usually set to music in slideshows, blended her as a subculture star on the fringes to being also a celebrated presence in the upper echelons of high society. Her pictures are often themed around love, gender, domesticity, and sexuality. ‘All the beauty and the bloodshed’ is a quote taken from a mental health evaluation of Nan’s sister Barbara before she took her life while Nan was still a girl – from the sisters’ close bond and their repression within 60s suburbia, to the LGBTQ community and the devastation it faced in the 80s, to her intimacy and own abuses, Goldin has always drawn these two subjects out in her work. In an essay she published in 2018, Goldin outlined her opioid addiction. “I survived the opioid crisis. I narrowly escaped.”, her verbs correctly inferring that there is someone to blame for the crisis, none of whom are the millions affected by it. In All the Beauty and Bloodshed, we see how she fights back. 

Some of those responsible impose themselves on Goldin’s own world. Overprescription of the painkiller OxyContin is part of the problem, a lethal opioid that has been the cash cow of Purdue Pharma, a company owned by the billionaire Sackler family, who have long since laundered their name through patronage of prestigious institutions – the MoMa, the Guggenheim, the Met, Louvre, Tate Modern and National Portrait Gallery. These are places that have featured Goldin. The names are big, recognisable, imposing. The name Sackler etched in stone in their halls then, is an image that implies the insurmountable. But from the outset we see Goldin and her advocacy group PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) strike against them with precision, composure and clarity. They want these places to no longer accept Sackler donations, and beyond that to remove their names from their galleries, leaving the name associated only with the damage that it has caused. The story weaves in and out of the artist’s current activism and the life and career that brought her there. 

Chapters of the film are divided with Goldin’s own slideshows, a device that ensures a solid structure, emotional foundation for each section and a context for the unfamiliar. Poitras matches her subject’s work, interviewing subjects with a perfect balance of candor and sensitivity. That’s helped in part because it comes so freely from Goldin herself, but other members of PAIN are heartbreakingly strong and sincere in outlining their history, experiences and commitment to the cause. Goldin, with her style, firmness and New York minute wit may seem at first glance like a reserved interviewee, but nothing could be further from the truth. So much affection radiates from her descriptions of her sister, friends and collaborators like Cookie Mueller and David Wojnarowicz, Poitras ceding ground sensitively to the point where the film functions as a creative piece from Goldin too, and a tribute to those she has loved and lost. Her anger radiates also, nuclearly so. 

The audience is left well-informed of Purdue Pharma’s complicity and deflection, but Goldin’s matter-of-fact foul-mouthed fury, and the striking imagery she brings to protests of prescription bottles labeled with the Sackler name, ‘die-ins’ on museum grounds and blood-smeared dollars say leagues more than would be gleamed from the usual talking heads and infodumps. These maneuvers are consciously confrontational, but they are there to support the human element, and voice is given to the victims. We hear from PAIN members about the harrowing experiences endured by them and their families. These are weaved carefully between Goldin’s own history, her survival. We understand how her current position is informed by her past, the use of her own story is not linear biography, but an elevative companion to the work in the present. Her experience during the AIDS epidemic and work with ACT UP informs her leadership of PAIN, the trauma that she has survived beyond and mourned others behind informs her commitment to consequences for the Sacklers and beyond. 

In Nan Goldin’s photos we see bodies proudly splayed, defiant eyes that blaze with assertive, affectionate presence, absolute certainty of their right to exist, more than that, to thrive. Knowing one could be gone in a moment, captured in a moment. That resolute resistance and sure sincerity has made for effective activism before, and will be needed again. Beauty is hard fought for, and bloodshed stubbornly drawn. Poitras’ stellar work in capturing both this political fight and the emotion and artistry that motivates it makes for essential viewing. Not only because it is heart wrenching, warming and beautiful, but because it is affirming, and instructive.

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

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