All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

“The Damage Done”

Maria San Filippo (Emerson College)

I first became aware of Nan Goldin through Lisa Cholodenko’s 1997 film High Art, loosely based on the photographer and inspired by her career-defining piece The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a transporting slideshow set to music, documenting Goldin’s life and friends circa 1979-86 (as Goldin says) “between punk and AIDS.” Arriving near the end of a decade-long revival of “heroin chic” despite its denunciation by then-president Bill Clinton and several high-profile celebrity overdoses, High Art stood out not only as a stunning cinematic debut but for its ultimately sobering appraisal of (per Neil Young) the damage done. While High Art, in New Queer Cinema style, veers away from the Hollywood happy ending in its disconsolate denouement, a quarter-century on Goldin fortunately is thriving – even taking her turn on the “champagne carpet” thanks to Laura Poitras’s Oscar-nominated documentary, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.

Befitting its subject, Poitras’s 122-minute opus is an art object disguised as a snapshot, insofar as its candid intimacy belies its epic grandeur and ambitious aims to chronicle Goldin’s life and work and to indict the Sackler family, makers and distributors of OxyContin. At the same time, it invites reflection on the connections therein, given Goldin’s role in drug culture’s glamorization and co-optation (by the fashion industry most notoriously) and her first-hand experience of its horrifying reality. Echoing its artist subject’s masterwork in its multi-chapter sprawl set to a stately soundtrack featuring Mica Levi, Klaus Nomi, Suicide, and The Velvet Underground, Poitras’s film takes us back to those No Wave enclaves of underground artists and spaces that Goldin documented; in doing so, inevitably it too seduces. Yet it also offers up what photographs alone cannot, providing a contextualizing, cautionary wall label that implicitly rebuts critiques that lump Goldin’s images alongside ads for Calvin Klein. All the Beauty’s lengthy middle section, itself structured like a slideshow, offers up a celebration of Goldin’s corpus that is simultaneously captivating and canonizing in revisiting Goldin’s experientially-informed, unflinching gaze at the ravages of not only addiction but AIDS, sex work, and in one of her most powerfully disquieting images, her own facial wounds from a battering inflicted by her then-boyfriend.

Where Goldin’s work invites ambivalence in its audience – as great art does – her intuitive yet embedded approach to taking photographs is mirrored by Poitras’s own instincts and praxis, as a Pulitzer- and Oscar-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker, to ask tough questions and reveal truths. As with her Edward Snowden-commending CITIZENFOUR (2014), however, Poitras does not pretend to be impartial in her admiration for Goldin and her activist organization, Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (P.A.I.N.). She adopts Goldin’s outrage at the Sacklers, who go largely unseen save two family representatives sitting stony-faced through a Zoom call where they were court-ordered to watch, and listen to, testimony from a few of those harmed by opioid addiction. This includes Goldin, who in 2018 published a confessional manifesto denouncing Purdue Pharma’s complicity in the opioid epidemic; the piece, which went viral after appearing in Artforum, details Goldin’s harrowing journey back from having been prescribed OxyContin after surgery, quickly becoming addicted, and returning to heroin before nearly dying from a fentanyl-laced fix.

P.A.I.N.’s media-savvy actions, using tactics borrowed from ACT UP and amplified by social media, eventually had significant impact: multiple world-class museums agreed to remove the Sackler name from their institutions and in some cases pledged not to accept any more of what Goldin refers to as their “blood money.” Well-practiced in the art of documenting her life, Goldin approached Poitras, whose film could be called the crowning action in the P.A.I.N. campaign to shame the Sacklers and promote a new approach toward ending drug addiction. Like P.A.I.N.’s actions, Poitras’s film and the charismatic subject at its center attempt artfully to awaken us to a reality that, along with climate emergency and mass shootings, has grown routine in playing nightly to an American audience increasingly inured to the seeming invincibility of Big Pharma, Big Oil, and the NRA.

In hammering home this inconvenient truth, the film’s alignment of Goldin’s past and present work with ACT UP emphasizes the connection between the AIDS epidemic then and the opioid epidemic now; as her Artforum piece proclaimed, “Most of my community was lost to AIDS. I can’t stand by and watch another generation disappear.” All the Beauty pays tribute to Goldin’s friends/subjects lost to the plague, including writer-performer Cookie Mueller, dead at 40, and artist-activist David Wojnarowicz, dead at 37, yet reappearing here in a tireless tirade against Republicans’ evisceration of NEA funding. Along with the somber remembrance and stark warning, Poitras’s analogy to ACT UP and P.A.I.N.’s appropriation of its tactics offer hope. In his article “Retroactivism,” Lucas Hilderbrand refers to the generational nostalgia of LGBTQ+ folks too young to have experienced the AIDS epidemic’s crisis years, before the emergence of antiretroviral therapy, as a romanticizing not of the disease’s destruction but of the era’s radical activism and community alliances forged in anger and desperation. Two generations removed from this trauma and numbed by neoliberal capitalism’s obliteration of American democratic values and social services, All the Beauty makes a compelling case that we must look back to go forward.

Bookending All the Beauty is yet another personal trauma driving Goldin’s art and activism: her older sister Barbara’s death in 1962, at age 18, which their parents insisted was accidental. Goldin long suspected suicide but finally confirmed it by reading the police report’s account of Barbara laying in the path of an oncoming train – means eerily redolent of early cinema’s heroines tied to railroad tracks awaiting rescue. Reflecting on her purpose in sharing Barbara’s story, Goldin concludes: “The wrong things are kept secret, and that destroys people… [Barbara’s] rebellion was the starting point for my own. She showed me the way.” As damning as the police report and medical records prove in showing Barbara gaslighted by her pre-feminist society and people ill-equipped to parent, All the Beauty’s penultimate scene shows compassion in selecting footage Goldin shot (intended for an unfinished documentary) of her now-aged, all-too-human parents cutting a rug in Goldin’s childhood home, then recollecting their eldest daughter’s fondness for a quotation from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

Droll thing life is that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope for is some knowledge of yourself that comes too late – a crop of unextinguishable regrets.

Reading aloud from the notecard that substitutes as suicide note, Goldin’s mother is overcome; Goldin pans away to show her comparably pained father looking on. It is a devastating scene, and profoundly moving in showing how artwork, whether its creation or (as here) quotation, frees us to express, understand, and eventually forgive others, and ourselves.

All the Beauty allows Goldin these reprieves to her parents and herself – I’d venture it’s her mea culpa for whatever measure of artistic responsibility she believes she bears: her own damage done. Yet Goldin and Poitras both adamantly hold accountable the remorseless Sacklers, who siphoned their billions into offshore accounts then declared Purdue Pharma bankrupt in an attempt to duck settlements (eventually they would be federally decreed to pay $6 billion). Whereas Goldin (with Poitras’s help) strives to make amends, the Sacklers’ refusal to own up to their far greater responsibility reveals their lack of humanity, supplanted by corporate indifference and denialism. Nevertheless, that All the Beauty begins and ends in the same wing of the Met that, four years on, no longer bears its donors’ name attests that their charity-washed façade has cracked. While it goes unasked how museums will make do without dirty corporate donations, any skepticism that such political art actions are capable of effecting change is borne out by P.A.I.N.’s success in the court of public opinion, even (or especially) if our actual government institutions failed to hold the Sacklers to full account. The same goes for the power of All the Beauty, and the potential of film – or any art – as activism.

Egyptian statues at the Met Museum in New York

A man at the Met museum
The Sackler Wing no longer

“Intermedial Collaboration”

Roger Hallas (Syracuse University)

I wish I had seen All the Beauty and the Bloodshed a month earlier than I did. The film would have made a wonderful coda to the book that I had recently finished on photography in documentary film, A Medium Seen Otherwise, which I’d just sent off to press. In the book, I argue that documentaries about photography enable us to see the medium differently, particularly in relation to photographic materiality and the event of photography. Indeed, the film could also serve as a coda for my first book, Reframing Bodies: AIDS, Bearing Witness, and the Queer Moving Image, which I completed fifteen years ago, in that Laura Poitras’s film demonstrates strong continuities to the AIDS cultural activism of the 1980s and ‘90s, but also crafts new means of mediated witnessing in the era of the COVID pandemic. Thus, I want to reflect here upon what the collaborative aesthetics of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed contribute to the intermedial incorporation of photography into documentary film and the mediated witnessing of historical trauma.

Many of the reviews of the film display an auteurist focus on the potential parallels between photographer Nan Goldin and the transgressive political subjects of Poitras’s previous documentaries, particularly that of Edward Snowden in CITIZENFOUR (2014). But Esther Zuckerman’s article in The New York Times published shortly before the theatrical release of the film takes a more insightful approach by examining how Poitras and Goldin came to collaborate. Although having respected each other’s work for many years, the two artists took time during COVID lockdown to build the necessary trust for making a film about Goldin’s intimate photographic practice: “They laid out an agreement about how the process would unfold. Goldin could speak freely during their conversations, knowing she would be involved in what material would ultimately be used in the finished film. The interviews were so personal that Poitras treated them as she would the top-secret documents she has handled in her career.” The resulting trust is clearly demonstrated through the film’s voiceover, in which Poitras can occasionally be heard asking Goldin a difficult question. We only see Poitras once at the beginning of the film in a brief shot behind her camera, sufficient to inscribe the presence of a conversation between them.

The incredible achievement of this collaboration is made all-the-more apparent when we compare it to Goldin’s earlier collaboration with a documentary filmmaker about her work, I’ll Be Your Mirror (co-directed by Edmund Coulthard, 1995). This 55-minute documentary was commissioned by the BBC to coincide with Goldin’s eponymous retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1996. Goldin’s voiceover covers much of the same material as All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, but it is presented as a confessional monologue performed in direct address to the microphone (and therefore to the film’s audience). Goldin’s verbal rhythm is faster, more performative, and seemingly less intimate than in Poitras’s film. Coulthard remains the permanently offscreen and unheard director, absenting any sign of collaboration between filmmaker and photographer. In interviews with her intimate circle, Goldin is the one occasionally heard offscreen asking a question or elaborating a memory. Rather than draw us into such an intimate space of shared memory, these comments actually reinforce our sense of being on its outside. By contrast, Poitras is our discrete proxy, drawing us into the conversation between her and Goldin. The filmmaker is, like us, outside of the social world captured in the pictures in multiple ways, but the trust between filmmaker and photographer engenders a space of witness, in which the listener’s active listening cofacilitates the testimony of the speaker.

If Goldin’s significance for the history of photography lies in her queering of family photography through the aestheticization of the snapshot and the transformation of the slideshow into queer public performance, then the conversation between Poitras and Goldin over photographs in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed marks the continuity of Goldin’s practice with vernacular photography as a multisensorial medium. As photographic historian Elizabeth Edwards notes, “Photographs are enmeshed in oral stories—personal, family, and community histories—as the narrated world is vocally articulated. They are performed through the spoken or sung human voice, telling stories to an audience—formal or informal—and framing social interaction.” As Goldin contends in the film, photographs are not memories, but they have the capacity to solicit them in an intersubjective encounter of witness, in which traumatic memory is coaxed from the collaboration between survivor and listener.

Photographer documentaries often aspire to a form of aesthetic mimicry in which the cinematography works to frame the world through the aesthetic sensibility of the photographer. For example, Reiner Holzemer’s documentary William Eggleston: Photographer (2008) follows Eggleston as he meanders the outskirts of Memphis in search of images. Holzemer embraces Eggleston’s idiosyncratic eye for surreal colorful detail in shots of the location during moments when the film camera is not trained on the photographer. Poitras’s aesthetic mimicry is of a different register. Goldin has long rejected faith in Cartier Bresson’s celebrated “decisive moment” in photography, which prioritizes the singular image: “I’ve always said that primarily the art is not photography, the art is editing. [. . .] The point is about making cinematic work out of still images, and the editing is where I feel my intelligence lies.” Thus, Poitras devotes more screen time to observing Goldin’s editing of images than to their initial capture. Moreover, she structures the film into chapters (I: Merciless Logic, II: Coin of the Realm, III: The Ballad, IV: Against Our Vanishing, V: Escape Hatch, and VI: Sisters) which function like Goldin’s own slideshows as they edit together the layers of past traumas and their legacies in the present. As a historical precursor to documentary film, the slide show embodies the intermediality between film and photography, not only in its temporal sequencing of images, but also the intimate darkness of its space of reception. In addition to mimicking the slideshow format, Poitras includes excerpts from Goldin’s slideshows with date credits that emphasize how the photographer continually reedits them in recognition of how the images shift in meaning for her. What were once celebratory documents of subcultural presence are now testaments to immeasurable loss in the face of AIDS, addiction, and gentrification. Poitras’ film becomes witness to this transmutation.

2 women holding hands and a man stare offscreen at a computer
Nan Goldin reads her victim impact statement to Sackler “faces of indifference.”

Although the scenes of Goldin’s activist organization P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) resonate with the political witnessing of ACT UP with their use of die-ins and graphic ingenuity (the opening scene even lingers over a protester wearing a “Silence=Death” t-shirt), arguably one of the most compelling moments of political witness in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed occurs when the Sackler family members are ordered by the bankruptcy court to listen to victim statements (following the insistent legal argument by P.A.I.N. that they had the moral obligation to do so). As this event occurred during the height of COVID, the proceedings are mediated through teleconferencing technologies. The Sackler family members are forced to look directly at the camera and their victims while the latter articulate the pain and suffering the Sacklers’ greed has caused. Poitras cuts among shots of the Sackler faces of indifference, the unbearable grief of parents sharing their loss, and Goldin watching the proceedings in her living room as she holds hands with her fellow activists. In stark contrast to the intimate screen space of the slideshow, the computer screen allows us to become witnesses to the brutal refusal to listen to traumatic testimony by the powerful. When Goldin’s time comes, her testimony speaks truth to power by insisting on the continuing injustice in which the family that bears principal responsibility for over half a million deaths in the United States has escaped criminal and civil liability for present and future generations. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed concludes on an affirmation of collaboration as P.A.I.N. activists and Patrick Radden Keefe, the journalist who first exposed the Sacklers, visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art after it had removed the Sackler name from seven of its galleries. As Goldin notes to the camera, while the bankruptcy court and the Justice Department had failed to serve justice to the Sacklers’ victims, it was only in the art world that they’d been held accountable through the collaborative force of P.A.I.N.’s direct action. Many photographers see the production of a documentary film about them as a valuable platform to broaden the audience for their work, yet the collaboration between Goldin and Poitras in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed achieves the more urgent task of extending the scope of P.A.I.N.’s political intervention well beyond the art world through its HBO distribution and Oscar nomination. Indeed, millions in the global audience for the telecast caught sight of the “Shame on Sackler” banner in the film’s brief montage sequence screened at the award show.

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