Writer Jimmy Dougan / Images from Nan Goldin and P.A.I.N
Her work, capturing 70s New York and beyond, is comforting and intimate yet violent and bleak. In one of the hundreds of images compromising her iconic The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, she stares back at us: her autumnal frizz frames a pale face defined by two purple welts around her eyes, inflicted by a boyfriend.
In another, an emaciated man lies dying from AIDS-related causes in a hospital bed as his partner tenderly kisses his forehead. Scrawny drag queens apply makeup in the back of a cab, nude lovers reach for each other in filthy bedrooms.
“I survived the opioid crisis. I narrowly escaped,” Goldin narrates. She was hooked on OxyContin, a highly addictive prescription drug manufactured by Purdue Pharma, a company owned by the Sackler family. Known for their artistic philanthropy, the Sackler name tarnishes the walls of galleries on a global scale, from the Guggenheim to the Tate to the Louvre.
Goldin’s fury is palpable. The opioid epidemic is a manufactured crisis, and she holds the Sackler family responsible for the fatal overdoses of over 500,000 Americans. To highlight this, she formed the protest group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now or (P.A.I.N.), composed mainly of recovering addicts and the loved ones of the dead.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is almost two films in one. Like Goldin’s photography it resists easy categorisation, deftly skipping across the years to give us both an evocative portrait of a singular artist, and a taut documentary about unchecked capitalism and a fringe-group committed to fighting it.
I am struck by the way Poitras’ posits Goldin’s drive for justice as resulting not only from her experiences with OxyContin, but from a miserable childhood in a repressed suburban home.
When Goldin was 11, her sister Barbara ended her own life at the age of 18. Goldin speculates, gently, that perhaps her sister couldn’t confront her own burgeoning homosexuality. The death was swept under the rug and Goldin – who recounts overhearing her parents decide to tell the family it was accidental – was sent to a foster family, just like her sister had been.
The spectre of Barbara haunts the film, even down to the title. This is, in a way, a reckoning. But I also get the impression that Goldin is calling out to Barbara across the ether for forgiveness. Goldin has seen what shame and repression can do, and she won’t let it happen again. Goldin isn’t protesting. She is crusading.
A chronic smoker, Goldin’s narration is gravel-rough. While some of her observations about her life in 70s New York can border on cliché (her first roommates were “running away from America”, apparently), there is a heightened poeticism to her words which brilliantly evokes a very particular time and place in American history.
Titans of art pass through the frame like displaced travellers, and I wonder if Goldin isn’t evoking so much as resurrecting: Cookie Mueller, David Wojnarowicz, Maggie Smith’s Tin Pan Alley. All are remembered, then delicately – gloriously – fall back into the cosmos.
Poitras lets the material breathe: swathes of the film simply set Goldin’s grainy videography to the music of the era. Her directorial flourishes are minimal yet impactful, such as dividing the film into seven titled chapters. Each begins with a sequence of photographs or filmed footage from Goldin’s life accompanied by her commentary, before sharply switching to the present day to follow P.A.I.N.
These latter sequences grip like a thriller, a feeling heightened by Poitras’ handheld camerawork and narrated testimony from The New Yorker journalist Patrick Radden Keefe.
Goldin’s protests have the touch of an artist: a fountain in the Met’s Sackler Wing is filled with empty pill bottles. Prescriptions rain down from the Guggenheim’s atrium, a child plays amongst corpses outside the V&A.
It is strange and beautiful.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is a singular work, representing the perfect marrying of two artists. It demonstrates a kind of synthesis between form and content, Poitras’ rare willingness to expose the corrupt and powerful collides with Goldin’s own experiences with grief and addiction.
Not since 2012’s The Act of Killing has ‘the documentary’ felt so exciting and raw, a medium of genuine political potential which seeks to radically undermine, and subsequently transform the ways in which we experience the world.
To the extent we can confidently discuss the future of any medium in the present moment, I feel like the future of the documentary is here.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed – official trailer
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed will be screened at Mockingbird Cinema, at The Custard Factory, from 27 January to 2 February.
For full listings and links to online ticket sales visit: www.mockingbirdcinema.com/production/all-the-beauty-and-the-bloodshed
To read more about Nan Goldin and P.A.I.N. go to: www.sacklerpain.org
For more on Mockingbird Cinema visit: www.mockingbirdcinema.com