Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful


Newton’s Teutonic sensibility of beauty is both cold and sexy.

 (2020) Documentary (Kino LorberHelmut Newton, Grace Jones, Anna Wintour, Isabella Rossellini, Charlotte Rampling, June Newton, Hanna Schygula, Catherine Deneuve, Marianne Faithfull, Claudia Schiffer, Sylvia Gobbel, Phyllis Posnick, Carla Sozzoni, Nadja Auermann. Directed by Gero von Boehm

 

Helmut Newton is often described in terms of being a provocateur, an enfant terrible, the King of Kink, as Anna Wintour, the doyenne of Vogue magazine and one of his main employers, dubbed him. His photographs were often controversial, but always memorable.

He was born in Germany and grew up there during the age of the Weimar Republic, whose aesthetic influenced his work to a large extent. The rise of the Nazi party and their depiction of the human form (he admired Leni Riefenstahl’s work in Olympia although he bristles at the thought that she was an influence, seeing as he was Jewish and ended up fleeing Germany with his family). His was an essentially Teutonic aesthetic.

At the time he was working (he passed away in a car accident in Los Angeles in 2004 at the age of 83) he was recognized as an artist, an influence on how women were photographed (for better or for worse). Seen through the lens of 2020, perhaps we are less kind to him; often his pictures depicted women nude, and they were nearly always white (Grace Jones, the Jamaican singer, was one of the few exceptions), blonde, tall and statuesque. Often, they were posed in bondage gear, or in demeaning poses – there was often an element of S&M to his oeuvre – and his models often glared defiantly at the camera, a cigarette dangling petulantly from lips heavily painted with lipstick, smoke wreathing the lower part of their jaw.

His work hasn’t aged well in the sense that we are a different culture now; even though his portraiture depicted women as being strong and in control in most  occasions (and many of his models interviewed here said that even posing butt naked they felt safe and strong when posing for him) but many consider him a misogynist; certainly feminist Susan Sontag, who appeared with him on a French talk show (shown here) pointedly made the accusation, which he denied. “I love women” he protests, to which she responds “That doesn’t impress me. Misogynists always say they love women. Executioners love their victims.”

I suppose I would agree with the criticisms, except that nobody seems to be criticizing Robert Mapplethorpe, a contemporary, for shooting men in the same manner. There is a double standard here, reversed. There are those who say that it’s about time; as my mother might say, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Von Boehm, a veteran of German television, chooses not to make this a biography; Newton himself jokes during one of his archival interviews that “photographers are boring…if you want to know all that (details about his life and influences), I’m saving that for someone who has a lot more money than you.” Like many artists, he prefers to let his work speak for itself.

We mostly hear from the women in his life – his wife June (mostly in audio clips), Wintour, gallery curator Carla Sozzoni and a host of women who posed for him over the years; Jones, actresses Charlotte Rampling, Isabella Rossellini, Catherine Deneuve and Hanna Schygula, models Claudia Schiffer, Nadja Auermann and Sylvia Gobbel, and singer Marianne Faithfull. Most of them praise the photographer, although Jones admits with her typical candor “He was a pervert. That’s good; so am I.”

The film is hagiographic in that it really doesn’t address the criticisms – valid as they are – about his depiction of women. His wife describes him as a “naughty boy who grew up to be an anarchist” which is about as close to a description of who he was as you are likely to get. The filmmakers seem to be trying to allow the viewer to develop their own opinions about his work, but there isn’t enough of an opposing viewpoint to allow for an informed opinion. The images of Newton’s work are all that is offered, in the end, to consider and there is definitely an artistic vision at work here. Whether you believe it is art or misogyny is going to depend on you.

REASONS TO SEE: The images are compelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really biographical so much as an exhibition of his work.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of nudity, some sexuality and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Newton’s ashes are interred three plots down from Marlene Dietrich in Berlin.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Times of Bill Cunningham
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Opus of an Angel

Somewhere


There is always something to be said for room service.

There is always something to be said for room service.

(2010) Drama (Focus) Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning, Michelle Monaghan, Chris Pontius, Lala Sloatman, Amanda Anka, Ellie Kemper, Laura Chiatti, Damian Delgado, Benicio del Toro, Kristina Shannon, Karissa Shannon, Ruby Corley, Angela Lindvall, Maryna Linchuk. Directed by Sofia Coppola

Fame isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. What do you do when any desire you could think of is yours for the asking? I think it’s very easy to become jaded and numb to everything.

Johnny Marco (Dorff) is in such a state. A longtime star of meaningless action films, he has boozed and pilled his way through life. His love life has become meaningless encounters that don’t always include sex – he likes to hire twin strippers (Shannon and Shannon) to do pole dances in his bedroom of his Chateau Marmont apartment. Chateau Marmont is representative of his life; no fixed address but there are staff members to pamper and cater to his every whim.

Into his life comes Cleo (Fanning), a daughter from a brief and ill-advised marriage. She needs somewhere to stay while her mom is in rehab. Johnny is agreeable enough; she’ll cramp his style somewhat but the role of father is one he hasn’t played yet, and Johnny needs to stretch himself.

So between Johnny and his best friend Sammy (Pontius) they act in a dad/buddy way, taking Cleo along for the ride in an endless parade of publicity events, interviews and award ceremonies. Johnny isn’t the best role model there is for his daughter, but at least he makes something of an effort. He isn’t unkind to her, although he tends to shift her out of his sight when she gets in the way of his priorities.

Coppola has some experience with this, being that she’s been around the industry all her life (her daddy is Francis Ford Coppola who has been bringing her to the set since she was a baby). How difficult is it to be a parent when you’re living in a world far removed from reality? I suspect quite a bit. If everyone around you tells you that you can do no wrong, how can you teach the difference between right and wrong?

I’m not sure that was what Coppola was after though. She has stated that she wasn’t trying to make a linear narrative so much as creating a mood. If that’s the case she’s definitely succeeded – there’s a mood here. I’m just not sure if it’s a mood you might want to get in. There’s an indolent feeling, a lack of energy and inertia that makes the whole movie feel like it’s getting over a bad cold.

It’s a good looking movie though. Cinematographer Harris Savides does a great job of catching the world of stardom through a soft lens. It’s a world of privilege and pampering, of people who have absolutely no idea what real people deal with and one in which Johnny Marco has to come face to face with when his daughter shows up at his door. Yes, it’s exactly like Ginger arriving at Gilligan’s Island.

I think the intentions here were noble but in the final analysis I just didn’t connect with the movie. Dorff, not a household name at least yet, is thoroughly likable in a lot of ways and actually makes the character live but it’s his occasional bouts with self-centeredness – which is really putting it mildly – that make the character ultimately one you don’t want to spend an hour and change with, let alone one you’d want to identify with. The trouble with living the life of the rich and famous is that it is an easy thing to lose one’s soul in doing it.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully photographed. Dorff does a terrific job.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lifeless and numb. Makes it hard to get involved in a movie when you don’t get the sense the filmmakers were either.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s quite a bit of sexuality, some nudity and a fair bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dorff actually lived at the Chateau Marmont during filming in order to get a feel for the lifestyle and the character.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $13.9M on a $7M production budget; it pretty much broke even during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Janie Jones

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: A.C.O.D.