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

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A.K.A. Doc Pomus


This is how it's done; Doc Pomus (center) performs in 1947.

This is how it’s done; Doc Pomus (center) performs in 1947.

 

(2012) Music Documentary (PBS International) Doc Pomus, Lou Reed, Dr. John, Ben E. King, Joan Osborne, Jerry Lieber, Raoul Felder, B.B. King, Peter Guralnick, Kenny Hirsch, Dion DiMucci, Shawn Colvin, Willi Burke, Alex Halberstadt, Ken Emerson, Marshall Chapman, Mike Stoller, Dave Marsh, Robin Lerner, Hal Willner, Josh Alan Friedman, Jimmy Scott, Gerry Goffin, Penny Arcade. Directed by William Hechter and Peter Miller

 Florida Film Festival 2013

The name Doc Pomus is probably not one you’re all that familiar with unless you’re one of those music fans who reads incessantly about classic rock and pop. Even if you’re one of those people, you still might not know the name and if you do, chances are you don’t know much more than that.

Pomus started his career as a blues singer, and those who have heard his early recordings were startled to find out that he wasn’t an old black man from the Delta but a white Jew from the Bronx. He was perhaps the most unlikely blues singer ever but he certainly understood the blues. Stricken with polio as a child, Doc was on crutches or a wheelchair most of his life. Not the best looking of men, he was still attractive to women largely with the force of his teddy bear personality but also with his sensitivity and genius for expressing love simply and elegantly.

Pomus has written or co-written (with frequent partner Mort Shuman) some of the most beloved songs in the history of music, including “Save the Last Dance,” “Teenager in Love,” “Suspicion,” “Young Blood” and “Viva Las Vegas” to name just a few. He started out as one of the Brill Building writers who brought hit after hit in the late 50s and early 60s. As writing their own songs became more en vogue for artists as the 60s grew more turbulent, Pomus became more of a gun for hire, continuing to write for artists as diverse as B.B. King, Dr. John, Ray Charles and Marianne Faithfull.

Pomus was also a tireless crusader for fellow writers and performers, making sure those who had been overlooked got breaks when he could arrange them. His efforts made him a beloved figure in the music industry and garnered him a lot of respect from those who knew about his behind the scenes work.

Pomus passed away in 1991 from lung cancer and was elected to both the Rock and Roll and Songwriter Halls of Fame the following year, honors richly deserved.  This documentary is a testimony to his lasting influence on music both as a songwriter but also as a champion for its preservation and as a mentor to literally dozens of writers who came after him, including such current hitmakers as Joan Osborne and Shawn Colvin.

This is a pretty standard music documentary with performance footage, interviews both archival and modern and a few graphic goodies. It is a fairly informative documentary but I’m not sure if that’s because Pomus is so criminally not well-known or because the filmmakers meant this to be that way (it is after all slated to air on PBS). Still, one must applaud the filmmakers for bringing back into the spotlight someone who deserved to be there from the beginning so it gets extra kudos and points for that alone.

Making music documentaries is not a matter of just slapping some clips and interviews together and this is certainly not that; some care and thought went into this and certainly that’s appreciated. However, this isn’t an innovative entry into the genre so if you’re looking for something that ventures beyond the Behind the Music formula, this doesn’t stray too far from that path. However if you’re looking to learn more about a giant of the industry whose story isn’t particularly well-known, you’ve come to the right place.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific music, some of the most iconic in rock and pop history. Tells the story of someone who doesn’t get the recognition he should have.

REASONS TO STAY: Slow in places. Loses steam near the end.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some drug use but mainly acceptable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pomus’ real name was Jerome Solon Felder.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie will be making festival appearances before an eventual airing on PBS.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sing Your Song

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: All the Light in the Sky and more coverage from the 2013 Florida Film Festival!

Paris, je t’aime


Paris je t'aime

This annoying Parisian mime has his poor woman beside herself.

(First Look) Juliette Binoche, Steve Buscemi, Willem Dafoe, Gerard Depardieu, Marianne Faithfull, Ben Gazzara, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Bob Hoskins, Olga Kurlyenko, Emily Mortimer, Nick Nolte, Natalie Portman, Miranda Richardson, Gena Rowlands, Barbet Schroeder, Rufus Sewell, Leonor Watling, Elijah Wood. Directed by Many, Many Directors

Ah, Paris, the City of Light. No other city in the world conjures romance and civilization the way the capital of France does. Visions of sidewalk cafes, the Left Bank, the beautiful architecture and the masterpieces at the many museums make Paris a city where one’s oeuvre for the finer things in life can be properly exercised.

But like any city its size, Paris has more than just one face and more than just one personality. Paris has many neighborhoods, some ethnically arranged and others more lifestyle arranged. One of the joys of exploring Paris is to delve into these neighborhoods, not all of which turn up in guidebooks.

Some of them, however, appear here in this love letter to and from Paris. 18 vignettes have been directed by some of the world’s best directors (or teams, such as the Coen Brothers) like Gus van Sant and Isabel Coixet. Appearing in them is a tremendous international cast, some of whom (but not all) are detailed above.

Each vignette is set in a different neighborhood in Paris and all have something to do with love, which is fitting enough. As with any anthology film of this nature, the segments work to varying degrees but I have to say that I can’t honestly say that any of them are horrible.

The only one that really feels jarring to me is the one directed byVincenzo Natali, whose “Quartier de la Madeleine” is a Gothic vampire romance, with Bond girl Olga Kurlyenko chasing Elijah Wood through fog-shrouded streets. The tone differs from any of the other films here and it felt more like a Parisian Twilight episode which didn’t really work for me.

Other than that one misstep, there is some magnificent work here. In Japanese director Nobuhiro Suwa’s “Place de Victoires,” a grieving mother (played with astonishing power by Juliette Binoche) gets a chance to say goodbye to her dead son as given by a cowboy (Willem Dafoe) who is acting not unlike Charon on the River Styx, escorting the boy to his final destination. It’s the most powerful segment in the movie in many ways.

Another wonderful piece is “Quartier Latin” by actor Gerard Depardieu and co-director Frederic Aubertin (who also directed the linking segments). Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands, veterans of the John Cassavetes stable, play an aging couple who get together the night before they see the lawyer to finalize their divorce. It is bittersweet without being cloying, a tribute to the two actors who pull off some of the more understated work of the movie.

In a different vein, the Coen Brothers direct their Steve Buscemi in the ”Tuileries” segment for slapstick comedy, as a mute tourist is warned not to make eye contact in the Metro station and foolishly does, twice, leading to all sorts of mayhem being perpetrated on Buscemi, who takes more abuse from the Coens than he has since “Fargo.” The Coens do this kind of thing as well as anybody ever has.

Even horror director Wes Craven gets a shot, with his set in the cemetary at “Pere Lachaise” features Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell as an engaged couple scouring the cemetary for the grave of Oscar Wilde, with Sewell getting romantic advice from the ghost of the writer himself. While this sounds on the surface to be right in Craven’s wheelhouse, it’s actually a bit of a departure for him, being much more romantic than we’re used to from the auteur of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street and the Scream franchise.

The great Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron does a stunning job with “Parc Monceau,” shooting the segment in one long continuous shot, allowing Nick Nolte to do his thing as a doting father trying to maintain a bond with his daughter. In “Pigalle,” director Richard LaGravenese need do nothing more than film a conversation slash argument between married couple Bob Hoskins and the extraordinarily sophisticated and beautiful Fanny Ardant.

Alexander Payne of Sideways fame directs the concluding vignette, “14th Arrondissement” with superb character actress Margo Martindale narrating the effect a trip to Paris had on the life of a frumpy Midwestern postal worker. It’s a sweet little coda that ties things together nicely.

As I said, not everything works but most work well enough to be reasonably satisfying and all have at least something to recommend them. All in all, it’s a pleasant little pastry that has been put together with loving care by many of the best chefs in the business, and it’s ready for you to sample and I recommend that you do, even if you don’t love Paris but especially if you do.

WHY RENT THIS: A cornucopia of wonderful vignettes about the City of Light with something of a tasting menu of some of the finest film directors in the world.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the segments flat-out don’t work.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some bad language, a bit of sexuality (it is Paris after all), a few mildly frightening moments and some adult themes. While there’s nothing really that you wouldn’t let your children watch, they would probably be bored to tears unless they’re Francophiles.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original intention of the movie was for each segment to represent a specific arrondissement in Paris (there are 20 in all) but this idea was abandoned.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: In the special edition 2-disc DVD Steelbox edition of the film, there are 18 featurettes, each devoted to a specific segment of the movie. Oddly, these aren’t available on the Blu-Ray making it a rare instance where a DVD edition has more extras than the corresponding Blu-Ray edition.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Paris 36 (Faubourg 36)