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‘All the Beauty and the Bloodshed’ is beautiful portrait of Nan Goldin’s art, activism

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NOVEMBER 16, 2022

Grade: 4.5/5.0

Nan Goldin was fine with her subjects, often friends, wanting to tear up photographs of themselves. To Goldin, the point of photography was to give her subjects a beautiful perspective on themselves. If they didn’t like what they saw in the photo, why keep it? 

Perhaps the single most unifying theme running through Laura Poitras’ documentary “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is Goldin’s own commitment to collectivity. The documentary is a portrait of Goldin — not a biography — and works within the same ethic that Goldin advocates. Goldin herself was deeply involved in the editing process, as Poitras explained at a Q&A following the film’s screening at SFFILM’s Doc Stories. 

“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” uses both Goldin and her work as its guiding light. The film features pieces of Goldin’s exhibitions, such as her 1985 slideshow “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” with the artist unpacking their context through voice-over. Poitras’ interviews with Goldin cover everything from the artist’s formative years, how her practice took form, the AIDS movement and Goldin’s recent activism within the opioid crisis. 

It’s a lot to juggle, but the film manages it with supreme dexterity. While “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” commits substantially to discussing the opioid crisis, it’s even more dedicated to delving into who Goldin is, figuring out what led her to orchestrate some of the art world’s most notable protests. 

One of the most defining qualities of Poitras’ work has been her acumen as a storyteller. Her films ask what a person is doing, but they also explore, with a light footed sensitivity, how that person got to that point. 

Through the lens of Goldin’s photography, archival footage and the perspective of her friends and contemporaries, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” weaves a fabric of Goldin’s upbringing among New York City’s outcasts, its experimentalists. They were the ones, according to Goldin, who would’ve looked like characters to outsiders.

Among those characters were David Wojnarowicz, Vivienne Dick and David Armstrong. Place was no less of an actor in Goldin’s life; the film pays careful attention to her homes and haunts. New York’s Bowery was the home that helped her feel comfortable seeing herself as an artist. The bars she frequented were the places she could feel safe in a city that wasn’t yet safe for its queer people. 

Poitras isn’t one for establishing shots. She likes the details to build until, through the life of one person, a community and a movement take shape. The film is privy to all sorts of details (some so personal Goldin hasn’t told them until now) and novelties: Goldin befriended John Waters, Divine and Cookie Mueller by making buttons for them in Provincetown, and she met Armstrong in a steak aisle while they were both stealing steaks. 

By revealing, and asking Goldin to reveal, so much, Poitras sets up the stakes for Goldin’s activism against Purdue. When Goldin says, “It’s personal. I hate these people,” near the start of the film — just after footage of the die-in at the Met — the rest of the film becomes dedicated to showing why Goldin hates them and how they threaten the people and communities she holds close.

So much of the film is given over to those people, allowing it an authentic texture it otherwise wouldn’t have had. In the hands of someone less committed to uncovering the breadth of a story, this documentary might’ve had the patina of our modern lexicon, a system of interchangeable messages of support and encouragement. In Poitras’ hands, Goldin’s life is rendered with the grooves of experience. 

But this isn’t a film with any strong feelings about authorship, and calling it Poitras’ may be giving too much credit to any one person. In the film’s end credits, a dedication reads, “To my sister: Barbara Goldin.” Poitras’ name may be on the poster, but the film is about and part of a milieu of sharing — communal survival. 

Contact Dominic Marziali at 

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NOVEMBER 16, 2022