Last night I caught my second viewing of Shannah Laumeister‘s Bert Stern: Original Madman (Nuart, opening today), and it played even better. It’s a very carefully sculpted, completely candid and altogether penetrating Portrait Of An Artist As An Old Man Who Has No Lying In Him. Stern is/was a profoundly successful commercial photographer and an artist of the first rank, and we all know what many artists are like. Some of them focus obsessively on the art and everything else in their life tends to be under-nourished as a result. These artists are therefore selfish and/or obsessed with whatever they happen to want or need at the moment, and are less successful within their emotional and family relationship realms.
I trust I’m not shocking anyone with this observation which was common knowledge to guys like Socrates, Euripides, Plutarch, etc.
In Laumeister’s film Stern acknowledges that for much of his life he was quite the hound. Which was linked to his brilliant photos of beautiful name-brand celebrities (including, most famously, Marilyn Monroe) as his feelings of worship and adoration went into his way of shooting them. But Stern is a sympathetic figure because he has big soulful eyes and a soft voice and he confesses quietly and doesn’t seem to lie or half-lie about anything. I am who I am and I have no excuses, but at least I’m not angry and I speak quietly and I love my children and many other people in my life.
I was reminded last night of the negative 4.4. review of this film by N.Y. Times critic Jeannette Catsoulis, and this is my response. It is the mark of an absolutely pedestrian mentality that would regard Mr. Stern as portrayed in this amazing doc and say in effect, “This man is icky and deplorable and this doc is not approved because it doesn’t condemn Stern for his selfish indulgences and transgressions, and in fact winks at it.” That, Ms. Catsoulis, is the voice of a politically correct scold who doesn’t get it. Stern is guilty of being a lifelong libertine, yes, but to address only that aspect in a tsk-tsk, finger-wagging way to is to focus on a moral-behavior side issue at the expense of a deeper, sadder and more beautiful whole.
Here’s the Catsoulis review along with my occasional comments:
Graph #1: “’I used to have a secret relationship with you,’ the photographer Bert Stern, 83, says to the filmmaker Shannah Laumeister, 40 years his junior. ‘Now it’s public.’ That relationship is both a blessing and a curse for Bert Stern: Original Mad Man, Ms. Laumeister’s adoring profile of the man she met at 13 and whose muse she would eventually become.” Wells comment: One of the most striking and novel aspects of the doc is the fact that Laumeister has had an off-and-on affair with Stern over the last couple of decades (and perhaps further back). Hardly a “curse” but a point of exceptional intrigue.
Graph #2: “Clearly distrustful of a camera in anyone’s hands but his own” — many photographers and journalists feel the same way — “Mr. Stern seems unlikely to have tolerated the film’s ruthless close-ups and personal intrusions from another filmmaker. As it is he recounts his rise from mailroom boy at Look magazine (where Stanley Kubrick was a staff photographer) to mold-breaking adman and celebrity snapper with grumpy resignation.”
Graph #3: “But anyone looking to dissect Mr. Stern’s prodigious talent must look elsewhere, as he would much rather talk about women. As Marilyn, Madonna and Twiggy slide across the screen, his candid observations on those he has held in his lens and his bed are uncomfortable at best and distasteful at worst.” Wells comment: In other words an artist cannot convey the emotional passion that partly or largely fed his art, and he/she can’t be open and honest about who he/she is or was because it’s “distasteful” to people like Catsoulis?
Graph #3 and 1/2: “Tokyo, where [Stern] was stationed during the Korean War, apparently offered a windfall of willing partners.” Wells comment: And that’s reprehensible? Every occupying G.I. who went out with women in post-war Japan and Germany of the late 1940s and early ’50s, in some cases in exchange for money, food and clothing that the women probably needed, was a deplorable scumbag? Tyrone Power played one of those scumbags in Witness for the Prosecution (’57). Marlon Brando and Red Buttons played variations on this form of scumbag in Sayonara (’57).
Back to Catsoulis: “And watching his interactions with the luscious Lavender twins, his sometime models and near-constant companions, it’s difficult not to view him as more Hugh Hefner than Richard Avedon.” Wells comment: Why can’t Stern be regarded as a combination of the two? And why does the Hefner side necessarily detract from the Avedon side?
Catsoulis: “An unappealing jumble of sex, regret and hero worship, Bert Stern is an odd tribute to brilliance muffled by lust.” Wells comment: Not “muffled” but augmented, supplemented, complemented.
Catsoulis: “’Women are everything,’ Mr. Stern tells us, wistfully. ‘Man is just a muscle.’ Maybe so; but Ms. Laumeister needs to be reminded that it’s what’s above the neck that makes him interesting.” Wells comment: The above-the-neck and the interior-of-the-soul stuff is almost entirely what Laumeister’s film is about. The below-the-neck content is included because — hello? — it happened, and because Stern doesn’t have a filter that would lead to the usual dodgings and omissions. Stern lived through what was perhaps the most socially pervasive erotic free-for-all mentality in the history of Western Civilization — nothing like it had been seen since the high-debauch days of the Roman empire — and it simply would have been dishonest and totally second-rate of Laumeister to have ignored this.