For those who were not there, it’s difficult to understand what it was like to be at one of the many protests at New York museums during the late 2010s. It can be hard to conjure the mixture of righteous rage and brave optimism voiced by those who attended these actions. It can be tough to imagine the electricity in the air, and the feeling of impending danger, too.
There was the sense that art museums—and their relationship to deep-pocketed philanthropists—were about to be radically reshaped, but not before a long and difficult battle. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Laura Poitras’s latest documentary, is the only form of reporting I’ve encountered that closely approximates the mood of one of these actions.
The documentary’s subject, the photographer and filmmaker Nan Goldin, was a leader in many of them. With her group P.A.I.N., she raised awareness for museums’ ties to the Sackler family, who, through the company Purdue Pharma, produced OxyContin, a painkiller with highly addictive properties that many say led to the opioid crisis. The opening of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed depicts the famed 2018 protest led by P.A.I.N. at the Met’s Temple of Dendur, which was shown in a gallery that formerly bore the Sackler name. “I’m really nervous now,” Goldin murmurs as she spies security officers skulking around, seemingly unaware of what’s about to happen.
Then Goldin swallows any anxiety she may have had as pill bottles are rained down into surrounding reflecting pools. She and other protestors get down on the floor and play dead, their arms and legs slumped across smoothly polished stones. Poitras places her camera close to the ground, allowing viewers to take the perspective of the activists and get in on the action themselves. It was bracing stuff to witness, and it remains equally thrilling in Poitras’s hands.
Goldin was herself nearly a victim of the opioid crisis. In a piercing Artforum essay from 2018, she publicly revealed that she became addicted to OxyContin after it was prescribed to her following a surgery. When OxyContin was no longer enough, she took what she thought was dope. It ended up being fentanyl, and she overdosed. It’s a story that’s grown all too familiar. “I can’t stand by and watch another generation disappear,” she wrote.
Were Poitras’s film merely about how Goldin was moved to action, it would be powerful enough. But Poitras goes one step further, threading that narrative through a remarkable recounting of Goldin’s evolution as a person and an artist. In All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, one of the great documentaries about an artist, any boundaries between activism and art, art and life, and life and work are blown open.
At its root, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is about Goldin’s sister Barbara, who, at age 18, died by throwing herself in front of a train. Barbara, Goldin recalls, spoke in complete sentences when she was one year old and then suddenly stopped speaking altogether for a period. This, in Goldin’s reading, was an early form of protest; so too was Barbara’s expression of desire for other women, which landed her first in an orphanage, then in a mental health facility. “Her rebellion was a starting point for my own,” Goldin says.
Yet, as Goldin later opines, “It’s easy to make your life into stories, but it’s harder to sustain real memories.” The film, which won the Venice Film Festival’s top prize, marks one heartfelt attempt to envision Goldin’s mental keepsakes as living, breathing things.
Doing so has always been one of the goals of Goldin’s photography, much of which centers around her friends and lovers. She has frequently arranged her spiky, unpolished images in slideshows set to a soundtrack of her choosing, a format that by its very nature is nostalgic. Seen in this way, her images are reminders of how fleeting life can be, and how, if seen anew, the past can come alive, albeit briefly.
It’s an effect that Poitras herself seems to strive for, separating each of the film’s segments with the click of a projector. Poitras lingers on the early parts of Goldin’s life, allowing the artist to expound about figures such as David Armstrong, who later became a photographer himself. They met as rebellious teenagers after Goldin left home and went to an alternative community school, and they remained close. It was their bond that brought Goldin into the fold of a universe populated almost entirely by queer people in the Boston area. By the time she and Armstrong relocated to New York, “normal people were marginalized to us,” she says.
Photography, Goldin says in this documentary, was a “way to walk through the fear.” It was also “better than sex,” she later recalls. This may explain why, once she moved to New York, her pictures became explicitly erotic and often deeply, quietly sad.
“The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” (1986) is justly Goldin’s most famous series. Its images are unforgettable: you don’t look at images like 1982’s Greer and Robert on the bed, NYC, featuring a smeary image of a curled-up Greer Lankton beside the artist Robert Vitale, and wipe them from your memory easily. Today, most don’t know how unusual these photographs were at the time, when the medium was still thought to be at its best when it was glossy, in black and white, and sharply composed.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed smartly reverses this art-historical amnesia by allowing Goldin to talk about her work’s formal audaciousness, which she knew would trigger any dealers who saw it. (Kudos to dealer Matthew Marks for recognizing something exciting in the work early on.) Her aim was to document life as it passed before her, not to produce museum-quality work. “I thought the art world was bullshit, and that Times Square was real life,” Goldin says here.
The film does not sanitize the milieu from which these pictures were borne. Goldin lucidly speaks about the dangers of sex work, which she herself undertook. She performed as a go-go dancer in New Jersey, and later became what she calls the “dominatrix” of Tin Pan Alley, a female-run bar that drew an unlikely clientele of leftists, art-world types, queer people, and IRS workers. Goldin also reports that there was violence at home, courtesy of her partner at the time, Brian, who physically abused her. There’s a photograph of Goldin gazing into the camera’s lens, with one of her eyes bloodied, its lid the color of an eggplant; the image lingers with you.
By this point, the film has made obvious that it’s not very interested in chronology, as most artist documentaries are. Goldin’s battle against the Sacklers is parceled out across the film’s runtime, so that “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” is shown minutes apart from a P.A.I.N. protest. Doing so shows that the anti-Sackler activism, the film’s initial focus before Poitras expanded it, was in some ways Goldin’s magnum opus, the ultimate implosion of life and art.
Fans of Poitras’s prior documentaries may be disappointed to see her go a rather traditional route here, talking-head-style interviews and all. Her past works, including the masterful Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour, have indulged more experimental modes. (Some have even been shown in art exhibitions.) But she has not chosen to leave behind her career-long interest in reversing forms of surveillance entirely.
Continuing the work she did with figures like Snowden and Julian Assange, Poitras has fully embedded herself within P.A.I.N., offering extended sequences in which its members best devise how to capture the public’s attention. Some of these members go on to claim they are being watched by agents working for the Sacklers. The Sacklers told her the members’ allegations were “untruths,” but Poitras does capture a shadowy man driving a car with tinted windows who appears to be taking pictures of Goldin. It’s safe to say no other documentary about an artist has a sequence as tense as that one.
By its end, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed reaches emotional heights that few films like it have obtained. There’s a remarkable scene in which Goldin finally communicates with the Sacklers via Zoom call as part of the legal proceedings against them. Goldin stands her ground as she tells of her addiction, overdose, and recovery, but Poitras’s camera lingers on the artist’s trembling hand, which clasps the palm of her fellow activist Megan Kapler. The shot recalls a remark Goldin makes early on: “I only escape because of my friends.”
Laura Poitras’s All the Beauty and the Bloodshed recently played at the New York Film Festival. It releases theatrically on November 23.