There’s a reason that this film the won Golden Lion.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed combines the beauty found in the photography of the doc’s main subject Nan Goldin with the tragedy she’s encountered in her life that inspires her work. The film has essentially two parts in which it compares and contrasts two parts of Nan’s life before her battle with Oxycontin and after. Likely funded because of its access to look at Goldin’s work as what I would deem the creative head of the protest group, P.A.I.N. This group of harrowing individuals used their voice to try and take down the name of the Sackler family, the group that owns Purdue Pharma the manufacturer behind the highly addictive Oxycontin painkiller. The other part of the film is Nan telling her life story up to when she became addicted to Oxycontin and how her artistic career developed before she would risk it by standing up to the financial power of the Sackler Family, a family that had made their name the mainstay of the most prestigious museums where Goldin’s work would come to take up residence in.
Goldin chooses to tell her life story through her personal artistic medium: slideshows of photographs that she has specifically chosen to accompany her personal tale of woe. It starts with her life at home where the dysfunction of her family moved her towards the liberating movements and diverse peoples of the 1970s art world. This was a place where she lived with people who were on the outskirts of society: drag queens, sex workers, and trans people, many of whom consumed drugs such as speed and cocaine. Goldin doesn’t hide who they were, what they did or the questionable decisions she made. Instead, she embraces them. Despite some level of acceptance from the art world, she’s always been forced to the left because of who she was and the people that she loved were always pushed to the outskirts. Goldin is a woman who embraces sexual freedom, and believes in the love between people but also noted the ugliness of the dependency it creates in us. Specifically, she challenged the ways that women find themselves below men in many sexual and romantic contexts, an experience that she was familiar with.
Still despite the hardships in life around Goldin, she constantly found beauty amid the tragedy. Her work championed the lives of these people whose voices did not carry political or social influence. She aimed to give them a voice by showing them as they were, photographing her living with them, and simply experiencing life. This sort of representation was a far cry from the manipulative political work that we sometimes see today. In fact, her approach to photography was initially rejected by the art world. At the time, artistic photography was found in black-and-white portraits of things or people of some significance. No one was documenting their own life like Goldin was. But it made her stand out because who she was and who her subjects were inherently stood out from the largely hetero-white male-controlled art space.
This was not the intention of the film at first. Goldin’s goal was to document P.A.I.N’s protest efforts at the different museums but director Laura Poitras saw the connection between the artistry of Nan Goldin’s photography career and the way that P.A.I.N would approach protesting. They were never boring; they used their resources to call attention to the most damaging parts of the Oxycontin scheme. At the Guggenheim, one of the members had the idea to throw these printed prescriptions of Oxycontin. There’s a beauty in how these sheets of paper float down from the many floors of the main hall acting as a demonstration of the insane number of prescriptions Oxycontin Purdue pushed for. They only had the intention to make money by making Oxycontin the most used and sold drugs in the United States (and they succeeded because it was so addictive). Normal teenagers and adults across the world took it to get relief from common work incidents, vehicular accidents, and sports injuries. But then they would crave the pill and start ingesting it in any way they could to try and peak their high. Leading to a number of deaths linked directly to Oxycontin and even more from harder drugs these people turned to in search of relieving their cravings.
The photography slideshows mostly put together by Goldin and inspired by her shows are some of the most profound parts of the film. It depicts a unique part of the world captured by an artistic voice who was ahead of her time. While we’re all now fighting to try and create the nicest looking Instagram photos of our friends and family, Goldin did it better by taking calculated and precise snapshots of her life using film stock she frankly couldn’t afford. Yet that scarcity and the unique approach to capturing her own life is what made her such an artist and can be how we can view the millions of images we scroll through every day as art. But she doesn’t let her personal work steer the project away from the greater issues. Her personal art has always been a way to raise voices and express the beauty of a people who would be ignored or silenced (or worse, killed).
This escalated in wake of the AIDS crisis. When she came back from New York after living in Berlin to discover how many of her people have died or are dying. She then takes this ongoing tragedy and tries to use her work to raise awareness. Her next show in New York would be about the AIDS crisis, a topic no government or national artistic association would make the nation aware of because it wasn’t considered correct. As a result, the gallery that received funding from an important national arts grant would have that money stripped from them. These institutions were especially afraid of Goldin giving the pen over to her longtime friend David, a man who would not waste any words in expressing her anger at the politicians and leaders of the church who simply ignored or condemned people with AIDS. He truly couldn’t waste time or words because he was one of many who was stricken with AIDS as well.
Goldin and Poitras teamed up to marry her life’s work and her present activism into a beautiful portrait of who Nan Goldin is. Her work humanized and gave life to a generation of people who really struggled to be heard. I sincerely appreciate the use of Goldin’s still and moving photography. The slideshows where she would tell stories over her photographs used powerful music and made the story compelling. Without her as the central subject of the film, it would become a lot more scattered, but she anchors it together and her life story elevates those of the people around her. Her story stands in for the hundreds of thousands of stories of how Oxycontin devastated the lives of families, friends, and lovers around the world. Its most beautiful moments come from the honest stories told by the people involved in this tragedy.
Personally, I wish some of it could have been captured in a similar style to the photos Goldin took but the active situations they are caught in probably required the digital look. The story is told in seven chapters which works great for pacing because it feels like we keep moving. However, some parts of the film do feel slow and, by the end, it felt a little long. Still, I deem the editing to be well done within the scenes which tell full stories and use many amazing photographs. These slideshow scenes allow Goldin’s natural pauses to help us understand the importance of what she is saying or the images we see. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is one of the best films of the year and should be seen by anyone who has ever appreciated art or believed personal stories can change the world.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is now available in theatres.