NEW YORK — She is not always highlighted, as she is one of the most innovative photographers of the last 50 years. But Nan Goldin is a movie buff. Big time.
Seeing Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” as a 15-year-old is what made Goldin want to become a photographer in the first place. She thinks of “The Ballad of Sex Addiction” — her signature collection of some 700 unfiltered images of Goldin’s life, his friends and lovers in early ’80s downtown New York — as a film that continues to assemble and reprocess. He has long dreamed of making a film, and he still does.
“It’s still my obsession,” says Goldin, sitting at a booth in a restaurant in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, on a recent rainy afternoon. “I watch a movie a day, normally. I watch what’s on TCM.”
So perhaps it’s no surprise that Goldin, whose life and activism is featured prominently in Laura Poitras’ Oscar-nominated documentary “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” is thrilled, even thrilled, to be going at the Oscars. He blames it on Barbara Stanwyck and Judy Holliday and Marlene Dietrich.
“I really want an Oscar,” Goldin says, smiling. “I didn’t expect it, but I do.”
“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” currently in theaters and on video-on-demand, is quite different from a traditional biopic. It depicts Goldin’s life story as a New York photographer with raw and radical intimacy and her demonstrations with the group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now as they pressured the world’s elite museums to expunge the Sackler name from their galleries. The Sackler family owns the OxyContin maker, Purdue Pharma.
The film is a rich, provocative fusion of art and activism. Poitras, who won best documentary for the 2014 Edward Snowden film “Citizenfour,” juxtaposes exchanges with Goldin documenting her life and work with footage of Goldin leading dramatic protests at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in Guggenheim and elsewhere.
Poitras, who joined Goldin for the interview, wanted the film to have a historical sweep, from the sexual repression of the 1950s, Goldin’s portraits of queer life in the ’70s and ’80s, his crisis AIDS and Goldin’s current transformation into an activist. PAIN’s displays resulted in the Sackler name being erased from most museums, including the Louvre and Tate Modern.
“It speaks as much to the power of the artist in society as it does to the power of the artist to communicate moral outrage at the failure of government,” says Poitras. “I wanted it to be epic.”
“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” won the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and will now bring Goldin, one of the leading image makers of many of the things Hollywood tends to shy away from – complicated sexuality, LGBTQ lives , unfiltered reality — in the industry’s glittering spotlight on March 12.
“I don’t think there are that many films that are as raw as my work. But I don’t think it’s against my integrity to love Hollywood,” Goldin says. “I don’t think the documentary gets enough credit, though. It’s not sexy.”
“I was there when there were no queer people making movies. So they try,” he adds. “But they are rich people, and I never trust rich people.”
Watching the documentary, Goldin says, is “a harrowing experience.” She’s a producer and she believes it, but it’s hard to see her life condensed into two hours. Still, Goldin, 69, enjoys much of the journey and finds it gratifying to see younger generations respond to her work.
“I love doing the Q&As,” says Goldin. “I like to wake people up.”
The opioid crisis has been linked to more than 500,000 deaths in the US since 1999. Goldin was almost one of them. While living in Berlin in 2014, Goldin overdosed on fentanyl. After wrist surgery, he became addicted to OxyContin for several years. But she doesn’t see her activism in personal terms.
“It had nothing to do with my addiction to OxyContin, or very little to do with it. It was about the overdose crisis,” he says. “The group has never been anti-opioid. He was not against medicine. It was about the use and the marketing and the addiction of America.”
Purdue Pharma and three executives pleaded guilty in 2007 and agreed to pay more than $600 million for misleading the public about the dangers of OxyContin. Both Goldin and Poitras lobbied the Justice Department to file individual criminal charges against the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma executives. In 2020, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to the marketing of OxyContin. Lawsuits continued.
Five years after Goldin led protesters to throw prescription bottles into the moat at the Met’s Temple of Dendur, the museum hosted a screening of All Beauty and Blood. Poitras jokes that the White House never invited her to the “Citzenfour” screening.
“I am proud of these museums. But there are still problems,” says Goldin. “The rest of the board, we’ve just scratched the surface. Their money isn’t exactly ethical, either. So that’s the problem. Where are the ethical billionaires?’
But the experience left Goldin feeling emboldened about what kind of change is possible — if people are willing to fight. The night before, Goldin attended an event with Bernie Sanders and Cornel West.
“It was almost titled ‘Brooklyn Kids,'” he says of the crowd. “They’re clapping wildly, but I don’t know what they’re really doing. Everyone needs to take to the streets because nothing is going to change otherwise.”
Documenting history—whether personal experience or political reality—is something Poitras and Goldin have in common, though usually from very different angles. Poitras has fearlessly documented government surveillance and the whistleblowers who bring state secrets to light.
“Images can remind us in this way of our history, what people suffered, what they went through,” says Poitras.
Back in Goldin’s studio, pictures of her old friends hang, many of them now dead.
“They’re all there,” he says. “I keep them alive every day.”
In the past few days, Goldin and Poitras have been spotted at the Academy Awards’ annual nominees dinner and BAFTAs in London. Goldin made some new friends on the awards circuit.
“I’ve become a bit friends with Paul Mescal. I hung out with him in London. We went to see Caravaggio together,” Goldin says with a smile.
After a long pause, Goldin begins to pick up her camera again. But what her eye is drawn to is not the same.
“I just started again. But I don’t photograph people. I photograph places,” Goldin says. “I just got out of the habit. I usually do what I have to do, urgently. And I urgently needed to photograph people all these years. I no longer have that urgency.”
But an ambition has rekindled: She would like to make a feature film, and even has in mind an adaptation of a book “about the everydayness of violence, how nondescript violence is.”
“Until I turned 65, I was immortal. Now I am mortal,” says Goldin. “So I don’t have that much time. This is what happens when you reach a certain age. The glow of mortality is bright. So I don’t want to waste it now.” ___
Follow AP film writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP
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