Most documentaries about the lives & works of artists are majorly self-conflicted in their form & content. The artist being profiled can be the most provocative, combative bombthrower in the history of their medium, and their retrospective documentary will still be the safest Wikipedia-in-motion overview of their life imaginable. I don’t know that the recent doc Wojnarowicz ever matches the righteous fury of its own subject, but you can’t say it doesn’t try. Fully titled (please excuse the incoming slur) Wojnarowicz: Fuck You Faggot Fucker, the film clearly attempts to recreate the in-your-face political activism of its subject’s ACT UP-era queer resistance & art. It’s nowhere near as inventive, shocking, or confrontational as multimedia artist David Wojnarowicz was in his own time, but it’s at least bold & propulsive enough to convey what made his art so vitally incendiary.
It helps that almost all of the documentary’s imagery was created by Wojnarowicz himself, supplemented by audio interviews with the people who personally knew him. Paintings, prints, stencils, photographs, 3D instillations, audio journals, and a soundtrack from his post-punk band 3 Teens Kill 4 overwhelm the screen, often as David himself rants about the grotesque injustices of the world at large and of 1980s NYC in particular. There’s a vibrant, purposeful anger to his visual art and his recorded monologues that especially comes into sharp relief in discussions of the AIDS crisis and the Reagan administration’s genocidal indifference to that epidemic. There’s no shortage of worthwhile targets for Wojnarowicz’s fury, though, and he throws well-observed punches at the irresponsible vapidity of news media, the grotesque elitism of fine art collectors, and the economic disparity that led him to hustling as a runaway teen, among other social ills. When he was alive, most of Wojnarowicz’s contemporaries likely would’ve reductively described his unbridled anger as a mentally ill artist sabotaging his own success. Here, his work is properly contextualized as confrontational, queer activism in direct opposition to economic exploitation & respectability politics.
The purposeful, incendiary provocation of Wojnarowicz’s art reminded me a lot of Marlon Riggs, along with the more obvious No Wave contemporaries in his social circle (most notably Richard Kern). If Wojnarowicz had survived the AIDS epidemic to make this film himself as a self-portrait retrospective, I imagine it might’ve come out as invigorating as Tongues Untied, Riggs’s magnum opus. Director Chris McKim instead does his best to recreate that exact era of queer-activist video art with the clips, scraps, and completed works that Wojnarowicz left behind after dying at the hands of governmental indifference. The result is one of the few hagiographic documentaries on an artist’s life that approximate the shock & awe of their subjects’ actual work: Sick, Crumb, Marwencol, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, etc. At the very least, it leaves you infuriated that Wojnarowicz and his immediate community were purposefully abandoned & encouraged to die by their own government at the height of the AIDS epidemic; he likely would’ve been proud of that effect.
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