All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (Laura Poitras, US)

By Haden Guest  

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is the third in a series of portrait films by Laura Poitras focused on prominent activists pitched in quixotic struggle against dark forces undergirding the US as a global capitalist superpower. Unlike the divisive figures engaged by her previous features—Edward Snowden and Julian Assange—Poitras’ latest subject, Nan Goldin, could never be dismissed as a self-serving gadfly. An artist, witness, and survivor who has channelled her scarring life experiences, most notably opioid addiction, into her recent work valiantly fighting Big Pharma, Goldin brings a welcome human dimension to Poitras’ larger project to empower dissent. Thus, while Poitras closely follows Goldin’s spirited efforts to hold the Sackler family accountable for their willful profiteering from their signature product, the fatally addictive painkiller OxyContin, her documentary spends even more time plunging into the turbulent past of Goldin’s life story and evolution as an artist and activist.

Crucial here is Poitras’ embrace of the vital proto-cinema defined by the celebrated diaristic slideshows Goldin invented in the late ’80s and inaugurated by The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Goldin’s pioneering slideshow explored portraiture and its live presentation as a means to empower a community by giving back its self-image, acting as its mirror, to paraphrase the title of her 1996 Whitney show, and capturing the very essence of a time and place even as it was disappearing. In this case, the time and place was the Bowery in all its tawdry beauty and sadness, in the midst of the AIDS crisis and at the end of the No Wave anti-renaissance. The raw frankness of Goldin’s imagery continues to set her work apart, as does her courage to capture friends and acquaintances in their most intimate moments—fucking, shooting up, near death—while also including a series of devastating self-portraits, her face and one eye visibly damaged, battered and almost blinded by the same partner whose portraits recur throughout the slideshow. 

Seen today, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency offers a sobering contrast to the pernicious image-based community of social media, despite the off-kilter claims frequently made that Goldin’s work is its precursor. Yes, Goldin shared her portraits with her subjects, but she did so during participatory presentations to which her same subjects were invited in order to critique and edit the slideshows, removing or replacing images with which they were not comfortable. The economy of the image has changed dramatically since the late ’80s, largely due to social media, and the cult of instant creation and sharing cuts in every way against the extended duration and patiently cumulative process of The Ballad. The searing poignancy of The Ballad lies in the deliberate measure and careful sequence of its images, the movement from one photo to the next evoking the passage of time, death, mourning, and the lasting fragility of photographic memory. The slideshow was made gradually and through open collaboration, a creative process that similarly grounds and strengthens All the Beauty and the Bloodshed as a film made in close creative partnership between two artists. 

Images from The Ballad appear early in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed to set into motion the film’s contrapuntal movement between present and past. On the one hand is a slightly clumsy vérité chronicle of P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), the activist group founded by Goldin, that makes extensive use of footage of actions and “die-ins” largely shot by the group and not, it should be noted, by Poitras. On the other hand are the long audio-only interviews recorded by Poitras and accompanying images from Goldin’s archive, including hitherto unseen early and family photographs. Among the most powerful moments of Poitras’ film are these minimally accompanied still-image sequences that embody the profound empathy shared by Goldin’s art and activism. In Goldin’s photography, empathy emerges from a genuine contact between the viewer and the profound intimacy and vulnerability embodied in her images. In All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Poitras and Goldin offer a new slideshow in the spirit of Goldin’s iconic work, focused on the artist’s past and recalling her many struggles and hard-won triumphs: the difficult youth that unfolded after the death of her sister and after the teenage Goldin was placed in a foster home; her years of poverty and addiction; her stint as a sex worker; the deaths of too many of her friends from AIDS; and her crucial discovery of photography as a tool of survival and an indelible art of memory.

At key moments the extended slideshow that flows across All the Beauty and the Bloodshed pays homage to Goldin’s older sister Barbara, who has long been a haunting referent of Goldin’s art. Poitras allows Goldin to reveal the sad facts of her sister’s brief life as a repressed queer rebel whose brave challenge to the status quo marked her as different, even dangerous, and led her parents to force her into a mental health institute where she was ultimately driven to take her own life. In the film’s boldest yet unstated move, Poitras uses the figure of Goldin’s sister to subtly bring together the two narrative strands of All the Beauty by revealing both sisters to be victims of an apathetic state whose health-care system seems purpose-built for complete indifference to those in need and seems, indeed, designed to exploit and destroy the weakest and most vulnerable. 

In the moving preface to the book version of The Ballad, Goldin describes her photographs as a form of “real memory” that invoke “the color, smell, sound, and physical presence, the density and flavor of life.” She further distinguishes these photographic memories from the invented “stories” used to render history as “memorized, encapsulated, repeatable, and safe.” “Stories can be rewritten,” Goldin notes, while “memory can’t.” Goldin reinforces this lesson twice in All the Beauty when she invokes the full force of lived memory to speak directly to power—testifying in person about her own addiction before a New York state hearing on addiction recovery, and again in a virtual courtroom where Sackler family members are reluctantly gathered to listen to harrowing, outraged testimonies by victims of the opioid epidemic and the families and loved ones of those who perished. In earlier films, Poitras explored the internet as the battleground for perilous cyberwars against nation states and individual privacy. In the extended scene of the Zoom settlement by the Sacklers, Poitras skillfully reveals another expressive dimension of the internet by offering the glazed, expressionless faces of Sackler scions staring (and with one brother refusing to even turn on his camera) from the computer screen while the damning testimonies unfold as a chilling rendering of the banality of evil. 

It is lamentable, but not at all surprising, that no one from the museum world dares to speak up in a film that very effectively reveals how easily the Sackler family has abused art philanthropy as part of a larger ploy to disguise their misdeeds. But with this silence Poitras only underscores the hapless complicity of an establishment unable to challenge the status quo of compromised trustees and avaricious yet insecure institutions locked in a dangerous cycle of perpetual and ever-more-costly expansion. The deplorable current situation stands in stark contrast to an earlier moment, powerfully recalled through archival footage in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, of Goldin’s role as a firebrand curator of the controversial 1989 Artist Space show Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, that galvanized the culture wars and revealed the depths of American homophobia while also mustering the collective strength of curators and artists such as David Wojnarowicz, among others, who were willing to put themselves on the line. The contrast underscored between then and now feels particularly relevant for this writer, who works at an institution where Sackler-branded buildings still stand and where little has been done to even acknowledge this glaring offense.