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Saving bonds

By PETER KEOUGH  |  May 6, 2008

You can’t be much more subversive than the photographer who aroused the ire of Jesse Helms and the city of Cincinnati. Which makes James Crump’s BLACK, WHITE + GREY: A PORTRAIT OF SAM WAGSTAFF AND ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE (2007; May 10 at 4:15 pm; May 15 at 4:30 pm; May 17 at noon; May 18 at 10:30 am) all the more disappointing. As a curator and collector from the ’50s to the ’80s, Wagstaff presided over one of the most convulsive periods in America art history. As a gay man, he lived through an equally loaded era in sexual politics. Robert Mapplethorpe, age 26, entered the 51-year-old Wagstaff’s life, and together they transformed Mapplethorpe into the enfant terrible of the art scene. Was their relationship exploitative? Sado-masochistic? Triumphant? No answers here: Crump reduces his subject to a ho-hum documentary as monotoned as the title, a repetitious blur of talking heads (Patti Smith comes off as boring!) and archival footage. It’s rewarding, however, for its generous helpings from Wagstaff’s stunning photography collection.

Although these movies engage with their unconventional subject matter, they do so within the conventions of traditional genre — a cop movie, a teenage sex “comedy,” a documentary. In LES CHANSONS D’AMOUR|LOVE SONGS (2007; May 17 at 8:45 pm), Christophe Honoré resorts to the musical mode to relate his tale of polymorphous desire and loss. It opens on an oh-so-Gallic ménage à trois, with Ismaël (Louis Garrel), Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), and Alice (Clotilde Hesme) sharing the same bed in what looks like a sputtering if good-humored attempt to spark the passions of the first two. The arrangement fails, of course — but in a drastically unexpected way. Alice and Julie’s Sapphic connection is snuffed out, and Ismaël, left adrift, finds comfort in unexpected places.

Chansons inevitably recalls Jacques Demy (or, more recently, Once) with its captivating score, its Jacques Brel–like tunes bouncing from one character to the next, epitomizing a mood, moment, or point of view, evoking the gaiety and grief of its gray Parisian setting. The film also brings to mind other New Wave icons, like François Truffaut, with Garrel’s Ismaël a kind of latter-day Antoine Doinel, and Erich Rohmer, with its sexual antics moored by a gossamer-light but luminous moral authority. Slight as Chansons may seem, it embodies gay — and subversive — cinema at its best.

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Related: Review: Patti Smith's Just Kids, Crossword: 'Freeze frames', Excerpt: Patti Smith's Just Kids, More more >
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