Review: ‘All the Beauty and the Bloodshed’ is a stunning testament to the efficacy of activism in the arts


Jake Guldin, news correspondent

The arts are far too often deemed incapable of acting as vehicles for meaningful social change. At best, they are reduced to mere entertainment for the masses; at worst, they are labeled an exclusionary field only accessible to those in the upper echelon of society.

With “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” Academy Award-winning documentarian Laura Poitras has assembled a visceral feature that rebukes that notion through an in-depth account of the trials and tribulations of the photographer and activist Nan Goldin.

The film, which earned the top prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival — only the second documentary to do so — is split into seven interconnected chapters. Throughout these chapters, the filmmakers utilize archival footage, recent video and personal commentary from Goldin to recount her life’s major events. In particular, Poitras’ feature addresses Goldin’s endeavor to hold the Sackler family, which owns OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma, accountable for the ongoing opioid epidemic. The film traces the creation of Goldin’s advocacy group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, or P.A.I.N., alongside her past attempts to combat similar medical crises such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic during the ’70s and ’80s.

The creative team weaves these two storylines together across the seven chapters, establishing two separate chronologies that run concurrently with one another. As a result, Poitras and her editing team — consisting of Amy Foote, Joe Bini and Brian A. Kates — construct a film whose throughline is crystalline, granting the audience an insight into the evolution of Goldin’s perspective on her artistry and advocacy throughout her storied career.

One especially glaring change concerns Goldin’s pivot from more traditional art — photography, sculpting, painting — to the more avant-garde — namely, performance art — in her activism. In the digital age, Goldin rightfully acknowledges how pivotal it is to gain the notice of social media users and media makers at large to enact meaningful change. This partly inspired Goldin’s decision to lead P.A.I.N to the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art where, as seen in the film, the activists dumped empty bottles of OxyContin and decried the Sackler family’s culpability before collapsing to the ground as a person overdosing on the fatally addictive painkiller would.

Beyond crafting a myriad of distinct parallels between different points in Goldin’s life that viewers can wrestle with, Poitras has ensured that the audience is fully attentive and in a constant state of intrigue. The film leaves the audience puzzled when Cookie Mueller, best known for her collaborations with the unique director John Waters, is repeatedly seen in the segments depicting Goldin’s early years before suddenly vanishing in those shot in the modern day. The lack of Mueller’s presence in these scenes sparks immense anticipation and a number of questions — Where is Cookie? Did she have a falling out with Goldin? Is she doing OK wherever she is now? Such queries only deepen the profound heartache instilled by the eventual revelation that Mueller passed from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1989. Prior to her death, Mueller was one of the countless subjects featured in Goldin’s astonishing library of photographs which are in and of themselves a major contributing factor to the documentary’s success.

How Goldin captures her subjects — who, more often than not, were like Mueller; people who wore their perceived peculiarities as badges of honor, unfazed by the scornful eyes of the mainstream — is nothing short of incisive. Goldin’s images proudly communicate everything from the joyous and spirited attitudes of underground queer culture to the plight and subjugation of women in a patriarchal society. They are absolute marvels to behold and, due to Goldin’s incredibly insightful narration, provide additional context and concrete support for the film’s exhaustive litany of topics and themes.

For those concerned that the documentary feature may be too heavy for them to watch, they can rest easy in the knowledge that Poitras devotes some of the film’s one hour and 57 minute runtime to the fonder bits of Goldin’s existence.

Scenes showing Goldin and her P.A.I.N crew rejoicing as museums and institutions across the globe erase the Sackler name, for example, are one of a multitude meant to instill hope and satisfaction in the eyes of viewers.

For some, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” may prove too daunting a documentary to watch recreationally, but those who are willing to brace the film’s more devastating moments will be rewarded with a bittersweet portrait of one artist’s journey to enact concrete change for the betterment of those around her.