Dirty Pictures (2000)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Docudrama, Courtroom Drama, Message Movie  |   Release Date - May 20, 2000 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 95 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - R
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Review by Tom Wiener

This account of the controversy over the exhibition in heartland America of Robert Mapplethorpe's controversial "The Perfect Moment" collection manages the difficult feat of airing both sides of the brouhaha (though clearly favoring one side by portraying the obscenity charges against the exhibit to be in part politically motivated) and exploring a personal angle to the controversy. In addition to presenting news clips of conservative politicians such as Jesse Helms and Patrick Buchanan using the exhibit as a whipping boy for an attack on the National Endowment for the Arts, the filmmakers also shot new interviews with cultural figures, including William F. Buckley, Barney Frank, Salman Rushdie, Fran Lebowitz, and Susan Sarandon, who offer their own perspectives on Mapplethorpe's work and the issues at stake. (The cantankerous Lebowitz demurs on the quality of Mapplethorpe's highly regarded work.) Less effective are dramatized scenes of the jury's deliberations in the obscenity trial of Dennis Barrie, the director of Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center; the awkward writing in these scenes feels more like a civics lesson than realistic dialogue. But the film's real triumph is in its portrayal of Barrie and the effect the controversy had on his family life. Both James Woods and Diana Scarwid (as Barrie's wife) are brilliant in portraying the emotions of a couple struggling to do the right thing while dealing with the enormous pressures of being unwittingly thrust into the midst of an often ugly public debate. Barrie comes off as a man sophisticated about contemporary art but a little naïve about the political ramifications of his stand. Inevitably, Barrie gets to make the kind of speech about freedom of expression that signals an acquittal. But the film ends on a chilling epilogue: The leader of a local conservative group called People for Community Values notes that, even if Barrie was acquitted, the furor that PCV and its compatriots stirred up would have a chilling effect on future exhibitions of this kind -- and, by the way, Barrie left Cincinnati two years after the trial and his marriage broke up.