All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
Laura Poitras’ look into Nan Goldin’s life is a stunning stylistic balancing act
Laura Poitras has been a director who’s been prescient about the pulsating crises of our times. From her jaw-dropping documentary Citizenfour (2014) charting Edward Snowden’s release of classified documents in real-time, to her intimate, but slightly biased portrait of Julian Assange in Risk (2016). Her latest film, like Citizenfour reaches the heights and transcendence of documentary filmmaking, taking on the opioid crisis through the life of a revolutionary artist.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (2022) is the story of the counter-cultural photographer Nan Goldin. Her story is framed around her activism against the Sackler family and their prompting of the opioid crisis in the United States.
Poitras breaks her story up in six parts, chronicling with a segment of Goldin’s life chronologically, and capping it off with her recent activism. The Sackler opposition works to draw viewers in initially, but we are subsequently absorbed by the intimate portrait that Poitras depicts of Goldin and her artistic journey through 1970s and 1980s New York City. Viewers will be shocked by how Poitras has managed to get some revelations from Goldin, which feel almost too intimate, yet hypnotically make you understand the underbelly of her life and journey.
The greatest challenge that Poitras pulls off is her ability to tell her entire story largely through a slideshow of Goldin’s photos. Only a minority of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is actual video, yet the vibrancy with which the pictures and strung together and edited with punctual music and voice-over, brings Goldin’s past to life. By the end, viewers will be astounded that they hadn’t watched a dramatic recreation of Goldin’s life, but instead a clump of faded snapshots; such is adeptness of Poitras’ direction and editing.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed straddles a fine line between being a more straightforward “talking-head” documentary and emulating the style of its counter-cultural subject, much as Todd Haynes did in The Velvet Underground (2021) with the eponymous band. The balance between the two sides of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed ends up working, with Poitras bringing Goldin’s own sense of pictorial presentation to recount her early life, but employing a more journalistic tone in the activism moments.
In the end, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is another documentary from Poitras that, like Citizenfour before it, transcends its genre, and begs to be considered as much a work of art as informational. Performing a fine balancing act and achieving a true editing wonder with archive pictures, Poitras delivers an engrossing look at Goldin’s life so that by the end you feel like she’s been a lifelong friend.