Home Video Hovel: All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, by Rudie Obias

With the Oscar winners in the books for 2024, let’s go back a year and take a look at the nominations for the best documentary feature film. Although it didn’t win (another great film called Navalny won the Academy Award), All the Beauty and the Bloodshed features a brilliant section of storytelling with an important voice. And in this instance, there are actually two voices that shine through the documentary. One for its director Laura Poitras (Risk, Citizenfour) and the other for its subject Nan Goldin.

The film All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, which is receiving the Criterion Collection treatment, follows the life and work of Nan Goldin, a photographer who is the toast of the art world. At the same time, she’s an activist against the Sackler Family, the former-owners pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, a powerful and addictive pain opioid.

Although Purdue Pharma manufactured the drug (and profited from the misery and death of others), the Sackler Family is also a massive donor to art institutions and museums, most of which carried their name on walls and entrances, from all around the world. There’s a direct conflict of interest there, but Goldin believes her greatest legacy is not her artwork, but rather being a thorn in the side of the Sacklers — even though the family donates heavily to institutions that carry and display her art.

The documentary expertly allows Goldin to tell her story, as her own photography blankets the frame in a series of slides. It starts with her childhood in a Boston suburb and the death of her older sister, Barbara, who died by suicide at the age of 14. It unfolds with stories of her past in Boston and eventually New York City in the late ‘70s and throughout the ‘80s where she becomes a sex worker and then a photographer in the underground art scene with the likes of Jim Jarmusch and John Waters, and then eventually an activist for gay rights during the AIDS epidemic.

Along the way, we’re introduced to her old friends and lovers in a series of photographs, as the audience goes step-by-step along with Goldin through the good times and bad times — including bouts of domestic abuse that nearly left her blind. Goldin later becomes addicted to pain medication and then devotes her life to activism fighting against the Sackler Family and Purdue Pharma. The film chronicles her goals to stop museums from receiving blood money in the form of big donations and then eventually removing their name from exhibit rooms and building wings altogether.

There’s a lot of information and story in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, but it never feels heavy, dull, or long-winded. It has a great sense of pacing and presence with Poitras expertly telling the larger story through her camera and interviews. It feels like a singular piece, even though parts of the documentary are told episodically and in tangents.

The Criterion Collection release itself is worth your time, especially if picture and audio quality is important to you. While the documentary is available on the streaming service Max (formerly known as HBO Max), it doesn’t have the same picture or sound as the Criterion Collection’s release — especially when watching with a surround sound home entertainment system. The 5.1 surround DTS-HD master is crisp and clear with a bit of oomph in the bass. It fills the space to the point where it feels like the documentary is in the same room as you, while images look vivid, smooth, and full of life. It feels like there’s been a lot of care put into this release.

The booklet inside is full of photography from Nan Goldin, while its essay “The Highest Stakes” by novelist and playwright Sarah Schulman is sharp and pointed. Much like the storytelling in the documentary, the release feels like a singular piece — or even a compliment to the film itself, as a whole.

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