There’s a fatal creative flaw inherent in “Dirty Pictures,” Showtime’s telepic about the trial of Dennis Barrie, director of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center who was prosecuted for booking the controversial Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit in 1990. The well-intentioned, but stunningly dull telepic mixes dramatic elements with jarring real-life interviews including the likes of author Salman Rushdie and right-winger William F. Buckley Jr. Consequently, confused viewers may feel as if they’re constantly switching channels between a James Woods vehicle and a too-earnest First Amendment documentary on PBS.
Ilene Chaiken’s clunky script sets the stage by focusing on members of the jury as they try to make up their minds about the charges against Barrie. We are then offered docu footage of various officials, including then-President George Bush and archconservative Sen. Jesse Helms offering their two cents about Mapplethorpe’s photographs.
Viewers are eventually introduced to the world of Barrie, the museum director who took a big chance by sticking up for his org’s right to display the art. Under director Frank Pierson’s (“A Star Is Born”) experienced hands, Woods’ portrayal of Barrie, and Diana Scarwid’s winning turn as his increasingly worried wife, are the pics biggest assets.
One of the most resonant images is a lovely scene in which the couple attends a dinner party at which they’re snubbed by the conservative guests. Woods and Scarwid share one of those perfect movie moments when they defiantly take to the dance floor after being asked to leave a table.
Unfortunately, just when the Barrie storyline begins to hit its stride, more interviews jerk viewers out of the narrative. By the time actress Susan Sarandon shows up to give her personal recollections of Mapplethorpe the family friend (“The Rob that I saw was a homebody… he’d be amused by all the controversy…”), viewers may be suppressing the need to scream, “Enough with the testimonials! Can we get the story moving along here?”
Thanks to the cooperation of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, production uses many of the photographs that were in the eye of the hurricane. The artist’s suggestive images of flowers, naked young children and various gay and sadomasochistic acts flicker throughout the project. As a bonus, film throws in bits and pieces of filmed interviews with the famous late photographer.
By the end of “Dirty Pictures,” viewers should be able to make up their own minds about the main issue that resonated throughout the trial: “If it’s art, it’s not obscene, and if it’s obscene, it’s not art.” Yet, another point for the filmmakers to ponder is, “If it’s a movie, it shouldn’t have so many annoying talking head segs with William F. Buckley Jr. and Pat Buchanan.”
Tech credits are solid. Hiro Narita’s stark cinematography, Mark Snow’s music and Alicia Keywan’s production design are worth singling out. Also, a tip of the hat to whoever thought of using 2 Live Crew’s anti-censorship anthem (“Banned in the U.S.A.”) during the opening credits.