Armed with the tagline “A full-frontal feature-length film,” “Naked States” is a literally revealing, if not particularly probing docu chronicling photographer Spencer Tunick and his five-month quest to find local residents in each of the 50 states willing to pose nude, in public spaces, for his camera. Director Arlene Donnelly and her camera crew capture all the pre- and post-disrobing action, from Tunick’s 1999 arrest on obscenity charges in New York, through to the ultimate unveiling of his completed collection, appropriately titled “Naked States.” In between, Donnelly follows Tunick on his cross-country trek, as he selects locations and recruits models for his shoots, resulting in a picturesque travelogue of American highways and backroads, with enough bare bodies to send the MPAA into a tailspin. Novelty/shock value here is high, which should guarantee pic a sizable audience when it debuts on HBO’s “America Undercover” series next spring.
Whether or not he is a great artist, Tunick is blessed with an eye for the absurd, a strong compositional sense and a disposition toward subverting traditional images of age, race, beauty, wealth and gender. His photos have a serene, intrinsic power, and by taking us behind the scenes of their creation, Donnelly’s film hints at becoming something of a similarly purposeful cinematic equivalent, with one layer of artifice peeled back.
Throughout “Naked States,” Donnelly keeps one eye on Tunick and another on the geographic indigenousness of moral and cultural dialectics. As Tunick crisscrosses the U.S., so Donnelly, through her candid interviews with many of Tunick’s participants, reveals a complex cross-section of personal and ideological motivations for appearing nude in public, many of which seem to stem directly from the mores of a given state or region, and all of which transcend mere exhibitionism.
From the Big Apple to Fargo, N.D., Tunick’s models believe foremost in his art, but they also rebel (or believe they are rebelling) against everything from the complacency of the bourgeoisie to the vestiges of Puritanism in contemporary culture. Given that “Naked States” is at its strongest when it offers up the respective rationales of unassuming, suburban Americans, it’s perplexing that Donnelly gives the largest sections of her film over to Tunick’s group shoots at such unsurprisingly bohemian locations as Burning Man and a Phish concert.
“Naked States” settles into a too comfortable rhythm of showing Tunick setting up for a shoot and then cutting to a print of the finished photo, and it is Donnelly’s unfailing attachment to this methodology, at the very moment the film needs to take off in a new direction, that reveals her limitations as a documentarian. Donnelly seems so passively enthralled by Tunick himself that she never really stops to ask him why he does what he does; nor is she interested in deconstructing the artist or his photos.
But the film she has made, while shallow, is never less than entertaining and amusing because Tunick makes a great subject: part genuine talent, part canny self-promoter, part enfant terrible who still gets a vicarious thrill out of organizing mass public havoc, and he deserves grander treatment.
It is this failure to assess, even in jest, how these disparate impulses affect Tunick’s work and where (or whether) they converge that is the great missed opportunity of “Naked States.” Pic is such a one-sided love-fest (at worst, Donnelly depicts Tunick as being a bit of a control freak) that you crave for Errol Morris to come along, peel Tunick like an onion and expose what lies at his core.