The meteoric rise and bottomless fall of late-’70s/early-’80s supermodel Gia Carangi — already the subject of Michael Cristofer’s widely seen 1998 HBO telepic “Gia,” starring Angelina Jolie — comes to the screen again in JJ Martin’s “The Self-Destruction of Gia,” a riveting docu that combines archival footage of Carangi and new interviews with key members of her social and professional circles. The result is an illuminating review of a decadent era, and maybe one of the most unflinching studies of addiction ever made. In fact, due to graphic discussions of heroin addiction and shooting up, as well as explicit details of Carangi’s particularly painful death from AIDS in 1986, pic figures to have a hard time finding distribution outside of the festival circuit.
Reportedly, Martin was developing his own narrative feature about Carangi when the HBO pic beat him to the punch and he decided to focus his efforts on this docu instead. Martin’s film is the fuller, richer portrait of Carangi, by sheer virtue of him offering up the real Carangi — represented primarily by excerpts from an early ’80s ABC newsmagazine interview. And there are unforgettable moments here: Gia rambling, in a near-incoherent stupor, about her ambition to become a cinematographer, stumbling over her pronunciation of Vittorio Storaro’s name in an endearingly sad way that you can’t quite pinpoint as stoned, tongue-tied or both — and something preternaturally sad that comes through in just one of her offhand, seductive glances — something that even Jolie’s fine performance couldn’t quite capture.
Also riveting are Gia’s therapist, Robert Hilton, describing his odyssey through the heroin “shooting galleries” of the Lower East Side to find Gia, sprawled on the floor of an abandoned building, still dressed in a gown from a photo shoot earlier that day; and Gia’s mother, Kathleen Sperr, recounting in precise detail, the ravages of AIDS on her daughter’s body.
But numerous key questions remain unanswered about Carangi’s self-destructive personality. Was she the victim of an abusive father? Was she frightened by her own incredible beauty and the privileges it bought her? Even if Martin still had Gia to ask, it’s doubtful she would answer them.
Pic doesn’t really bring anything new to the live-fast-die-young celeb genre. But what makes Martin’s film so striking are the new interviews he has put together with those who knew Gia both intimately and in passing — a list that includes such fashion-world icons as Diane Von Furstenberg and Vera Wang, as well as Gia’s longtime lover Sandy Linter. Shooting on grainy, 16mm black-and-white film stock, Martin doesn’t identify any of his subjects until the closing credits roll, and the cumulative effect is something remarkable: talking heads transformed into talking corpses. With few exceptions, these zombified ’80s fast-lane survivors don’t just nostalgically recall their heroin-high heydays, they pine for them.
It’s a sentiment made all the more powerful by Martin’s filming of one real talking corpse — actress and screenwriter (and heroin enthusiast) Zoe Lund, who died in 1999 shortly after completing this interview and who here commands the screen with an almost supernatural presence. As Lund describes the physical sensations of shooting heroin into her body, she is like a woman describing her lover, and there’s such longing and titillation in her voice, and in the way her whole body seems to curl up just thinking about the rush, that you can’t break her stone-eyed gaze. Martin has not just made a film about Gia’s self-destruction here, but about Zoe’s and Sandy’s and the rest — the point being that those in Gia’s circle who survived the 1980s were not necessarily any luckier than those who didn’t.