We’ve seen an explosion in fashion world documentaries over the past years with “The September Issue,” “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel,” “Bill Cunningham New York,” “In Vogue: The Editor’s Eye” and so much more all casting various perspectives on an industry that has seen haute couture fall right into the mainstream. But fashion photography, and even contemporary advertising, wouldn’t be the same without the contributions of Bert Stern, and it’s the central premise of “Bert Stern: The Original Mad Man.” While the now 83-year-old undoubtedly has his own insights and perceptions on where fashion has gone and where it is going, as he says in the documentary, he’s reached a “dead end” and needs “something to do,” and that feeling of listlessness pervades director Shannah Laumeister‘s effort despite her best intentions.
The curious thing is, Laumeister is actually Stern’s (much younger) partner, and if anyone would seem capable of opening him up, it should be her. However, Laumeister is perhaps too close to Stern, and instead of an in depth look at his life and career, ‘Mad Man’ skips like a pebble on the water touching on various parts of his work in hopscotch-like fashion and giving a vague, Wikipedia-worthy summary of his accomplishments but never reaching any real depth. And it’s a shame because so much of his work, friendships, collaborations and connections are utterly fascinating. From an early friendship with Stanley Kubrick, whom he met while working at Look magazine, to completely revitalizing Smirnoff’s advertising in the mid-1950s with groundbreaking conceptual work and capturing innumerable famous faces in iconic photographs, the ninety-minute runtime doesn’t do Stern enough justice, particularly since it spends a good chunk of that on his personal relationships.
Granted, they are crucial to understanding the man, who one advertising executive in the film openly wonders if he’s a womanizer. Indeed, for Stern “beauty is power” and there is no doubt he utterly adores and worships women, but he also has an uneasy relationship to them. The term “crazy” is tossed around with notable frequency by Stern to describe various women in his life, while his own May-December romance with Laumeister (who he first met when she was thirteen, though nothing really developed until she was legal — or so they say) is explained away as a mentor/muse pairing that developed into something much more real. And then there are “the twins,” two more women who have permanent residency in his life, making for a certainly unique arrangement. But all of this is presented with an unease of how to play it — Quirky? Important? Natural? And the movie never quite figures it out, making these segments an odd fit throughout. And that’s not to mention Laumeister’s endless supply of topless photos of herself that she inserts into the documentary, easily crossing the line into self-indulgence. And we haven’t even gotten to Stern’s ex-wife Allegra Kent who gets a fair amount of time, nor the uneven relationships he was with his children, with whom he still (intentionally or not) plays favorites.
But when ‘Mad Man’ puts the focus back on Stern and his work, the results are much more compelling. His anecdote about the how he brainstormed a new idea for Smirfnoff’s “Driest Of The Dry” campaign — which came from nothing more than a glass of water and a city street — is the kind of tales of creative inspiration the movie could use more of. There is also a nice account of his still captivating and legendary documentary, “Jazz On A Summer’s Day” shot at the Newport Jazz Festival. Equally fascinating is Stern’s work on Kubrick’s “Lolita,” as he captured the famous image used on the poster, by breaking the rules given to him by producers to stay away from anything that could be perceived as overtly sexual. And yet at the same time, he managed to create a picture that skirts that balance between innocent and sexy, and again, it’s another example of Stern’s restless spirit and openness to spontaneity that allowed it to happen. But it’s feeling that only transmits itself rarely throughout the doc.
But the most time is spent discussing what will easily be on the top of his long list of legacies — his shoot with Marilyn Monroe that would turn out to be her last. Stern is candid about the mostly private shoot, putting to rest any rumors that Monroe didn’t want to pose nude, while openly admitting he did try to kiss her, and wanted to do more, only to be held back by the speed he was taking that tanked his libido. While that particular story has its own history that has lived on since (involving a lawsuit over the original negatives, which is touched upon here) it’s also perhaps the best example of Stern’s relationship with many of his female subjects. As he says in the documentary, photography allowed him to possess them in a sense, at least in the camera, and his utter obsession of women (which could border on objectification) both fueled his greatest work and while also shaping his various heartbreaks as well. (Stern is also upfront and untroubled by duplicating the Monroe shoot with Lindsay Lohan for New York Magazine in 2008).
However, Stern now seems mostly unconcerned with talking about much of his past and it ultimately what makes ‘Mad Man’ frustrating. He’s humble about his own early work, saying the images he snapped using nothing more than natural light came out because he didn’t know how to use studio lamps. But Laumeister doesn’t seem to interested to probe further and see how the massive advances in photography over the decades — faster film speeds, better and richer color stock, digital imagery — changed his approach (or didn’t), or how his skills clearly developed as his stature grew. And Stern doesn’t seem to interact much with anyone except Laumesiter, which leads to an odd isolation, with most of the interviews composed at home or in various offices, with zero communication between Stern and any of the surviving models of his shoots, or various advertisers he worked with. And feedback from a small handful of others interviewed is rather cursory and hardly comprehensive. It all adds up to movie that makes great pains to celebrate Stern’s achievements, though the man himself seems disengaged from what he’s done.
With a bulging archive of work that will live on well past he does, Stern admits he’s not sure how it will be handled after he passes. A thought that crossed our minds is that with so many vested interests, lawsuits are inevitable and a worst-case scenario could see Stern’s work tied up. But no matter how it shakes out, ‘Mad Man’ will never be more than an interesting curio that provides a basic overview of why Stern matters. But for the rest of us, the images themselves will be the greatest evidence on their own of Stern’s innovation in photography, fashion and advertising. [C]