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‘Wojnarowicz’ Review: A Queer Biography as Bracing and Rebellious as the Artist Himself

Chris McKim's "F**k You F*ggot F**ker" is a fittingly angry tribute to a polarizing yet vital artist, and a portrait of AIDS in America.

“Wojnarowicz: F*** You F****t F***er”

World of Wonder

The artist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992, used his queerness as a radical pose, a way of saying, as Chris McKim’s documentary “Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F***er notes,” “I’m not gay as in I love you, I’m queer as in fuck off.” An angry, traumatized painter, photographer, writer, musician, filmmaker, and activist, Wojnarowicz cut a striking figure: wiry, gaunt, sallow-faced. In other words, he didn’t exactly blend into the world, and so he idolized fellow rebel poets like Arthur Rimbaud and Jean Genet, outcasts who allowed him to see the falsities of straight society from the outside. Blending Wojnarowicz’s own audio journals with input from a handful of his contemporaries, Chris McKim’s startling and meticulously edited new movie captures the spirit of the artist as he was, bracing and in-your-face.

The film gets its title from a scribbled piece of homophobic obscenity Wojnarowicz found on the street, and then turned into radical art. Born in 1948, Wojnarowicz went on to become one of the leading voices of the East Village art scene with his graphic, confrontational, and expressionistic paintings, and black-and-white photography of outsiders on the edge. But well before he was an artist, he was a teenage hustler on the streets of New York living among the “junkies and cocksuckers.” Filmmaker Chris McKim’s piece isn’t shy about Wojnarowicz’s many sexual exploits in a moment of gay freedom just on the verge of the soon bursting AIDS epidemic. Which the film also delves into, especially as “F**k You F*ggot F***er” begins to paint a picture of the Reagan administration all but telling the gay population to drop dead.

“F**k You F*ggot F***er” rejects using talking heads to tell its story, which is refreshing, though testimonies from the likes of Fran Lebowitz, Gracie Mansion, and Carlo McCormick float in and out of the film. At its core is Wojnarowicz’s intense collaboration, creative partnership, and surely much more than that with his mentor, the photographer Peter Hujar, who died of AIDS about five years before Wojnarowicz did. There’s also his longtime boyfriend Tom Rauffenbart, to whom he had an instant erotic attachment.

In between fronting the punkish band 3 Teens Kill 4 and making Super-8 movies exhibited in galleries throughout New York, Wojnarowicz was mainly an avant-garde figure, until a show at the Whitney Biennial as part of its “So-Called Graffiti Show” brought him a surge of attention, which he loathed. The documentary makes it apparent Wojnarowicz held capitalism in disdain.

Untitled ("Face in Dirt")

Untitled (“Face in Dirt”)

Estate of David Wojnarowicz

Filmmaker McKim, working with the producers from WOW Docs/World of Wonder Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, accesses an immense trove of exclusive material to tell the Wojnarowicz story, including answering machine tape recordings that reveal the many storms of his mind. His deteriorating, downward spiral as AIDS took a grip on his body and soul is cast in scary relief. Footage from Wojnarowicz’s darkest short films is intercut with clips from ACTUP protests against the FDA for a lack of transparency about what the government was doing to combat the AIDS crisis, which wasn’t much.

Skillfully edited by Dave Stanke, “F**k You F*ggot F***er” is a constantly moving collage, a locomotive piece propelling toward a bleak end, and that is Wojnarowicz’s death. One of his frequent collaborators, Marion Scemama details Wojnarowicz’s last days as he quickly succumbed to illness, which took an ugly turn during a road trip that would be his last. “He looked at me, and he wasn’t there.” But then, Scemama recalls, he started laughing, and what resulted was a photo series that the artist dubbed his last, his body fully buried from the neck down in the dirt, concealing his harrowing condition. As serious as Wojnarowicz’s work was, his wicked, black sense of humor is evident in the documentary. “Do I have so few white blood cells that I can name them?” he says during one of the interwoven audio snippets.

The movie’s last moments segue into present day, introducing us to some of Wojnarowicz’s creative co-conspirators, and also longtime lover Rauffenbart, who died only last year. Rauffenbart spent much of his life reconstructing and preserving Wojnarowicz’s legacy, but that work is also compassionately done by filmmaker McKim, who in his experimental approach to the material shows he has as much of a rebellious streak as his inspiration.

Grade: B+

“Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F***er” is now playing in virtual cinemas from Kino Lorber.

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