‘Bert Stern’: an unfocused film about photographer
A review of the documentary “Bert Stern: Original Mad Man,” which focuses — fuzzily — on an influential Madison Avenue photographer of the 1950s and ’60s.
Seattle Times movie critic
‘Bert Stern: Original Mad Man,’ a documentary by Shannah Laumeister. 89 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains nudity). Harvard Exit.
If Don Draper had been a photographer ... well, he might have been a bit like Bert Stern. But the documentary “Bert Stern: Original Mad Man” feels as if it’s piggybacking on the “Mad Men” craze (it’s no coincidence, surely, that the film’s coming out during the TV show’s brief season), in a way not entirely earned. Yes, Stern was a Madison Avenue ad man in the ’50s and ’60s, creating some iconic images, but the movie puts far more emphasis on his work in fashion and entertainment — and on his complex personal life, which included a troubled marriage to Balanchine ballerina Allegra Kent.
Directed by first-time filmmaker and frequent Stern camera subject Shannah Laumeister (who — and I don’t think I’ve ever said this about a documentarian before — probably didn’t need to include quite so many nude photos of herself), “Bert Stern” has at its center a long interview with the subject himself, now in his 80s and still taking pictures. Though not entirely comfortable on the other side of the lens, he talks about his love of women (which extended well beyond the photo studio; note how Kent, decades later, still discusses the marriage through gritted teeth), the ups and downs of his long career, and some fascinating behind-the-scenes stories: his famous photo shoot with Marilyn Monroe, just weeks before she died; how his friendship with former Madison Avenue colleague Stanley Kubrick led to Stern taking the iconic poster image of “Lolita.” (He still has the heart-shaped sunglasses.)
It’s a documentary that’s filled with beautiful images but nonetheless feels unfocused. A fascinating comment Stern makes, late in the film, indicates what “Bert Stern” needed more of: talk of the art itself. A photograph, he says, isn’t about the photographer or the subject but about “the space between us. It’s invisible space, a space where anything can happen.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org