David Wojnarowicz, Fuck You Faggot Fucker, 1984 | © Estate of David Wojnarowicz. Courtesy of the Estate and P.P.O.W

Wojnarowicz: Work of Wonder

Doc portrait harnesses an iconoclast’s spirit

6 mins read

Wojnarowicz: F*ck You F*ggot F*cker
(USA, 105 min.)
Dir. Chris McKim

Audiences looking to ignite a fire in the belly will be sparked by Wojnarowicz: F*ck You F*ggot F**ker. The doc reverberates with the punk rock energy and alternative spirit that reverberated in subject David Wojnarowicz’s art. It’s a portrait of an iconoclast, told largely through his own words and creations.

Director Chris McKim, who was the showrunner of the first four seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race (WOW Doc & World of Wonder’s Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey produced this doc as well), evokes the spirit of an artist who died too soon at age 37. The film takes a cue from Wojnarowicz’s aesthetic and offers layers upon layers of images. Photographs, illustrations, stencils, and archival films overlap in a grungy tapestry. This is a patched and scratched illustration of an artist’s ability to defy the establishment by staying true to his voice. It does for profile docs what Sharon Needles did for season four of Drag Race.

Wojnarowicz harnesses its subject’s defiance of the status quo at the outset. The film looks at the artist’s arrival in New York City where he announced himself an iconoclast by donning a homemade paper mask of poet Arthur Rimbaud and gallivanting about town in “disguise.” His Rimbaud escapades formed the basis for numerous photographs that appear throughout the doc and McKim’s portrait weaves the work of artists like Wojnarowicz as part of the city’s fabric. The film features an exhaustive range of Wojnarowicz’s work, offering a deep dive into his archive that leaves one eager for more.

Despite the obviously dated nature of the material, which is perhaps inevitable for anything produced in the 1980s, Wojnarowicz’s work remains potent because its essence is timeless. His images assert that one cannot and should not separate politics from art. This sentiment is essential when the mere existence of art and the displaying of it are inherently political acts because the work creates space for voices silenced by the mainstream. The film sees Wojnarowicz’s work inject an unabashedly queer voice into the New York art scene and become iconic for a community of gay Americans at the peak of the AIDS crisis.

The film works towards this moment by painting a vivid picture of New York in the late 1970s as Wojnarowicz developed his voice. Besides the scruffy images, the film places audiences in the Big Apple with a tapestry of interviews both new and archival. Speakers like photographer Peter Hujar (Wojnarowicz’s former flame), gallerists Sur Rodney Sur and Gracie Mansion, and author Fran Lebowitz (it isn’t a New York story without Fran Lebowitz!) talk candidly about the significance of the artist’s oeuvre, the buttons it pushed, and the cultural pulse it tapped. These interviews appear in audio, a point that may frustrate some viewers and please others. McKim doesn’t let audiences watch the talking heads, and some may find the disembodied voices disorienting. However, using only the sound of the interviews allows the visual plane to devote itself entirely to Wojnarowicz’s art. The range of material is extensive and it’s refreshing that the film forgoes the conventional talking heads approach to immerse viewers in the artist’s oeuvre.

Wojnarowicz’s voice permeates every frame of the film, both literally and figuratively, as archival tapes resurrect his accounts of coming to the city and working as a hustler. He speaks of sloppy, sticky, sweaty sex, but also of the life-affirming pleasure of giving joy to a john. It’s unsurprising that his photographs and artworks displayed the male body unfiltered and uncensored, bringing gay sex out of the shadows and alleys and putting it onto the walls galleries across the land. The titular Fuck You Faggot Fucker piece, pictured above, typifies Wojnarowicz’s aesthetic with its mix of photographs, found pieces, and sexuality that harnesses taboo characterizations of homosexuality to ask the onlooker what he or she finds shocking and why.

As the film culminates with Wojnarowicz’s AIDS diagnosis, his participation in the ACT UP movements to draw awareness to the American government’s callous indifference to the pandemic, and his confrontations with censorship, F*ck You F*ggot F**ker sharply conveys the necessity of going all in. The film sees the artistic establishment quiver when critics deem Wojnarowicz’s art too political to merit public funding, but these arguments are obviously cases of silencing opinions one doesn’t like. As Wojnarowicz holds his ground and doubles down on his part, making the act of living with and eventually dying from AIDS a public statement, it shows how the best art embeds politics within its fabric. Like Wojnarowicz, this openly and proudly queer doc owns its voice and uses its platform to amplify outsiders.

Wojnarowicz: F*ck You F*ggot F**ker streams via TIFF beginning March 19.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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