Judge Christopher Kulik has never been into photography, though he wish he had a camera when some Navy buddies vomited on the steps of the Vatican.
"Americans are weird about death. They think it's gross and disgusting, and they get freaked out, and they want it put as far away as possible, and keep it out of sight, and keep it in the nursing homes and close the coffin. They don't want to see it as an organic part of life."—-- Sally Mann
For those of you who are not familiar with Sally Mann, she is considered by many to be the Francis Ford Coppola of photography. A lifelong resident of Lexington, Virginia, Mann came into the public eye because of a 1992 book entitled "Immediate Family." Mann's austerely beautiful portraits of her three children in various scenes of nature garnered rave reviews…and some notoriety as well.
Mann became a target in the eyes of conservatives and the Christian Right, accusing her of publishing child pornography. True, many of the shots feature her children posing nude, though not in a graphic or exploitative way…at least I don't think so.
Filmmaker Steven Cantor decided to examine the controversy in a 1994 short called Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann. Mann's photographs were mixed together with candid interviews with her and her children, and the result was impressive enough to receive an Academy Award nomination.
Ten years later, Cantor decided to catch up with Mann in her latest series of vivid photographs focusing on death and decomposition. Sharing the same title as her published series, What Remains debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005. An excellent, intimate look at an American artist at work, the documentary now comes to DVD courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.
The first half of What Remains focuses primarily on Mann's life. We get a glimpse of her childhood, learn of her original goal in becoming a writer, and discover how she met her husband Laurence. Despite her efforts at poetry, she decided to lean more towards her hobby, which was black-and-white photography. Her "Immediate Family" success and backlash is only briefly documented in order to make way for her latest project on death.
The second half begins with her project's inspiration: in late 2000, an escaped prisoner was shot and killed by police on Mann's farm. As she contemplated the episode and viewed the area of the incident, she got the idea to begin a new series of photographs examining what happens to our bodies after death.
Soon, she is taking pictures of the remains of a family dog and, eventually, she gets in touch with a Tennessee facility that holds human corpses in a small area to be studied. Some of the bodies are naked, while others are fully clothed. Either way, her photography in "What Remains" raises questions on our relationship (and reaction) to death.
The pictures really speak for themselves. In What Remains, Cantor doesn't hesitate in showing many of them in all their morbid, disturbing glory. There is something so tragic in seeing these rotting corpses, and yet the pictures are all surreal and oddly illuminating as well.
Like her photography, Mann herself comes off as open and articulate. She is never apologetic, and why should she? She is proud of her work, and she knows full well that not everyone will understand her motivations and her choice of subject matter.
Zeitgeist Films presents What Remains on DVD in a brand new anamorphic master, and the results are quite good. Audio is fine in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, and they have included English subtitles.
Despite the documentary's minor status, Zeitgeist has managed to conjure up a healthy supply of special features. First up is Blood Ties, which runs a compelling 30 minutes. There are three photo galleries, all from Mann's collections. Eight deleted scenes add some more background and insight into the photographer's world. Finally, we have excerpts from a Mann lecture done during a 2003 photojournalism conference in Copenhagen. All are surely worthwhile.
While What Remains is uneven at times, overall Cantor does an outstanding job of presenting Mann as an artist, woman, and mother with an original outlook on life and death. The court finds the documentary, Cantor, and Zeitgeist Films not guilty, and Sally Mann is free to go take more pictures.
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