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Review: 'Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker' is Cutting and Clever

by Kilian Melloy
Saturday Apr 17, 2021
Review: 'Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker' is Cutting and Clever

Chris McKim's documentary on queer artist and writer David Wojnarowicz - produced by WOW Docs and World of Wonder's Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, executive producers of "RuPaul's Drag Race" - is an unsettling experience.

That's not due to its in-your-face title, "Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker," which was taken from the title of one of Wojnarowicz's canvases (Wojnarowicz, in turn, got it from a homophobic doodle that he incorporated into the work and insisted should be the name of the piece), but because the film plunges the viewer into the heart of the AIDS crisis and the inferno of hate that supposedly good and decent American leaders promptly unleashed in the 1980s.

Wojnarowicz, though traumatized from early life brutalities seen and experienced at the hands of an alcoholic father, and though something of an outlier on the art scene for much of his career, was in many ways the perfect commentator and art maker for the times. He was also strong, opinionated, and pugnacious - enough so that he didn't flinch or back down when homophobic senators like Jesse Helms or congressmen like Rep. Dana Rohrabacker came after queer art, or even came after him specifically.

Even when Don Wildmon of the savagely anti-gay American Family Association tried to turn Wojnarowicz's work into a fundraising opportunity, the artist stood firm...and prevailed in court against Wildmon and his hate group.

Wojnarowicz was principled as he was talented, interested not in creating art as a product or pursuing a payday but, rather, focused on the purity of art as a means of expression.

He could be lawless in his methods - he sprayed stencil graffiti on walls, tossed cow bones and bucker of blood onto public stairs, and took the lead in turning abandoned piers along the Hudson River into an impromptu art space, exciting "French fashion magazines" and incurring the wrath of city authorities, whose response was to tear the piers down - but he was also playful in his work.

As Tom Rauffenbart, the man who came closest to being his life partner, put it upon seeing a painting of a dinosaur with Wojnarowicz's name spelled out across the beast's back, Wojnarowicz had a child's imagination, and he also had a deft, sometimes cutting, wit.

The other man who played a huge part in Wojnarowicz's life was the photographer Peter Hujar, with whom he enjoyed a brief fling before the two became lifelong friends.

Hujar - we're told by one of the film's many interviewees, whom we might see in archival footage or photos but never as talking heads - "saw right away the talent and the chaos" that Wojnarowicz possessed (or, maybe better said, was possessed by).

Wojnarowicz had no fear of sexuality - or, if he did, he worked it out in his essays and imagery, with his canvases frequently celebrating gay sex acts, with those depictions sometimes taking place of pride in his compositions, but often appearing as details. (Even so, it was those details that so bedeviled Wildmon and Rohrabacher.) The male body and potentials for pleasure and adventure was a touchstone, rather than a fetish object, and when sex showed up in his work it had a meaning beyond mere titillation.

More than his paintings, it was an essay Wojnarowicz wrote for an exhibition catalog that got him into trouble and noticed nationally. He was as adept with words as with images, and verbal attacks were every bit as spectacular, dense, and - to those without eyes to see or ears to hear - offensive as his canvases or his installations.

That, of course, was the point. The world he saw around him, with its privileged few and its struggling, marginalized many was a nut whose shell Wojnarowicz wanted to crack, and he spoke of his own body in similar ways, saying he felt "ten pounds of pressure" with each outrage that pricked him. "What I make in my work is a record," he said, "that challenges the record we're given daily."

McKim evokes Wojnarowicz in the visual and choices he makes (a crimson jellyfish, pulsing like a blood corpuscle, is a notable example, but the film is rife with such touches) and in the film's sound design, which goes beyond illustrative clips and generates a sense of tectonic shift and deep dread.

Wojnarowicz himself provides the most compelling narration, with words preserved on film and in cassette tape journals, his voice a relentless rumble as he deconstructs a corrupt world and reconstitutes it, not in his own image, but in the highly literate and viscerally affecting mirror of his art.

"Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker" streams on Kino Marquee virtual cinemas starting March 19 and is also appearing in OUTshine Film Festival in Miami

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


OUTshine 2021

This story is part of our special report titled "OUTshine 2021." Want to read more? Here's the full list.


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