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Helmut Newton: Frames From the Edge

(n/a; US DVD: 27 Oct 2009; UK DVD: none)

This re-release of the 1988 documentary film Frames From the Edge follows legendary photographer Helmut Newton from one photo shoot to another as he travels between Los Angeles, Paris, Berlin and Monte Carlo. While photography enthusiasts will be drawn to this film like a rain-coated pervert to an unsniffed bicycle seat, it has much to offer a general audience interested in a rare cultural snapshot of Hollywood and the fashion industry circa the late ‘80s.


Filmed while Newton was in his 60s, the film is now, 20 years later, less a documentary about its ostensible subject, Mr. Newton, and more a homage to the decade in which he reached his zenith. From the imagery, to the soundtrack, to the various Hollywood and fashion industry celebrities interviewed, Frames From the Edge exudes the unique brand of broke-down, not-quite-so-modern modernism that the ‘80s are now infamous for.


By almost any definition Helmut Newton was one of the most successful photographers of all time, many would argue the most successful. Certainly, Frames From the Edge makes that claim. More recent evidence is that in December of 2008, four years after his death, a print of his most famous work “Sie Kommen, Paris, 1981” sold for $662,500 at Christie’s. Additionally, as of this writing the re-release of SUMO, his authoritative book of prints, remains #1 on the photography bestseller list on Amazon.


The director of Frames From the Edge, Adrian Maben (Pink Floyd, Live at Pompeii, 1972), seems to be complicit in preserving Newton’s celebrity status and the veil of secrecy that comes with it. In this film there are questions that will just never get asked. For instance why Newton, an upper class Jew who fled Nazi Germany in 1938, fills many of his images with police dogs, authoritarian black leather, and physically perfect blonde women with short haircuts. In this case the story behind the lens is more intriguing than the image. However, Maben and his subject leave the audience to fill in their own version of the story, Newton himself being quoted in the liner notes to the DVD saying, “I think that a photographer, like a well-behaved child, should be seen and not heard. I also think that a photograph needs no explanation.”


To say that the film doesn’t succeed in offering insight into the inner life of its subject would be incorrect. However, like the recent documentary The September Issue, which follows Vogue editor Anna Wintour and her staff as they prepare the yearly benchmark of high fashion, we learn more from what’s not said than what the subject chooses to enunciate for posterity. Perhaps nothing says more than a question not asked in films like The September Issue and Frames From the Edge, films that require the permission and collusion of their subjects to be made.


Much of the value of this film is in the depictions of an artist at work. Frames From the Edge opens on a Newton photo shoot already in progress. There’s a roasted suckling pig turning on a spit in front of a pure white background. A model stands next to it in high-heeled boots. So high are the heels that she can’t walk normally and is forced to tip toe awkwardly around the stage. As the model staggers and almost falls we begin to see how Helmut Newton exploited the reality that a photograph implies by staging scenes at once so impossible, poignant and sexually charged that our critical minds are short-circuited. It is an enchantment that only art at its best can produce.


Newton says later in the film, “It’s not like a movie. A photograph is an instant that is so limited. There is no continuity to it. Possibly the beauty of a photograph is that there is a mystery about it, that you’re just dealing with that one moment.”


The clicking of Newton’s Hasselblad transitions us out of the photo shoot into a pan of the Los Angeles skyline looking out from his suite at the Chateau Marmont. Underneath this long camera move, with the skyline barely visible under cascades of smog, Helmut can be heard saying, “I’ve been coming here off and on for seventeen years, from December to March. I love Los Angeles, I love Hollywood, I’m not that crazy about San Francisco which pretends to be very European and cultured and all that and I don’t give very much of a shit about culture.”


By culture Newton means the affectations and interests of the rich, the bourgeois, the idle class, the modern aristocracy. Throughout the film he openly states his contempt for these people and then flies about in helicopters, stays in the best hotels, and is essentially supported by the rich and their attendant interests of art and fashion. At one point his wife, June (a one-time actress and well-known photographer under the pseudonym Alice Springs), points out that, “I think Helmut is very bourgeois. He’d say it himself. In his milieu he loves photographing the bourgeois but in that bourgeois there are undercurrents; they are not boring people. He loves the idea of these ‘idle ladies’ as he calls them that have nothing to do and are just waiting to have something to do.” 


Photographers, photography students, and photography enthusiasts will be entranced by the many long sequences of photo shoots that are presented in Frames From the Edge. Even for non-enthusiasts it’s difficult not to be intrigued by watching one of the best using very little camera equipment and still less lighting. It is reassuring to be reminded that great art can be crafted with such few ingredients.


Near the end of the film we’re allowed to watch a shoot in progress of Faye Dunaway, for the cover of the August 1987 issue of Vanity Fair. Newton has her sitting in a chair in an empty room, a black sheet covering the window with just a sliver of light being let through. No flash bulbs. No lights. It’s the antithesis of showbiz. “I don’t like to have too much equipment,” he says soon after the Vanity Fair shoot. “I am not a pro who likes hardware. The less I have with me the better. It’s all inside my head, inside my eye. My lenses are mostly normal lenses. It is faster and better for me to work like that.”


Helmut Newton died in 2004 of a heart attack while driving down the driveway at his beloved Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. The director of Frames From the Edge, Adrian Maben, claims in the film’s narration that “… his pictures belong to the future.” Almost 22 years later, as the seriousness of the world’s troubles sink in, many of them gestated in the ‘80s, his claim is no longer convincing. Like philosopher Francis Fukuyama’s flawed thesis in his 1989 “End of History” essay that so heavily influenced George W. Bush, in the world of art Helmut Lang gazed out at a broken, troubled world and looking past the smog and the corruption, saw idle women, waiting breathless for a future that would never come.


Looking back we can forgive him this. Art serves as much to distract as anything else.  For that reason Frames From the Edge succeeds in representing its subject, and simultaneously documenting a decade that has been both vilified and celebrated, depending on your choice of lenses. It was worth a re-issue, and worth watching, if only to be convinced of how little progress we’ve made.

Rating:

George Russell is a writer living and working in Los Angeles. His PopMatters essays have appeared in an anthology published by W.W. Norton.


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