By Dan Persons
[Photo: “95 Miles to Go,” ThinkFilm, 2006]
Halfway through a screening of “95 Miles to Go,” the video diary of comedian Ray Romano’s performance tour through the south, I thought I saw the future of documentary filmmaking, and it scared the shit out of me. I saw comedians, rock stars, actors anyone with the self-possession to offer themselves up to the spotlight and the inclination to jam a camcorder into a subordinate’s hands capturing the tiniest minutiae of their lives for the camera. I saw distributors, motivated by star names and low, low budgets, snapping up 90-minute draughts of real-life esoterica better fit for the bonus features of a concert DVD. I saw a new breed of vanity filmmaking gone mobile: Every Holiday Inn a studio! Every personal assistant a de facto documentarian! And I steeled myself for the tide of ego-fueled effluvia that I felt was sure to come.
It hasn’t gotten that bad, but the threat still looms. “95 Miles to Go” should be the cautionary lesson that puts filmgoers on their guard. Much as I enjoy Ray Romano’s comedy, a hour and fifteen minutes of him whining about hotel rooms and rest-stops is certainly more than anyone should be asked to endure (imagine what the full, eight-day journey was like). This is pack-yer-camcorder filmmaking at its most basic, and most tedious. Watching it, you get the sense that the biggest difference between such road-documentaries and your average home movie is the amount of Velcro mounting material that gets packed.
Ray Romano is not the only target of filmmakers who seem to think the world spins on their subject’s merest breath. Take, for instance, “The Outsider,” Nicholas Jarecki’s adoring profile of gadfly director James Toback. As the brother of nonfiction helmers Eugene and Andrew Jarecki and the author of “Breaking In: How 20 Film Directors Got Their Start,” Jarecki’s managed his own break-in by corralling a who’s who of cinematic talent Woody Allen, Barry Levinson, and Robert Towne amongst them to sing Toback’s praises. And for about 45 minutes, it sort of works. There’s a certain, perverse fun in watching Toback ply his craft (the sum of his direction to model Bridget Hall is, “You are yourself, and you stop me and tell me you’re fascinated by my book”). The more you observe, though, the more you may be reminded that, while some regard Toback’s work as masterpieces of free-form filmmaking, others see only formless rehashings of his obsessions with desperate gamblers and two-on-one sex. By the time Jarecki starts sitting Toback down in the same frame with the people who are supposed to be talking about him always a bad idea the mutual stroking becomes as oppressive as the knowledge that any twenty-something actress in a Toback film will inevitably wind up naked in a clinch with Robert Downey Jr.
There’s even more star-power in Sidney Pollack’s “Sketches of Frank Gehry,” but of a distinctly Forbesian pedigree: Michael Eisner, Barry Diller, Mike Ovitz, Philip Johnson. They’re all here to bear witness to the architect’s inarguable genius, yet what may lodge most indelibly in your mind is not their testimony, nor the shots of Gehry’s mammoth, undulating structures, but the sight of Pollack wielding a camcorder as he interviews the man. The prevalence of such footage is curious it’s as if the Hollywood stalwart wanted as much to immortalize his own embrace of new media as to celebrate the work of his subject. (The self-consciousness becomes all the more conspicuous when you realize that Pollack’s gone to the trouble of having another cameraperson there to record his foray into film-it-yourself production.) It doesn’t work, of course much as Pollack wants to display his blossoming as an indie filmmaker, the industry roots still show (viz those mover-and-shaker interviews). But at least he brings in critic Hal Foster for an opposing viewpoint, and, since I seriously doubt I’ll ever set foot in Bilbao, I have to welcome any opportunity to explore Gehry’s dazzling, radical style in this kind of detail.
As for the celebrity list of “Wrestling with Angels,” how about Meryl Streep, Mike Nichols, and Marcia Gay Harden? The plus side here is that these stars feel more in proportion to the real world, maybe because the film’s subject, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, feels rather grounded himself. I only wish director Freida Lee Mock had taken her stylistic tip less from Kushner’s down-to-earth personality and more from the bold imagery of such plays as “Angels in America” her straightforward treatment pays off in such moments as when Kushner visits his Louisiana home, but devolves into something like a succession of making-of videos while the film catalogues the creation of some of Kushner’s recent work (a sense only emphasized as Maurice Sendak, through no fault of his own, briefly wrests the spotlight away from the film’s putative subject). Still, the passion and social concern of the man overcomes the bland treatment any person who can create a piece in which Laura Bush reads “The Brothers Karamazov” to a group of dead Iraqi children has earned, in my estimation, whatever adulation falls his way.