CinÃ©ma-vÃ©ritÃ© and the first-person documentary go to war in “Wild Blue Yonder,” and vÃ©ritÃ© wins this engrossing car wreck is an unintentional argument as to how difficult it is to successfully include yourself in your own nonfiction film. “Wild Blue Yonder” is about “a daughter’s search for her father,” as the filmmaker, Celia Maysles, puts it that father is David Maysles, who with his brother Albert made seminal docs like “Grey Gardens” and “Gimme Shelter,” and who passed away in 1987, when Celia was 7. Judith Maysles, Celia’s mother and David’s widow, fought it out with Albert over the rights to the Maysles brothers’ films in an ugly court battle that ended in a settlement and the rights of all of the films, including “Blue Yonder,” the film David was working on at the time of his death, becoming solely Albert’s. The lawsuit pretty much ended communication between Maysles Films and Celia and Judith, until Celia decided to bridge the gap in the making of this, her own debut film.
“Wild Blue Yonder” is about David Maysles, but it is, as you might suspect, really about Celia, about how much she misses her father; her process in seeking him out in his friends, subject and notes; and her attempts to get outtake footage of him left over from “Grey Gardens” footage Albert was mining for “The Beales of Grey Gardens.” Albert noted in an interview that “in the film, I come off as the bad guy,” refusing to allow Celia access due to concerns that their two films were going to cover too similar ground. And he is very much villainized, but Celia’s lack of perspective ends up making him the more sympathetic party. “Wild Blue Yonder” deals with what’s understandably an anguished and emotional topic, but as a filmmaker, Celia conveniently chooses not to distinguish between the personal and the business, between documented and undocumented life. She doesn’t just want access to the footage to see her father, which is what she weeps to Christo and Jeanne-Claude when she interviews them she wants to use the footage in her film. She cuts Albert off when he tries to go into the lawsuit, saying she doesn’t want to talk about a time that was so painful for herself and her mother, and then lets her mother tell it from her side later. And unacknowledged is the fact that the film, by its very nature, is trading on the filmmaker’s pedigree and that unseen footage from the “Grey Gardens” days, which Celia treats as only fair, as essential to her personal journey, also has marketable value attached to it, something Albert certainly knew when deciding to put together his own follow-up.
How to determine who owns the work of a life? Albert Maysles, for better or worse, was given control of everything David produced, even “Blue Yonder,” the film that was David’s own personal project, an attempt to separate himself from his sibling and, appropriately, a documentary look at their own father, who died when David was 13. But “Wild Blue Yonder” makes it a herculean task to feel any sympathy for Celia, who’s petulant, devoid of self-awareness, endlessly confesses to and cries on camera, and, as things grow worse between her and her uncle, tends to stride up to him and then ask if it’s okay that she’s already filming. The excavations of the Maysles brothers’ subjects, of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, of “Grey Garden”‘s charmingly eccentric Lois Wright, are far too brief and yet burn a thousand times brighter than Celia’s sharing of the details of her teenage eating disorder while holding the camera pointed at herself out at arm’s length. “Wild Blue Yonder” isn’t a successful in any sense of the word, but I must confess it’s one of the films I’ve talked about the most with fellow festival-goers a maddening and marked example of documentary self-indulgence.
[Photo: “Wild Blue Yonder,” Corra Films, 2007]