Writing about the upcoming documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” Jeffrey Wells notes that the film — a loving profile — has rehabilitated Rivers in his mind from “‘uh-huh, whatever’ status” to someone who’s a “highly admirable paragon of toughness and tenacity. Plus the doc deepens and saddens our understanding of who Rivers is, was and continues to be.”
That’s a win-win scenario for anyone who sets out to rehabilitate a person who’s become a punchline — or worse — in the public imagination, something that happens less often than you’d expect in an era when the unlikeliest people can be reclaimed from the pop-cultural dustbowl (say, Rick Astley’s transformation from ’80s artefact to YouTube “rickrolling” phenomenon and winner of “Best Act Ever” at the MTV Europe Music Awards 2008).
Many quality documentary profiles choose to take either a highly ambivalent take on their subjects (because it makes for good drama) or even an attack-dog one — a tricky act to pull off when you need the cooperation of your interview subject, but it can be done. Witness Barbet Schroeder’s “Terror’s Advocate,” in which interviewee Jacques Vergès doesn’t seem to understand that the more he explains his reasons for defending Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, the deeper the hole he’s digging becomes. Schroeder’s a past master at hanging with morally objectionable people and letting them hang themselves (see also his documentary on the late Ugandan dictator Idi Amin); why people cooperate to let themselves be hung is unfathomable, but good for him.
A more ambivalent — and shockingly persuasive — example came in the form of “The Fog of War,” in which Errol Morris performed the unlikely task of letting Vietnam policy mastermind Robert McNamara plausibly present himself as a person who actually feels guilty about his past policy work rather than as the cold-blooded architect of one of America’s great traumas. It’s a tough-minded but oddly generous balancing act.
For straight-up celebration, though, politicians are almost impossibly problematic. It’s safer to stick to pop cultural figures, like Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s unlikely celebration of Tammy Faye Bakker, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” — from fraudulent televangelist to gay icon — or “Anvil! The Story of Anvil.” In both cases, a too-easy pop cultural punchline (the latter long-forgotten) is given their dignity back, a kind of mutual-interest collaboration which is easier to do without crossing ethical boundaries when no serious moral offenses have been committed.
But here’s an example of a political figure given an unlikely rehabilitation, at least for 23 minutes. Ernesto Samper is the controversial 37th president of Columbia, who was investigated for having drug cartel money donated to his campaign — a scandal never definitively resolved, but which (among other things) led to his visitation visa for the US being revoked, effectively banning his presence.
In this hilarious short, which you should watch if you have 23 minutes to spare (and, with taxes due in a week, who doesn’t), Samper simply sits there and watches TV with running commentary — Fox News first, but then he starts channel-surfing out of sheer boredom, which is when things get fun. At one point, watching a telenovela, he groans “This is awful! And I’m responsible! I privatized TV!”
[Photos: “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” IFC Films, 2010; “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” Lions Gate Films, 2000]