Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Talky pictures: William Kunstler, Disturbing the Universe and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Brief Interviews was going to be part of a double feature, but like Ichi the week before, it didn't seem like the folks at Kendall Square knew about it - The Confessional was listed in Landmark's Boston listings and on Google, but when I got there, no sign, nothing in the point-of-purchase machines, and the screening of Capitalism: A Love Story it would have displaced was still there. In the end, Brief Interviews ran past the expected 9pm start time and I was hungry anyway, so I didn't bug a box office person or manager to find out what was going on, although I am curious about these random-seeming screenings that are popping up there.

William Kunstler, Disturbing the Universe

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 November 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run)

For most documentaries, the narrator is relatively anonymous - a reassuringly familiar celebrity voice, perhaps with some connection to the subject matter. For William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, it is Kunstler's youngest daughter, Emily, who made the film with her sister Sarah. She announces this right from the start, and one's first reaction is likely to wonder if perhaps they might be too close to the film's subject to see him clearly, and that turns out to be a legitimate concern.

Sarah's and Emily's relationship with their father wasn't pure hero-worship, though. As the film opens, they say point out that William Kunstler landmark civil rights cases were behind him when they were growing up in 1980s New York City; then, he was by and large a criminal attorney, often taking the cases of accused rapists and terrorists, drawing threats and protesters to their door, and dangerous people to the office in the basement of their home. How to reconcile that with the heroic stories of his earlier years?

The easy answer is that Kunstler believed that every accused person deserves a fair trial and a vigorous defense, and that's roughly the answer that his daughters appear to come to. They don't come out and state as much, and when all is said and done, they still seem to have a difficult time reconciling the William Kunstler that existed before they were born with their father. The first half to two-thirds of the movie is packed with archive footage and recordings of well-known events like the Attica riots, the Chicago 7 conspiracy trial, and Wounded Knee, as well as smaller trials like his fight to allow a black couple to become his neighbors in Westchester, NY; there are plentiful interviews with those involved who are still around forty years later. The lesser amount of time spent on Kunstler's later activities is, in large part, used to describe how it impacted Sarah, Emily, and their mother. There is some commentary from Karin Kunstler Goldman, a daughter of William's first marriage, and it never seems like the two Kunstlers were completely different people, but there's a gap that Sarah and Emily have a difficult time bridging.

I don't blame them for this; Sarah and Emily are able to bring a unique perspective to their father's story, even if it may also be a limited one. Interview subjects often refer to William as "your father", and it pushes them to discuss him as a man as well as a lawyer and public figure. They also have access to his home movies and photographs, some going back to the 1950s. They are a treat, showing him before he became radicalized or grew his hair out, or discussing things with Sarah and Emily when they were very young.

Some of what he says there, and in news archive footage, can be difficult to watch. He can be eloquent and certainly earns respect for some of the cases he takes, but he'll also throw in things like "all white people are racist", or other cynical claims that, though they may be more true than we would like to think, seem far more absolute than perhaps is warranted; it often comes off as a classic case of liberal white guilt. He takes pride in how he grandstands in court, and one has to wonder if there are cases we don't see where that backfired badly. He clearly craved attention, and that is acknowledged, though seldom illustrated in a way that would show it as a serious flaw.

William Kunstler was an interesting man, and his daughters have certainly made an interesting movie about him. In some ways, I hope someone else takes a crack at a William Kunstler movie, perhaps as a narrative feature. Disturbing the Universe is informative, and in some ways the filmmakers' journey is as interesting as the subject's - Emily and Sarah seem to have their respect for their father solidified - but their unique ability to get close in some ways naturally holds them back in others.

Also at HBS.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 November 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

How can you spot a first film written and directed by an actor in a crowd? I've probably mentioned this before, but look for the one where the story is told entirely through talking and facial expressions. That is, after all, what actors do, and thus what they will likely consider important or interesting in a movie. I imagine if cinematographers and editors got the chance to direct their own screenplays, they'd crank out movies that leaned heavily on compositions or juxtapositions, respectively. This isn't a hard and fast rule, but, wow, does it nail John Krasinski's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.

The interviewer is graduate student Sara Quinn (Julianne Nicholson); most of the interviews are actually monologues delivered by various character actors sitting across a metal desk from her in a room that is unmemorable but not abstract. Some are snippets of overheard conversation; others appear to be some sort of chorus. Most center around their relationships with women. The impetus behind these interviews and this eavesdropping is, supposedly, her doctoral thesis, but it's very clear that her recent breakup with boyfriend Ryan (Krasinski) is at the very least an influence.

Or it would be, if we ever saw Sara and her subjects really interact. As I mentioned, most of what we see monologues, bits of oration that may have been copied into the script verbatim from author David Foster Wallace's original work. We don't get much of a glimpse of Sara reacting to, interpreting, or directing the interviews, despite being on the lookout for it at least from the time her professor (Timothy Hutton) none-too-subtly points out that the documentarian exerts as heavy an influence on what we learn that the subject. Until late in the movie, she seems to be a fairly complete non-entity, so that when she and an undergraduate (Dominic Cooper) clash over a paper that she graded, it's hollow, manufactured conflict because she's got no point of view. She's suddenly sticking "as a woman" into her explanations of her opinions as if that's supposed to be enough, but we've got no idea what that means to her. Julianne Nicholson, unfortunately, doesn't add enough to the character to make her especially interesting in the time she's got on screen.

On the other hand, the interviews themselves are all kinds of not bad at all. Krasinski has put together an quality actors and given them the opportunity to just do their thing, and few if any falter. Ben Shankman, Chris Meloni, Bobby Cannavale, and Krasinski himself all have interesting stories to tell (you'd better believe Krasinski saved the longest and strangest for himself), and they mostly hit what they were aiming for on the bullseye, whether it be awkward comedy or predatory creepiness. A pair of standouts are Frankie Faison or Malcolm Goodwin, telling the same story without directly interacting, and making the bit that could be pulled out and released as a great little short film because it doesn't directly connect with the others, but is great regardless.

Krasinski plays around a bit in his directorial debut; that scene with Faison and Goodwin owes just as much to the way Krasinski stages it as it does to the performances, for instance. He'll often shoot both people telling a story and the story itself with the narration laid over, but knows how to push the latter back half a step, to remind us that what we're seeing is perhaps what Sara is imagining. The flaws of how he handles Sara are still there, though, and sometimes, he gets too clever for his own good. He uses the chorus of Max Minghella's Kevin and Lou Taylor Pucci's Evan to stick in ideas that he can't seem to communicate any other way, and a sequence toward the end that jumps a speech from character to character, and situation to situation, is incredibly well cut, but also weirdly disconnected from what is going on around it.

In fact, the way he cuts and shoots shows enough talent that I certainly look forward to future projects. Here, he winds up creating the odd contradictions of Brief Interviews - it does feel like a film in spite of mostly being people talking, and despite all that people pour out their hearts and histories, not a whole lot seems to be said.

Also at HBS.

No comments: