Thursday, February 12, 2009

Great Speeches from a Dying World

Essential viewing for our economic hard times, Linas Phillips’ documentary Great Speeches from a Dying World offers an intimate look at the lives of nine (mostly) homeless men and women on the streets of Seattle, nearly all of whom once had stable employment. But neither a cautionary tale nor an explicit critique of the failure of a social system, Phillips’ film instead focuses on the daily routines of his subjects (selling newspapers or flowers on street corners, bedding down at a shelter) as well as their often heartbreaking backstories, allowing any wider social implications to emerge at one remove.

Although the film’s subject matter entails a certain amount of brutal detailing – and Phillips doesn’t shy away from highlighting his subjects’ susceptibility to physical attack or their struggles with drug addiction – the director refuses to turn his project into an out-and-out miserabilist undertaking. For one thing, with a few exceptions, all of which are glossed over fairly rapidly, the individuals profiled in the picture hardly seem to be the most indigent of possible subjects. Although many struggle to keep off crack or alcohol, most seem in good mental health, have something of a range of social connections and, as the film traces their progress over a few years, several are able to find housing. In addition, the subjects regularly offer each other assistance, checking up on one another, dispensing advice and generally making their situations more bearable. It’s this last aspect that emerges as one of the film’s moral touchstones, not - of course - because it allows the viewer to feel that homelessness isn’t as bad as he might have thought (although, to some degree, it does), but because it further humanizes the individuals that Phillips profiles and because it recognizes the imperative of a common humanity.

As a structuring device, Phillips has each of his subjects recite a classic text – the “great speeches” of the title – with which they feel a personal connection and spaces these recitations out across the film. Drawing on the oratory of Sojourner Truth, Jesus Christ and John and Robert Kennedy, Phillips’ subjects recontextualize these works, endowing the mostly overfamiliar speeches with (at least in theory) fresh meaning. For the most part, however, the device seems an unnecessary hook, as if the director didn’t trust the individual stories he collected to provide a sufficient basis for a feature-length film. But although I don’t think the “great speeches” angle works in general – despite the thematic relevance of the texts to the lives of the individuals who recite them, the subjects don’t seem to really respond to the project – in two cases, the approach has real resonance. In one, a man who just survived a near-fatal staph infection recites Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech from his hospital bed, the words taking on new relevance since the subject, who has attempted suicide seven times, has lapsed into a fresh despair and seems to be contemplating, like the melancholy Dane, whether or not to continue his life. Later in the film, a wheelchair bound Vietnam vet, his words slightly garbled because of a stroke, recites the Gettysburg Address; as he echoes Lincoln’s words, the thought that a war might be fought to ensure that “all men are created equal” comes across with cruel irony when conveyed through this combat-scarred man’s shattered voice, even as his determined recitation provides a note of inspired uplift.

In any non-fiction film, but especially one where the subject is the dispossessed, the question of the proper relationship between filmmaker and subject becomes a central issue, a point that Phillips himself acknowledges at the beginning of the picture when he expresses guilt over going home to his warm bed while leaving his subjects to sleep on the streets. But although Phillips spent several years getting to the know the men and women in his film and, we’re told, became friends with at least one of them – the film’s central figure, a garrulous, generous HIV-positive man named Tomey who struggles with a lingering crack addiction – his method as a filmmaker seems to be to maintain as objective a stance as possible. So Phillips films his subjects begging for money, but we never see him offer them any financial assistance. He shows us a man struggling to move his wheelchair over a speed bump, but the director remains off camera throughout, refusing to help. He does dispense some advice to Tomey, telling him to be careful not to spend his social security check on drugs, and offers some flattering comments to the film’s most down-and-out –subject, but for the most part, he seems determined to document rather than interfere.

Another important issue that Phillips addresses is the question of ethical representation. How much of the less palatable aspects of his subjects’ lives is it permissible to show in order to give an accurate account of their daily travails without crossing over into exploitation? Although the director generally avoids showing his subjects at their most debased, he does film them smoking crack and, at one point, in voiceover, expresses regret that he included footage of Tomey that was shot while the latter was high. The proper positioning of the filmmaker in regards to his subject is an important question, perhaps the key question, for the documentary filmmaker and it’s one that Phillips acknowledges without obsessing over. But in the end, he seems to strike the right balance. Without condescending to the men and women of his film, and with only the occasional lapse into questionable inclusion, Phillips does right by his subjects, bearing due witness to their struggles, while allowing them to maintain their essential dignity.

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