Venturing Into Reality With Charismatic Men; “This So-Called Disaster” and “The Agronomist”
by Peter Brunette
Two documentaries featuring strong, charismatic men opened in New York last weekend. Interestingly, both were made by established directors who are much better known for their fiction films than for their forays into reality. Neither film, it must be said, is particularly noteworthy in terms of documentary technique, but the two men they focus on are so fully THERE, so strikingly present, that both will remain stuck in viewers’ minds for a long time.
The first film, “This So-Called Disaster,” is directed by Michael Almereyda, who is best-known for his wonderfully offbeat “Hamlet,” starring Ethan Hawke, though I also remain partial to his earlier postmodern thriller “Nadja” (1994). His new film focuses on the playwright and actor Sam Shepherd and is billed as a record of the mounting of his play “The Late Henry Moss,” but ends up being about much, much more. For one thing, it’s a complex exploration of Shepherd’s obsessive themes, such as the troubled and titanic Oedipal struggle between father and son, and his relations with his own real-life Dad upon which the character of Henry Moss is based. Along with David Mamet (at his best in something like “Glengarry Glen Ross”), Shepherd is our foremost explicator of the mystery of contemporary masculinity.
This privileged and revealing glimpse into the mind and methods of one of our most important playwrights would alone make the film worth seeing, but because this particular production featured an all-star celebrity cast composed of the likes of Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Woody Harrelson, our interest in the film is greatly enhanced.
What is perhaps most striking is how serious everyone is. Documentaries about the making of films usually feature a lot of horsing-around, but here the actors seem to take a page from the gravitas of the playwright-director, whom they obviously deeply respect. All is business. Separate interviews with Penn, Nolte, and Shepherd (Harrelson, who seems utterly intimidated by the intellectualism of the entire process, must have declined to be interviewed) add to our understanding not only of Shepherd but of the mysterious nature of acting itself.
Shepherd, who of course has also had a distinguished acting career, at one point says that “the script is only a blueprint for the actor to take hold of it” and make something special for the audience. He speaks easily of Brecht and of the importance of an actor presenting himself or herself to an audience both as character and real person. In a delicious throwaway scene the ultra-serious Shepherd frostily dismisses an Associated Press reporter interviewing him after she makes a ditzy comment to the effect, that boy, this play sure isn’t very “upbeat.” But the most insightful moment comes when Shepherd speaks movingly of finding the “right language” to coach his actors in order build their trust.
The film does drag a bit here and there, but Almereyda struggles mightily to keep up our interest, which he achieves amazingly well given the fact that few viewers will know much about the play that we continually come back to. He cleverly uses as a structuring device the suspenseful tension that arises from working against the clock to get the play in shape for its opening. I predict a long life for this film in theater departments around the world. It’s an entire tutorial in writing plays and directing and acting in them, in only 85 minutes.
The other powerful male is Jean Dominique, the Haitian political firebrand who is at the center of Jonathan Demme‘s (“The Silence of the Lambs,” “Philadelphia”) powerful if conventional documentary, “The Agronomist.” The off-putting title (which may unfortunately limit the film’s box-office potential) refers to Dominique’s original career before he founded Radio Haiti-Inter and became a scourge to the successive waves of corrupt politicians that have for decades ravaged that much-oppressed island.
Dominique is an amazing figure, and Demme, who interviewed him at various times over the course of a decade, is clearly entranced. When he speaks (in French, English, and Creole) he uses every muscle in his face as an expressive device, and we quickly come to love and admire him almost as much as his dedicated followers in his beloved homeland. His tireless devotion to his people’s plight is exemplary and the fiery radio speeches he delivers with gusto are never less than mesmerizing. His assassination in 2000 comes as a hammer blow to the audience, as it did to his legion of followers. His wife, Michèle Montas, whom we see at regular intervals to fill in for the absent Dominique, is no less powerful a figure.
Demme has long been fascinated by Haiti, and here he has found the perfect focusing device for his obsession. Given that Jean-Bertrand Aristide (who was democratically elected, it should be remembered) was recently forced from office, the film couldn’t come at a more auspicious time. The director does his best to provide multiple titles to explain the dizzying succession of evildoers that have afflicted Haiti over the years, but viewers who aren’t already cognizant of the main outlines of the island’s history will have difficulty connecting the dots from Papa Doc Duvalier to Aristide. But it doesn’t matter, since Dominique’s fierce love of liberty and his deep sympathy for the plight of his poor countrymen come across very strongly indeed, with or without the details. The original music, by Haiti’s Wyclif Jean, offers surprise after surprise.