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Beyond Words: Linas Phillips’ “Great Speeches from a Dying World”

By Michael Rowin | Indiewire February 12, 2009 at 2:41AM

[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
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[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]

Filming marginalized, disenfranchised, and downtrodden people from a privileged position brings with it complex considerations, but documenting the lives of the homeless is particularly tricky ethical terrain, inviting as it does the pitfalls of condescension and exploitation—“The Onion” perhaps summed up the dilemma best: “Area Photo 201 Students All Take Pictures of Same Homeless Guy.” Thirty-two-year-old Linas Phillips would at first glance seem unready to tackle such a project: he’s a heart-on-sleeve admirer of Werner Herzog—whose films have often used societal outcasts as projections of his own eccentric worldview—and in his first feature, “Walking to Werner,” the young director’s encounters with poor and mentally unstable strangers served as fascinating markers on an individualistic journey.

But Phillips’s follow-up, “Great Speeches from a Dying World,” does justice to nine or so homeless people from Seattle by documenting their stories with attentive compassion and, in the film’s biggest gamble, he gets them to choose a famous speech from history to recite for the camera. Because Phillips usually stays out of their way, the personalities and backgrounds of the homeless men and women come to the fore—how Mike, a former repairman and current alcoholic, was forced to live on the streets after losing his van and tools and has since been beaten down to the point of resignation: “I haven’t given up hope, but I’ve given up trying for a while.” Phillips captures, through anecdotes and candid moments, the daily indignities of panhandling and the difficulty of gaining any sort of edge in a world to which the homeless are a nuisance; at one point, Sarge must renew the energy of his electric wheelchair by plugging into an outlet outside a department store, but security prevents him from doing so. From these portraits emerge the rules and customs of street life, from drug dealing to finding free meals to applying for housing, and it’s to Phillips’s credit that he never romanticizes nor mystifies them.

While every so often Phillips abandons the role of interviewer and filmmaker, betraying just how out of place he is among the homeless—“In some ways it’s very beautiful, the way you do that,” he says in Herzogian fashion to Mark, a mentally disabled man who marches in place; “Oh, okay,” Mark responds—he understands the power of observation. (This goes for Seattle as much as the people of “Great Speeches”: the city is seen from rooted spots on street corners, the floors of homeless shelters, and the dark shadows of empty parking lots.)

Phillips is able to strike a fine balance between documentarian and confidant, especially with Tomey, whose story emerges as the film’s dramatic arc. Gray-haired and nearly skeletal, Tomey embodies many of the contradictions of homelessness. In trouble from an early age, Tomey ended up in jail, where he contracted HIV. Ever since serving time he’s fought, usually unsuccessfully, against crack addiction, his habit having claimed victim to Jean, an ex-girlfriend consigned to starting her life over at her brother’s house. Funny and likable, Tomey is also as quick to pick a fight on a bus as he is to fall off the wagon, and his attitude—toward the world and his place in it—vacillates with the ups and downs of his struggle against substance abuse. Though Phillips ends “Great Speeches” with him getting his life together again, Tomey’s behavior demonstrates how hard it is to put a stop to a downward spiral.

As for the speeches, they make for the least compelling moments of Phillips’s project. While they don’t tip over into exploitation by making fools of the homeless men and women who recite them, they’re also clearly the result of concentrated efforts at memorization or recitations from off-screen cue cards rather than expressive interpretations. Conceptually they reduce their speakers to symbols when, for instance, Vietnam vet Sarge’s oration of the Gettysburg Address plays on the line “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract,” or when Jose, a troubled man with a long history of self destruction and attempts at suicide, intones “To be or not to . . .” from his hospital bed.

Rather than connect the subjects’ stories to the universal, immortal words of history’s giants, the speeches instead unintentionally abstract them. And a clunky theatricality surfaces with Phillips’s decision to punctuate the speeches with slight directorial flourishes, as when Native American Jonas’s Chief Sealth speech ends with a dramatic camera track backward, or when Tomey’s recitation of John Donne’s “No Man Is an Island”—perhaps the most moving of the lot, coming as it does after the death of the transgendered woman he befriended and looked after at a homeless shelter—concludes with a pan to a reflection of the speaker in a window.

That said, these moments would be significantly more contrived if it seemed that Phillips was using them to draw attention away from incompetent, unengaged filmmaking that failed to impart the struggle of homelessness. That certainly isn’t the case here, and the “gimmick” of Phillips’s sophomore work can be excused as the understandable miscalculation of an intelligent, sensitive, and ambitious director who has greatly improved from his mixed, off-the-cuff debut to this fine, focused documentary.

[Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer at Reverse Shot. He also writes for L magazine, Stop Smiling, and runs the blog Hopeless Abandon.]

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