In the wake of “Point and Shoot,” the latest documentary by Marshall Curry, the comparison that kept barging its way into my mind was with Darren Aronofsky. No, the two filmmakers have nothing in common stylistically; one works in fiction, the other in non-; one makes $150-million biblical epics while the other performs miracles with public television money. But the thing they share — the engine of their filmmaking, in fact — is an obsession with obsession.
In Aronofky’s case, this has channeled its way through ballet, math and drug addiction (“Black Swan,” “Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream”). In Curry’s films, which always have had strong storylines anyway, the aspect of obsession is more nuanced, and yet an essential element in what has drawn the director to his subjects: In “Streetfight,” the impossibly righteous-cum-personal crusade of a political neophyte (Corey Booker) against the thuggish, entrenched mayor of Newark N.J. (Sharpe James); in “Racing Dreams,” the precocious ambition/tenacity that separates one child from another amid a pack of wannabe NASCAR stars; and, in “If a Tree Falls,” the single-mindedness of alleged “eco-terrorist” Daniel McGowan, mirrored by the U.S. government’s own blinkered and vindictive stance toward anyone with the temerity to actively challenge policy.
The tale told in “Point and Shoot” is a virtual swashbuckler, a Boy’s Own story about adventure, travel, motorcycles and heroic fantasies. Matt VanDyke, beneficiary of a rather privileged upbringing in Baltimore, had been infected by “Lawrence of Arabianism” in his youth, studied the Middle East in college, but had never been there. In 2007, he decided he had to go – not just for academic reasons, but for purposes of self-worth. Describing what he was about to take as a “crash course in manhood,” VanDyke got a motorcycle and a camera and for four years made his way from Europe to Gibraltar to Africa, riding through various hotspots, embedding himself as a freelance war correspondent with U.S. troops in Iraq, seemingly never turning the camera off while picking up a considerable amount of military training from American soldiers who always wanted to be shot in action, presumably from their good side. The separation of real war and movie fantasy becomes increasingly imperceptible — at least according to VanDyke’s camera.
Via his subject’s idiosyncracies – VanDyke is a habitual hand-washer and diagnosed OCD-ite – Curry starts to weave a subtle, but nonetheless eloquent critique not just of one man’s compulsions, but a culture’s. Everyone’s a cameraman now – VanDyke happens to be a very good one – but while Curry gets his subject to admit that he’s trying to reinvent his self-image via a digital lens, the same can be said for just about everyone in today’s global village. Where a film camera was once seen as an intrusion in the theater of war, the U.S. servicemen whom VanDyke befriends rehearse the kicking in of a door before they let him start shooting. In several war scenes, the cameras outnumber the guns. VanDyke is on a personal journey, but he reflects a kind of mass hysteria regarding the ability of the lens to not just record reality but reshape it. There’s more than a little irony in the title — the point-and-shoot camera being simple, the ramifications of the story being anything but.
During his travels from 2007-2011, VanDyke reaches Libya, where he makes some very close friends, and then returns to the United States, and the girlfriend, Lauren, who’s been waiting for him to get all this crisis-of-manhood stuff out of his system. Almost immediately upon his return to Baltimore, the Arab Spring erupts and with it the Libyan revolution that would result in the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi. His friends are fighting. VanDyke has to go back. Lauren is not happy.
There are remarkable sequences in “Point and Shoot” connected to the Libyan revolution, in which the insurgents have even less experience in warfare than VanDyke, making him the de facto expert on small arms and mayhem. During an operation near the northern city of Brega, VanDyke’s company is ambushed by Gaddafi troops, he suffers a head wound and winds up in a Libyan prison for six months.
During this time, VanDyke was without his camera, hence no footage, obviously, so Curry compensates with Joe Posner’s animation, which is “told” from VanDyke’s POV – no longer the selfie-style visuals that have composed so much of the film, but rather a VanDyke-less account of disgusting Libyan prison life embellished by IED-sized cockroaches and the imminent threat of death. Like all else in “Point and Shoot,” it is not overstated, but what the perspective suggests vis-à-vis the VanDyke story is a death of ego, mental collapse, and — luckily for our subject — the end of the war.
Will “Point and Shoot” get the Hollywood remake treatment? Uh, is Matt VanDyke an obsessive-compulsive? What seems unlikely to happen, lest Darren Aronofsky gets ahold of the material, will be a feature that maintains the subsurface tensions of Marshall Curry’s “Point and Shoot,” which is as much about self-definition, machismo, technological evolution and photography-as-means-of-immortality as it is about a guy with as much courage as he has tics, demons and crazy fixations.
A version of this review ran during the Tribeca Film Festival. “Point and Shoot” opens in New York on Friday and expands to over 50 markets in the coming weeks.