(2017) Documentary (Netflix) Gay Talese, Gerald Foos, Nan Talese, Susan Morrison, Morgan Entrikan, Jackson Scholz, Anita Foos. Directed by Myles Kane and Josh Koury
We are a society that loves to watch. We are obsessed with chronicling every aspect of our lives and looking in on the chronicles of others. We are a nation of voyeurs, titillated by both the sexual and the ordinary, able to leave our own lives while we glimpse at others, pursing our lips and waggling our fingers as if our own lives are above reproach.
Gay Talese is one of the last of his kind. A New York journalist back when that meant something, he has written some of the most compelling works of non-fiction of the last 60 years. His piece “Sinatra Has a Cold” for Esquire is one of the defining celebrity portraits ever written and it has influenced the genre ever since its publication. He’s written about crime families in Honor Thy Father and about the sexual mores of the 70s in Thy Neighbor’s Wife not just as an observer but admittedly as a participant. Talese has always had a certain swagger and a particular style. His trademark is immaculately tailored suits, often accompanied by Fedora and scarf. Emerging from his Manhattan brownstone, he cuts an urbane figure from a bygone era when such things mattered.
Kane and Koury are given access to the basement of the brownstone which was once used as a wine cellar but now is Talese’s archive and office, a kind of man-cave that is a tribute to a career which, truth be told, merits that kind of celebration. Quite frankly while Talese has garnered his share of controversy over the years, he has also done some incredible work.
Now 85, Talese is looking for one last book and one last story to cap off his career. He thought he had it in a story he had started working on 30 years earlier. Gerald Foos was the owner of a Colorado motel which he had outfitted with an observation platform which ran the length of the property. Through strategically placed ventilation louvers he could observe guests without being seen or heard.
Now this sounds creepy enough but given where society is at this moment in time this seems like a fairly timely documentary. Foos, something of a teddy bear of a man, cheerfully admits to his sexual arousal but insists that this was a research project and not a precursor to Pornhub. There’s an air of disingenuousness about Foos but Talese seems to take him at face value.
However, Foos is reluctant to have his name revealed so that puts a kibosh on any involvement by Talese. However, 30 years later Foos has a change of heart and Talese gets back on the case. Foos gives Talese his journal complete with charts facts and figures about his “research.” Some of the stories Foos has to tell are pretty fascinating. Others are grim – like the murder he claimed he witnessed. Talese knows he’s found the story he’s been looking for.
His editor at The New Yorker, Susan Morrison, is less enthused. She confesses that she thinks that Foos is a sociopathic pervert but agrees the story is a fascinating one. Talese submits it and the fact checkers get to work. Talese also signs a book deal to expand the article in the New Yorker into a full-length non-fiction book that’s sure to be a best seller.
However, the fact checkers turn out some disquieting discrepancies. After the book is published, a Washington Post reporter comes up with a devastating fact that threatens the book’s future and Talese’s reputation as a journalist. Much of what happened is of public record but I am being vague about it in case you didn’t follow the story when it happened because the way it unfolds here truly is blindsiding in a good way.
I think this is one of those documentary projects that began as one thing and then turned into another. This was supposed to be I think a piece on a regal lion making his last charge into the hunt and then morphed into a catfishing piece. I do think it took the filmmakers by surprise; while they give a fairly in-depth portrait of Talese (and Foos) early on, as the situation changes we don’t get a whole lot of commentary from the parties involved.
Talese comes off as a fastidious egocentric man who lives life on his own terms and doesn’t really tolerate much exception to his rules. I suppose he can afford to be choosy. Still, he seems to lead a fairly lonely life….makes me wonder if he didn’t pay too high a price to be Gay Talese. But that’s a question that only he can answer.
The directors made use of a miniature model of the motel in an innovative fashion rather than staging recreations of the incidents that Foos related to Talese. There are also virtually no talking head interviews; everything is essentially Talese and Foos with Foos’ enabling second wife lurking furtively on the edges of the film.
Foos remains a somewhat enigmatic figure. He comes off as quite reasonable and even eager to be liked but there’s a creepiness at his core that is off-putting. I don’t think he sees anything wrong in what he was doing; it’s like there’s a big gap where his conscience should have been. The filmmakers, to their credit, don’t editorialize much; they present the story and let the viewer draw their own conclusions.
At the same time though the movie feels like it’s missing context. I think a little bit of outside, objective opinions might have helped the film in the long run – that’s right, I’m advocating for more talking heads – can you believe it? But talking heads have their purpose and sometimes a little bit of that can actually help the viewer feel more informed. I still felt a bit like the viewer is flailing in the dark here.
The documentary has a fascinating quality – as I said there’s a little bit of voyeur in all of us. However, I felt curiously unsatisfied by the movie as if by the end that I hadn’t seen all of it. There is much more to the story I think than is on the screen here and it could be simply that the nature of the watchers is that they shy away from the spotlight when it is they that are being watched.
REASONS TO GO: Talese is one of the last great personalities in journalism. The movie is full of interesting twists (particularly if you know little about it to begin with).
REASONS TO STAY: There is a surprising lack of depth to the documentary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content, occasional profanity and partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Foos contacted Talese in 1980 after reading his tome on the sexual mores of the 1970s Thy Neighbor’s Wife.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catfish
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: A Ghost Story