Voyeur (2017)


Gay Talese, dapper man about town.

(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

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Wakefield


Bryan Cranston’s glamour shot.

(2016) Drama (IFC) Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Jason O’Mara, Beverly D’Angelo, Ian Anthony Dale, Monica Lawson, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Ellery Sprayberry, Victoria Bruno, Isaac Leyva, Fredrick Keeve, Bill Timoney, Alexander Zale, Hal Dion, Eliza Coleman, Derek Weston, Angela Taylor-Jones, Tommy Otis, Cameron Simmons, Scott St. Blaze, Carinna Rossignoli. Directed by Robin Swicord

 

Haven’t we all at one time or another wanted to be observers in our own lives, to see how those we are closest to react if we were to disappear from their lives? Frank Capra made in some ways the ultimate version of that fantasy with It’s a Wonderful Life but while the message was uplifting and positive, some suspect that the reality would be much darker.

Howard Wakefield (Cranston) is a successful New York litigator. He has a big house out in the suburbs, a beautiful wife Diane (Garner) and two great kids Emily (Bennett-Warner) and Ellen (Lawson). But that’s just the veneer. Scratch the surface a bit and you come to discover that his marriage to Diane is crumbling. They use jealousy as a means of keeping the home fires burning; she flirts with someone, they argue and then they have great sex – until the great sex part begins to stop. The kids are unenthusiastic about being around him on those few occasions when he’s actually around.

One night he returns home from his commute to find a power outage. At his front door is a raccoon sniffing around the garbage where his wife has thrown out his dinner, tired of waiting for him to come home. He chases the raccoon into the garage where it bounds up to the loft above the garage. He scares it back out again but discovers that a round window above the garage gives him a perfect view of the inside of his house. Fascinated, he plays voyeur for a bit until he falls asleep.

When he wakes up with a start, he sees his wife sending the kids off to school and then toddling off to work as if nothing happened. Incensed, he decides to play out the string a little longer. He raids the house for food and moves into the garage loft. Soon she goes from cavalier to genuinely worried. The police are called.

Weeks go by and Walter begins to experience a kind of liberating freedom. He no longer has any responsibilities, no need to conform to what’s expected of him. When a memorial service is held at the house for the missing Walter, he is bemused that one of the lawyers at his firm is trying to put the moves on Diane. He begins to reminisce about his life with her, how they met – and how he stole her away from his best friend Dirk Morrison (O’Mara) by blatantly lying. All’s fair, right?

But as weeks turn into months and the weather grows cold, he begins to experience something unexpected – loneliness. Being a voyeur has its limits and there’s no doubt that the liberation he’s experienced has lost its luster. To make matters worse, Diane has reconnected with her old flame Dirk who has taken Walter’s place at the Thanksgiving table. Walter realizes that the things he took for granted are the things that made his life worth living but is it too late for him to re-enter his life and live once again?

There is a dark almost Russian feeling to the movie that reminded me of the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. There’s an almost absurd element to the drama – does anybody really think that it wouldn’t be noticed that a wild-eyed bearded man was living in the loft above their garage? – and I found that rather pleasing.

Bryan Cranston has since breaking out in Breaking Bad become one of America’s most reliable actors. Yes, he’s done a few forgettable movies but he’s generally always memorable in them (with a few exceptions). This is all him – much of the movie is Walter’s voice-over narration – and he’s in virtually every frame of the film. It’s quite a burden to shoulder but Cranston carries it like it’s a bag full of Styrofoam. He’s very likely to get nominated for an Oscar this year – probably not for this one but for the much buzzed about Last Flag Flying – and you can see why in this film why he’s a threat every year to make the Oscar shortlist.

Garner and O’Mara are mostly glimpsed from a distance. This is all Walter’s point of view so often we don’t hear what either one is saying. They largely use body language to get across what their character is feeling. I have to award kudos to Swicord for sticking to her guns and to Garner and O’Mara for going along with her plan. It couldn’t be easy for either actor to sign up for a film where they had so little dialogue but both are an integral part of the movie’s story nonetheless.

Howard isn’t a very likable character to say the least. Most of the time in his narration he is full of nasty little asides about various people in his life. Some of his zingers are dang funny but you realize that there is a kind of nastiness to him that he might just get off on demeaning others. One quickly comes to the realization that the problem in Howard’s marriage…is Howard. The man himself takes much longer to come to that conclusion than the audience does.

This is an interesting character study but the movie isn’t really an essential one. With a performance as mesmerizing as Cranston’s is here one has to recommend it on that basis alone but frankly this won’t be one of the more stellar indie films this year in terms of quality. It’s solid though and definitely worth seeing if you can manage it but if you can’t it’s not a great loss either. Still, the central theme of going out of ourselves to get to truly know ourselves is well-handled and there is quality here. Definitely keep an eye out for it and check it out if you can.

REASONS TO GO: This is Cranston’s show and he makes the most of it. There’s a Dostoyevsky-like vibe to the film. It’s an interesting character study.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a little bit on the mean-spirited side. It’s interesting but not essential.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on the E.L. Doctorow short story of the same name that appeared in the January 14, 2008 issue of The New Yorker which was in turn based on the Nathaniel Hawthorne story of the same name published in 1835.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghost Dad
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Alien: Covenant