Somewhat miraculously walking the tightrope between ambition and exploitation of its homeless Seattle subjects, Great Speeches from a Dying World grounds the life-and-death struggles of the downtrodden in the quotidian: where to sleep, how to get clean, who to love. The titular trope of giving each of the seven men and two women whose ruin and recoveries are tracked by director Linas Phillips one “great speech” to read to the camera is a hit-and-miss affair, but not at all the heart of the project. (The most affecting attempt is the recitation of the Gettysburg Address by wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet Sarge, in wretched health and unable to continue selling roses on the street but cherished by the protective woman with whom he lives.) Tomey Smith, a flinty, birdlike ex-con who’s been HIV-positive for more than 25 years, is the film’s charismatic star, frequently grinning with the yellowed teeth of a crack addict and compassionately looking out for his fellow transients—when not scaring the shit out of his new friend Phillips (discreetly present but almost always off screen) with the threatening tirades he instinctively resorts to when challenged. These survivors’ spontaneous words come closer to transcendence than the lionized texts they’re given to speak; “I smoked my job, my apartment, my family,” confesses Deborah, a grandmother who can’t put down the pipe, before we hear her ask Sojourner Truth’s question “Ain’t I a woman?” Gaunt, bearded Mark, who shuffles his feet in a standing march to ward off embarrassment as he hawks a homeless advocates’ newspaper, is told by the filmmaker that his tic is “beautiful”; “Oh. Okay,” is the reply. Bolstered by an understated cello-and-guitar score by Lori Goldston, Great Speeches keeps sentimentality from seeping into its streetscapes and low-budget apartments. Similarly to John Gianvito in his historical-gravestone study Profit motive and the whispering wind, Phillips asks contemporary America if its ideals are now just high-flying rhetoric, and if it can redress its failings by, as per John Donne, heeding the value of each individual destiny.
- 92 min
- Linas Phillips
- Tomey Smith, Deborah Payne, Mark Hogue, "Sarge" James Mikel Browers, Jean Rasmussen, Jose Martinez
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