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DOC NYC 2012: Persistence of Vision, David Bromberg: Unsung Treasure, & Plimpton!

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DOC NYC 2012: <em>Persistence of Vision</em>, <em>David Bromberg: Unsung Treasure</em>, & <em>Plimpton!</em>

Kevin Schreck’s documentary Persistence of Vision recounts the tragic story of The Thief and the Cobbler, a feature-length cartoon on which British animator Richard Williams (of Who Framed Roger Rabbit fame) toiled for over 20 years with the help of several gurus in the field and a largely self-funded staff. The highly ambitious project was planned not only as Williams’s crowning achievement, but also as an instructive departure from the mid-century animation dichotomy of “either” Disney hyperrealism “or” modestly budgeted modernist experimentation. The film would have boasted intricate, moving backgrounds (those completed have a nearly Book of Kells-grade meticulousness and luminosity), funny strip-stylized character kinesthetics, and a silent era-like tendency to promote plot with dramatically accented visuals.

The Thief and the Cobbler eventually caved in due to financial difficulties compounded by Williams’s extravagant punctiliousness; one interviewee who worked on the film remembers drawing feverishly for three months on four or five seconds’ worth of character movement, then being forced to revise his efforts from scratch. But other testimony makes one wonder whether Williams was truly too self-absorbed to succeed in the increasingly commercialized field of animation, or not self-absorbed enough to follow his grandiose muse without compromise. Williams’s stubbornness and limited self-marketing skills are as legendary as his gifts as a draftsman and cartoonist. Yet his magnum opus, we learn in the documentary, would not have been ripped from his hands had he not signed off on the impossible-to-meet deadlines his backers demanded. Throughout the Schreck’s study, Williams’s fatal flaw proves time and time again to be less his perfectionism itself than a perverse inability to bargain for a contract that jibes with his working methods.

As Williams declined to participate in Persistence of Vision, the dolorous oral history Schreck presents cannot help its one-sidedness, and conspicuously absent from the talking heads are the animation buffs and historians who have traded unfinished workprints and fan edits of the film for the last decade. Still, one cannot praise highly enough Schreck’s decision to forgo overdub narration and focus instead on showcasing materials that survive from before The Thief and the Cobbler was hastily finished by studio goons. Other well-utilized stock clips show cartoon masters Art Babbitt and Ken Harris teaching Williams’s staff how to represent human movement properly; Williams himself appears in excerpts from old television specials on the film’s labored production, wherein he insists that his work represents a “craft” whose rewards are only copious when the sweat of the craftsman is as well. Schreck braids these multiple strands of content with the patience and excitement of a fan clear-eyed enough to see Williams’s obsessiveness for its true nature, making Persistence of Vision just as rhythmically inclined as the lost masterpiece it dotes upon, as well as one of the least stylistically handicapped documentaries ever produced about animation.

The unsteady career arc of musician David Bromberg doesn’t immediately suggest a coherent narrative, making him a far less viable biographical subject than his higher-profile contemporaries and collaborators. For instance, John Hartford, whose watershed bluegrass record Aereo-Plain Bromberg produced, managed to churn out over 25 albums without straying song-wise from his love for fiddle tunes, sex, and the Mississippi River. By comparison, Bromberg has dabbled in, conquered, and hybridized everything from blues to folk to soul; he’s toured steadily for pockets of time and then taken long hiatuses; and he’s often relegated himself to session work in the service of artists who lack his humor, charisma, and encyclopedic knowledge of American music.

Given this desultoriness, it’s somewhat fitting that Beth Toni Kruvant’s bio-doc David Bromberg: Unsung Treasure is virtually without structure. The film carves up Bromberg’s life and professional achievements, alighting on key anecdotes and factoids to give the impression of thematic rather than chronological organization: Bromberg explains his somewhat difficult family background, fondly recalls his tutelage under blues guitarist Reverend Gary Davis, provides us with a swift tour through his own discography, and so on. But as none of these floating pieces are connected by even the implication of cause and effect, we feel as though we’re merely skidding on the surface of the musician’s mind. After learning, for instance, that Bromberg’s father was a psychologist who stunted with punishment the range of emotions his son could vent, one expects an immediately following analysis—or at least an acknowledgement—of Bromberg’s decisively cathartic stage performances; a discussion of this highly relevant side of the man, however, gets aggravatingly buried further in the running time. The psychoanalytical model of biography has surely become a weary one, yet Kruvant’s topical arrhythmia feels bracingly at odds with Bromberg’s subtle, on-screen self-exploration.

Perhaps such an outcome was unavoidable, but the resultant film is unlikely to sell Bromberg’s genius on neophytes (the track samples are subpar), and the various historical omissions will grate enthusiasts. Why, for example, are the talking heads made up entirely of semi-famous artists that Bromberg inspired, like Sam Bush, while longtime band mates such as cornetist Peter Eklund remain silent? Bromberg’s retirement from touring in the 1980s is meanwhile described as the product of an identity crisis of sorts, but earlier interviews cite the untimely death of sideman George Kindler as a major influence on Bromberg’s spotty activity in the ’90s. (Kindler’s name is suspiciously never uttered in the film.) From these missed leads Kruvant may have harvested a wealth of insight, but as it is her single revelatory moment is accidental. During a vintage live clip, Bromberg invites the notoriously bashful and then-pregnant Phoebe Snow on stage for a duet; as the band behind them begins to play, she pulls the mic from her face, turns to Bromberg, and says quite audibly, “I’m so scared that my nipples are erect!” David Bromberg: Unsung Treasure, and documentaries about boomer cultural quasi-icons in general, desperately need more of that kind of naked intimacy.

If nothing else, George Plimpton’s life defined a particularly American kind of illustriousness. Though bred into the uppermost rind of New England privilege, educated at Harvard, and as a result blessed with an unnatural breadth of socio-geographic fluidity, Plimpton rejected intellectual leisure in favor of humiliating rigor. Under the pretense of journalistic curiosity he became virtually anything, from quarterback to symphony percussionist to safari guide to hockey goalie, and then confessed in print how equally poor he performed the duties of each. Gonzo nonfiction certainly owes a debt to his “don’t write it ’til you try it” credo, but Plimpton was more accurately a professional cross-milieu interloper—a curious blueblood who, not unlike the characters in Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, somewhat redeemed himself from his pampered background by flaunting his capacity for everyman-ish failure.

The only uncertain detail in all of this is whether Plimpton’s literature backs up the silliness of his stunts—of whether his prose was worth all that trouble. Tom Bean and Luke Poling’s Plimpton!: Starring George Plimpton as Himself is rightfully less than certain of the quality of its subject’s output, and no potential excuse for Plimpton’s occasionally clunky wordplay is left unmentioned. Naturally, the Oedipal consideration comes first. As it happens, Plimpton was constantly revolting against and attempting to win the approval of a less than loving lawyer father at the start of his life, a dynamic which reverberated throughout the author’s various relationships with other male writers to whom he subordinated himself. (In the film, Plimpton transitions swiftly from writing letters to “Daddy” to writing letters to “Papa” Hemingway, an early mentor.) Then, as the documentary’s focus shifts from Plimpton’s psychology to his social life, his questionable publication record becomes a matter of sacrifice: Content and money for The Paris Review, an influential periodical founded in part by Plimpton, always came first, leaving him little time to work on the Great American Novel.

Throughout this broad-ranging apologia we’re treated to a wealth of private film reels and photos, most of which suggest how continually ensconced Plimpton was within the political and literary cliques of the northeastern U.S.; a not insignificantly tragic interlude shows the writer witnessing Bobby Kennedy’s murder after growing close to the senator’s family and presidential campaign. But it’s a long way down from these extroverted peaks to the more intimate valleys the film seeks to investigate, such as Plimpton’s divorce from his first wife and self-pity over having become a national blooper celebrity, and there’s ultimately very little offered to hold these tonally dissonant episodes together. Decades inexplicably pass between hard cuts without explanation; essentially unrelated topics like Plimpton’s penchant for late-night parties and his passion for discovering new authors are spoken of in the same breath. This looseness adequately portrays Plimpton as an inwardly conflicted figure, but it fails to make much of a case for the man’s legacy outside of The Paris Review’s still-noticeable brand. And perhaps necessarily, the directors ignore how outwardly conflicted and petty Plimpton was capable of being, despite the fact that a movie chronicling his legendary pissing match with—and character assassination of—Truman Capote may have cleaved closer to celebrity’s gossipy heart.

Plimpton!

DOC NYC runs from November 8—15. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.