Far and away the most arresting film I saw at this year’s Full Frame was one of its shortest, a 15-minute symphony of shadows and detail called Junk Palace. After opening on the familiar title card “Inspired by True Events,” the film reimagines the inner workings of the house at Fifth Avenue and 128th Street in Harlem, where brothers Homer and Langley Collyer died in 1947 after the latter was crushed by some of the more than 100 tons of refuse the pair had hoarded over several decades, depriving the former, paralyzed and blind from a stroke, of his only connection to the world. The weeks it took the police to excavate and extract their belongings launched the brothers into the tabloid stardom for which such racy stories are tailor-made.
Though any out-of-context image from the film suggests an animated still, Junk Palace was not constructed one frame at a time. The movie is a filmed puppet show—perhaps a subtle distinction, though subtle distinctions are, as we shall see, what make Junk Palace stand out. Puppetmaster Lyon Forrest Hill captures his story in real time, shooting marionettes, their wires occasionally exposed, opening doors, hunching, crawling, dressing and undressing. In one point-of-view moment, Homer struggles to bring a candle-lit room into focus. In an earlier and particularly inventive shot, marionette Langley lights those candles. Hill revels in the details of his fully constructed film world: how the towering stacks of newspapers mirror New York’s skyscrapers, the delicate pathways of the veins in Langley’s hands, the way his hair shifts and resettles. Junk Palace is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship well worth the small expense of time it takes to see it; you may need a longer investment to study its intricacies in full. Full of vivid and engaging impressions, Hill’s film showcases a genuine respect for the versatility of the film form, and whether it be in filmmaking or puppetry, he has a bright future.
But Junk Palace isn’t a documentary. For a historical piece, it has no first-source artifacts, no direct display to the viewer of any item or account straight from the moment itself. Sure, it was “inspired by true events,” a wildly generic statement offering all kinds of freedom to reinterpret and invent anew. Inspiration, after all, is also a baseline need in fiction; Fargo includes a title card saying the story is based on true events, but the Coens later acknowledged that the film was inspired by one newspaper story several towns over and almost completely fabricated. Isn’t Jaws also inspired by true events, since shark attacks happen? Taking the other side, Hill might remind us that history can only speculate on the true story of the Collyers house, as no one entered the mansion before the brothers’ deaths (the mounds of trash guarding the door made it a dicey challenge even for the police). His vision in turn is as close to documentary as can be achieved, but that position widens the documentary field without limit. Titanic, unquestionably mostly fiction though with a handful of historically accurate lines, would legitimately count as a documentary. The very need of a film festival only for documentaries proves that the field requires some eliminating factors.
Don’t get me wrong, I applaud Hill for rolling the dice and submitting his work to a documentary film festival. I admire the festival programmers for scheduling it, and in turn inviting an argument that began almost the moment I left the theater with two friends who just happened to be in the same auditorium watching the film. But any film under a documentary heading must fundamentally be judged on its details. It must, by definition, uncover the real thoughts surrounding the events it—ahem—documents. While documentary works can be heavily authored (see Michael Moore) or progress with no authorial voice outside of its editing (D. A. Pennebaker), the facts presented must be supported by someone who is not the filmmaker, and yet real. An expert or a letter from a hundred years ago will do, and indeed, if such a thing from a Collyer were incorporated into Junk Palace, we might not be having this discussion. Here we are offered only the total speculation and creative license of an artistically gifted craftsman. This was a challenge presented this year in this documentary film festival: What genres can the documentary field encompass? One it cannot is creative nonfiction.
This year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival runs from April 14 - 17.