The Decadent Form of Archival Cinema Is Glimpsed in Two New Documentaries (2023)

Documentary filmmaking is drowning in archival footage and images, or, rather, in the overuse and misuse of them. In “Lucy and Desi,” the first documentary that Amy Poehler has directed, she gathers a remarkable array of archival material to tell the story of the lives of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. In “Dear Mr. Brody”—which, like “Lucy and Desi,” opens this Friday—the director, Keith Maitland, begins by reconstructing a historical event by means of archival materials, but eventually, dramatically, he turns the archive’s very existence and its contents into the movie’s main subject. Poehler’s film is informative and engaging, but Maitland achieves something that she doesn’t: he brings history to life in the present tense.

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In “Dear Mr. Brody,” Maitland reconstructs the drama of a few weeks of media frenzy in January, 1970, centered on the film’s title character, Michael James Brody, Jr. (no relation), who was then a twenty-one-year-old heir to a margarine fortune. Brody, a newlywed, held a press conference to announce that he had twenty-five million dollars and was going to give all of his money away to people who asked. He provided his home and business addresses and his home phone number. Soon, his house and his office were physically surrounded by applicants, his phone line was swamped, and post offices were overwhelmed with letters.

Brody and his bride, Renee Dubois, went on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” where he sang Bob Dylan’s song “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.” (Soon thereafter, he signed a record deal.) But, as the pressure of celebrity increased and the requests for money became increasingly urgent—including via a break-in, at gunpoint, at his home—he began to crack, spinning out ever wilder and ever more absurd philanthropic schemes. Even as he was bouncing checks, Brody inflated his wealth to billions, even called his funds “unlimited”; he wanted to end the Vietnam War with payouts to North Vietnam and chartered a helicopter to take him to the White House so that he could discuss the plan with President Nixon. In a front-page report in the January 19th issue of the Times, he claimed to have executed his scheme while “tripped out on drugs” and called it “a joke.” Nine days after it had started, Brody’s giveaway mission had self-destructed.

“Dear Mr. Brody” is crowded with poignant, evocative footage in which Brody is front and center. With his floppy hair, his utopian rhetoric, his hip mannerisms, and his whiplash flair for self-aware and elusive media manipulation, Brody comes off as an exemplar of a time when the so-called establishment was struggling to catch up with culture and politics that had shifted toward youth (not least because it was young people who were being forced into service in the American war in Vietnam) and was all too ripe for manipulation. He was also a master of rhetorical jujitsu, as when, asked by a TV journalist how people were treating him, he said, “They shouldn’t treat me any more than they treat a bum on the street.” When the journalist reminded him that he was “richer than a bum on the street,” Brody replied, disarmingly, “Well, if they started treating the bums on the street like they treat me, then we wouldn’t have anything to worry about, would we?”

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The news footage cries out to be lingered on—with slow motion, freeze-frames, zoom-ins—for the audience to breathe the air of the times and to ponder in closeup the mystery of Brody’s personality. Instead, Maitland treats those audiovisual archives, along with the trove of vintage newspaper and magazine stories about Brody, as just so many tiles in a narrative mosaic, trimmed to fit into small and uniform slots to exemplify a detail. They’re turned into sound bites, information-delivery systems, detached from their overwhelmingly evocative time-capsule power.

Maitland integrates this nervous montage—together with tricky, decorative collages, set to music, of letters sent to Brody, newspaper clippings, and photographs—into his interviews with Renee Dubois Brody and others in Brody’s circle. There’s also a remarkable sidebar in which a man named Chris Jones discusses TV news clips featuring his mother, Bunny, who was Brody’s legitimate beneficiary: she sought out Brody at the very start of his venture and got him to invest in a sound studio that she planned to open on West 106th Street. (The check, for sixty thousand dollars, cleared.) This snippety storytelling is enhanced with an altogether more questionable element—reënactments. In period costumes and on period sets, actors portray various people who wrote to Brody and perform the text of their letters for the camera. Documentary reënactments are usually dubious (except when they’re actually the subject of the film, as in the recent documentaries “Procession” and “A Cop Movie”), but, in a film that’s replete with archival footage, they’re disastrous, because they blur the authenticity of found footage and induce the viewer to wonder which of the sequences are fiction and which are archival. As a subject, the assault on truth through fabricated images is a crucial one; as a practice, it’s appalling.

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Despite this grave error in judgment, “Dear Mr. Brody” rises to rare heights of emotion that emerge from a dramatic shift of attention—one that’s also a shift in form. Melissa Robyn Glassman, the film’s producer, tells the story on camera: when she worked for the producer EdwardR. Pressman, she found boxes labelled “Brody” in his storage area and discovered that they were filled with letters to Brody from people seeking his money. (In the film, Pressman says that he once planned to make a fiction film about Brody—there was even a script—and that he wanted it to be directed by Billy Wilder.) Through much of Maitland’s documentary, the letters are only props and details in the reconstruction of Brody’s story, but, soon enough, Glassman begins to track down, at half a century’s remove, some of the people who wrote letters to Brody (or their descendants) and talk to them about their memories of the time.

Brody utterly neglected the letters he solicited from his would-be heirs, and they sat unopened for fifty years. A title card offers a “best count” of more than thirty-one thousand letters, and adds that, “to date, Melissa has opened 12,359.” Meanwhile, Brody and Renee’s son, Michael James Brody III (a.k.a. Jamie), has another fifty-four boxes of letters in storage. Glassman is overwhelmed by the personal drama of these thousands of pleas. She finds a woman named Holly Hodgkins, who had written about her younger brother, who was hard of hearing, in the hope that Brody would donate money to Easterseals. The three daughters of a Harlem resident named Jacqueline Badger read and discuss her request for funding to set up a typing school to help women in her neighborhood get jobs. After Joanne Younkins reads aloud a letter that she’d written to Brody about her family’s poverty, Glassman hands her another letter, which she’d never seen before—one written by Younkins’s mother, from the same address, at the same time.

While Maitland continues the story of Brody’s post-fame life to its appalling conclusion (I won’t give it away), the emphasis of the film isn’t the only thing that shifts; its time frame does, too. In “Dear Mr. Brody,” Maitland stays behind the virtual curtain. He delegates the storytelling to his interview subjects and archival trove, to an odd effect: his self-concealment as mere organizer of the materials at hand prevents him from intervening to assess, comment, and clarify. The result of his self-effacement is a vague and approximate narrative, a heavy reliance on anecdote at the expense of precision. Yet, when the movie, without abandoning Brody’s story, shifts its focus to the letters that he elicited, it becomes a documentary in the literal sense. Through Glassman’s diligent and empathetic investigations, it becomes a film of documents, in which the aura of the letters—the worlds that they contain in their text and evoke in their sheer physical presence—generates overwhelming emotional power.

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“Lucy and Desi,” directed by Amy Poehler, keenly evokes the personal side of show business.Photograph from Alamy

“Lucy and Desi” is also a film of intimate documentation. Poehler’s dual biographical portrait centers on Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s creation of “I Love Lucy” and the strain that success placed on their already fragile marriage. Its core of information is largely a footnote to Aaron Sorkin’s drama “Being the Ricardos,” but, with access to previously unreleased audio tapes recorded by Ball and Arnaz, Poehler vividly and poignantly evokes their offscreen personalities. Ball describes her artistic education as a Hollywood contract player and her fascinating theories about the creation of comedy, and her artistic practice is outlined in archival interviews with the writers of “I Love Lucy” and new interviews with others connected to the show (including the couple’s daughter, Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill). For his part, Arnaz describes his work at their TV studio, Desilu, as arduous and unpleasant; he took it as a job, but, for Ball, it was a calling. Poehler’s film keenly evokes the personal side of show business, as in an interview with Carol Burnett, who seemingly channels Ball’s voice. The actual voices of Ball and Arnaz, in the recordings, are thrilling to hear, too, but they are chopped up and shrunken to sound bites attached to a generically assembled image track that blends images of the protagonists with vaguer evocations of their times. These recordings, which should be the emotional heart of the film, never make it to the present tense as vividly as Ball’s voice does in Burnett’s on-camera interpretation.


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