Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Ain't I a Person?
New York Times
by STEPHEN HOLDEN
Tomey Smith, a gaunt, stringy-haired drifter and intermittent drug user suffering from H.I.V. he contracted while in prison, is Exhibit A in “Great Speeches From a Dying World,” Linas Phillips’s unsettling documentary portrait gallery of nine homeless people living on the streets of Seattle.
Near the end of a film that explores the connection of great oratory to people’s broken lives, Mr. Smith recites from the John Donne meditation that proclaims, “No man is an island.” As we have already seen, he has a tender, protective relationship with Josie, a transsexual crack addict, and is an avid dog lover. Although Mr. Smith doesn’t lend Donne’s prose any special conviction, the words still resonate with his situation.
Each subject recites a famous discourse that relates directly or indirectly to his or her personal biography. Half the time, the speaker (who may be reading from a teleprompter or reciting from memory; it isn’t clear which) doesn’t make a strong emotional connection to the material, which includes Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and speeches by John F. and Robert F. Kennedy. At these times the premise feels like a stunt that has backfired.
But when a connection is made, it sticks. From his hospital bed, Jose Martinez, who has attempted suicide seven times, delivers a slurred reading of Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy that makes you consider the self-destructive impulses in the lives of the unfortunate.
Even more arresting is the forceful reading of the abolitionist and women’s-rights advocate Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech by Deborah Payne, an African-American and crack addict who sleeps in a wheelchair in a parking garage.
When she recites the words “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back,” you sense that Ms. Payne, in different circumstances, might once have been strong enough to lead the charge. She doesn’t ask for sympathy; of her addiction she says bluntly: “I was bored. I got tired of being clean and sober.”
“Great Speeches” returns again and again to Mr. Smith, who relates a personal tale of woe that begins when he was placed in juvenile detention after pleading guilty to second-degree murder for a crime that he said he knew about but didn’t participate in. When he turned 16, he was sent to prison, where he remained for 15 years. Years later, he landed a job that paid $60,000 a year but lost it after 9/11.
Given today’s worsening economic climate, the movie carries an extra weight as newly unemployed workers face the possibility of landing on the street without a livelihood. Which of us in our worst nightmares hasn’t imagined a calamitous pile-up of personal disasters that could end in destitution and despair?
"Great Speeches" opens today in Manhattan at the Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue, at Second Street, East Village.