The Final TIFF Spew: Paul Williams: Still Alive and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

By , Columnist

With this column, my coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival comes to a close. It’s been a wild ride with all of the laughs, thrills, frustration, and perversion that I love about the movies (and that statement doesn’t even reflect any of the movies I saw, that was just my spare time).

To close things out I’ve got reviews of two amazing documentaries that didn’t get much attention during the festival run since they don’t feature George Clooney’s goofy grin, but easily rank amongst the finest films to screen at TIFF. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to fall into a coma. It’s been a loooooong few weeks. See you tomorrow with the return of The Movie Spew.

Paul Williams: Still Alive

Director: Stephen Kessler

Star: Paul Williams

I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a documentary quite like Paul Williams: Still Alive. Both a celebration of the remarkable life and career of Paul Williams (a Grammy and Oscar-winning songwriter who became a popular television personality before becoming overly obsessed with fame and losing a decade of his life to various addictions) and a bizarre document of the lovingly awkward relationship developed between Williams and director Stephen Kessler during shooting, it’s certainly a unique film at the very least.

Kessler started out hoping to make a fairly benign documentary about Williams, an artist whom he’d long admired. Surprisingly, Williams agreed and soon Kessler was by his side with a camera at all of his public appearances. The thing is, sobriety and self-reflection had made Williams uncomfortable with being in front of a camera because he had once grown far too obsessed with it. Kessler becomes conscious of this while filming and soon the documentary becomes about their awkward relationship. Once Kessler began putting himself out there as well, Williams started to open up far more than he ever initially intended, even composing and recording a self-reflective song about himself for the end credits.

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The openly awkward relationship between filmmaker and subject in Paul Williams: Still Alive is undeniably fascinating. I’m certain this sort of thing happens all the time while shooting documentary profiles, but it never makes it to the final cut. That openness about the filmmaking process makes the documentary far more compelling than it ever would have been if Kessler had merely assembled Williams’ best sound bites and daily activities into a conventional profile (and in a strange way that level of honesty feels like the only appropriate way to profile a man whose art is rooted in digging deeply into his personal fears and insecurities).

Williams himself comes off as a fascinating character. He’s funny, but no longer feels the need to be "on" like he did on countless TV shows throughout the '70s. Instead, we meet a very self-reflective man who has found a deeper happiness in dedicating his life to family and performing relatively few shows to adoring fans than he ever did at the height of his most visible fame and success. It’s a film equal parts funny, heartbreaking, self-reflexive, and true. Kind of like a good Paul Williams song.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

Directors: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky

The Paradise Lost series of documentaries almost deserves a special Academy award for what they’ve accomplished. In 1993 documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky flew down to West Memphis to film the story of a triple homicide attributed to three teenage boys. They assumed they’d be filming the story of three teen murderers, but stumbled into a terrifying miscarriage of justice that sent two of the innocent teens to jail for life and put the other on death row.

The film instantly sparked a community of support for the West Memphis Three and though they spent almost 20 unjust years in prison, they were suddenly released this August. The films Berlinger and Sinofsky made are directly responsible for that release. Without them, the story would have disappeared into obscurity long ago.

paradiselost3.gif Paradise Lost 3 picks up almost a decade after the second film and is essentially about how the slow wheels of justice have kept the three men in prison despite a massive outpouring of public support and newly discovered evidence. It’s a compelling third chapter in the story, but kind of hard to fully judge in the form screened at TIFF. You see, the filmmakers finished their cut for the festival mere days before the West Memphis Three’s long overdue release.

Apparently they’ve filmed a new ending that will premiere at the New York Film Festival before getting a general release in the fall. It will be interesting to see how that ending changes the movie (especially since they were required to plead guilty to get a release, simply so that the state could never be forced to pay compensation for robbing the young men of almost 20 years), but as it stands this is a gripping documentary that should introduce many new audiences to the case and the series when it’s released in the fall.

Berlinger and Sinofsky crafted the film in such a way that no prior knowledge is required and that should help their award chances. If nothing else, I wouldn’t be surprised if they pick up a slew of "best documentary" trophies this year as a long overdue pat on the back for creating this amazing and important series of films.

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