| THE STRANGER
May 25, 2000
Horribly Honest: "Just, Melvin" Is More Than Just Shocking
Every time you turn on a TV or enter a bookstore, you can find someone confessing
a sordid tale of childhood abuse...very little can legitimately be called
shocking anymore. James Ronald Whitney's documentary "Just, Melvin"...is,
in fact, profoundly shocking...Sordid though the content may be, what distinguishes
the film as a work of art is its versatility of tone: Whitney cuts from
victims' tearful revelations to campy footage of himself winning obscure
game shows and dancing on "Star Search." This absurd disjunction seems irresponsibly
flippant at first, but as the film progresses (and as I watched it a second
and third time), it takes the shape of a necessary intrusion of hope--in
a peculiar form, perhaps, but hope nonetheless. Along with footage of the
women laughing and clowning around, these interludes show that the dominant
intent of the piece is not to generate pity, but to reveal honesty, and
to redeem the struggle of muted human beings who've spent a lifetime trying,
one way or another, to speak. I interviewed director James Ronald Whitney
by phone as he was preparing for the first [Seattle International Film Festival]
screening of "Just, Melvin," which was to be attended by the women
chronicled in the film. For all but two of them, it would be their first
time seeing the film.
Q: Are you at all worried about what their reaction is going to be? Do you
worry that they might think the film is exploitive?
JRW: Not at all. First, I don't worry about things in general. My heart
and soul was in this. [My family] had one concern, and that was that it
was going to be a film that ultimately could help other kids, that it could
be a sort of wake-up call to society. This is so far surpassing what they
ever thought they'd be doing to help out other people; they'll be thrilled
to death. I mean, we're definitely going to have some fights around the
dinner table..."Why did you put that in the film?!" At least, I hope so.
Otherwise, it's not as incredibly honest as I needed it to be. And they're
also very resilient people. They've gone through so much--obviously. The
fact that something positive can come out of this mess...I think they're
going to be excited about it.
Q: These are the most intensely personal things that people can talk about,
even in private, much less in front of a movie camera. But their candor
is totally shocking. Did they go along with the idea of the film right away?
JRW: For my family, it wasn't James Ronald Whitney, director, they were
talking to--it was their cousin or nephew, Ronnie. I think in the back of
their minds they were thinking, "this is a wonderful project for him, but
it's probably not going to amount to anything"...I knew that when I was
filming them, I just wanted them to be themselves. I didn't want any kind
of control. I wanted it to be horribly honest.
-- Sean Nelson
May 25, 2000
Reflections In A Golden Space Needle
Those who made it to the piss-poor Kenneth Branagh film for
the opening night of [Seattle International Film Festival] were
treated to the gruesome spectacle of Alicia Silverstone taking
the stage at the Paramount and bravely conquering her speech
impediment-slow-wittedness-to brag about her vegan lunch at
Cafe Flora. What better set-up for 93 minutes of cinematic blithering?
Fortunately there was an antidote: liquor...Thankfully there
are some great films coming up to help us forget that the festival
has watered down its primary mission. There's the feverish Russian
collage "Kroustaliov, My Carl;" the insane and beautiful documents
"Just, Melvin"...Lastly..."Silence!," a film guaranteed
to be like nothing you've ever seen...Honest.