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", 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.
                                                        -- Jamie Hook

DIRECTOR'S FILMS: GAMES PEOPLE PLAY: New York, GAMES PEOPLE PLAY: Hollywood, Telling Nicholas, Just, Melvin,
Find out more about James Ronald Whitney's Productions at the Fire Island Films website
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© 2003 James Ronald Whitney