Friday May 22, 1998
It is sometimes difficult, and perhaps even wrongheaded, to cling to normal critical standards when judging documentaries. The complex force of something real can be overpowering, even when the best that can be said is that the filmmaker doesn't impose himself between the viewer and the material.
Monte Bramer's "Paul Monette: The Brink of Summer's End" is a case in point. A thoroughly conventional clips-and-interviews documentary--standard TV bio stuff--it is nevertheless a powerful record of a life devoted stubbornly, even heroically, to self-expression. The power derives from the material rather than the movie-making, but that doesn't mean the power isn't real, or significant.
An openly gay poet and novelist ("The Long Shot"), Monette won a National Book Award in 1992 for his memoir "Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story." At that point he had already lost two lovers to AIDS and was terminally ill himself. His determination to keep writing every single day, shuffling to the computer clinging to his IV stand, must have required huge reserves of physical courage.
Monette emerges as a role model not just for writers, and not just for gay writers, but for anyone inclined to take the freedom to speak and to create for granted. Monette in one scene displays an "I Am Salman Rushdie" pin conspicuously on his lapel, a clear indication that he understood, and fully intended, the larger implications.
"Becoming a Man" was designed to be the book Monette had longed to read as a young gay man, but couldn't find, because it didn't yet exist; a plain-spoken account of shared experience that rang true and offered useful advice and reassurance. If the award-winning status of the book means anything (always an open question), it's that the work transcends its immediate purpose, that it describes one form of a common human occurrence and makes its universality clear. As Monette says here: "We all have a closet we have to come out of if we are ever going to be free."
One of the documentary's strongest "subplots" is an assessment of what it cost the writer to arrive at that mature outlook. At the start, according to his editor, Monette was not so much a man who wanted to write as a charismatic young go-getter "who wanted to be a writer." In retrospect, it seems, the only thing missing was a personal experience harrowing enough to stir him to the core, to burn off the impurities.
Monette seems to have been transfigured, transmuted into an artist, by his experience of AIDS, his lovers' and then his own. His first work of nonfiction, "Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir," was an unflinching yet affirmative and even romantic account of his life with his companion of 12 years, attorney Roger Horowitz, and of Horowitz's illness and death; it's a book often cited as the first about the plague to cross over strongly to straight readers.
Will "Borrowed Time" survive as the "Diary of Anne Frank" of the AIDS scourge, as Monette himself incautiously suggests? It's an indication of the personal power of his story that we respond to Monette's most extreme positions (like the equivalence implied here between AIDS and the Holocaust) not with acceptance, perhaps, but certainly with understanding. They emerge as consistent extensions of a personality, essential components of a full portrait.
A movie can honestly earn an emotional response in many ways, and distinguished film technique is only one of them. "I'm not dying of AIDS," Monette insists. "I'm dying of homophobia." In this film, and in the most literal possible sense, we can see where Paul Monette was coming from.
Paul Monette: The Brink of Summer's End, 1998. Unrated. A presentation of First Run Features. Director-writer Monte Bramer. Producer Lesli Klainberg. Readings from the works of Paul Monette by Jonathan Fried. Narrated by Linda Hunt. Original music by Jon Ehrlich. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.