The Ethics of Control: ‘Paul Williams Still Alive’

Documentary history is marked by questions of participation. Much has been written about how to best position a filmmaker in relationship to his/her documentary subject. Does one simply observe? Does one intervene? Traditional documentary categories tend to fall on a spectrum between the authentic/observed and the artificial/manufactured, but few films exist solely on either side.

Stella Bruzzi (New Documentary) and other writers have discussed the need to acknowledge that nearly all filmed encounters are by nature authored endeavors. Filmmakers such as Frederick Wiseman and Dennis O’Rourke have likewise spoken about the degree to which the filmmaker controls the image, regardless of the subject’s apparent participation. In his 1989 interview with Nancy Christine Lutkehaus, O’Rourke says, “It is a myth, this idea of ‘informed’ consent on the part of those individuals filmed. The idea that a coequal relationship between filmmaker and filmed subject can exist is also a myth… In shooting a film we are forced to admit our complicity, and our control over the images.”

One recent documentary that offers a unique contribution to this old conversation is Stephen Kessler’s 2011 film, Paul Williams Still Alive, newly available on DVD. Though no one would mistake director Kessler for Wiseman or O’Rourke, there is one aspect of Paul Williams Still Alive that should be familiar to audiences of their works: that of the reluctant subject. Common in observational and ethnographic films, this sort of human subject is in a state of protracted conflict, uncertain or unwilling to participate but ultimately powerless to resist. That celebrated composer Williams is such a subject is one of the film’s strongest ironies, as he was once a very willing pan-media superstar. The film fondly remembers Williams’ ubiquity in the ’70s and attempts to revive what Kessler believes now to be a dead man.

But Williams is alive and well and living in California. So “still alive” is very much a remark of Kessler’s surprise, and not at all an effort by Williams to resurface. Look again: It’s not called I’m Still Alive. From start to finish, the film is defined by Kessler’s stop-at-nothing attempt to arrive at answers to his own questions about what happened to his childhood hero. Often Williams, and especially his wife, seem to want nothing more than to be left alone. In the director’s narration, he admits to behaving like a stalker. What emerges is the unlikely execution of a documentary portrait forged from a director’s incessant intrusion on an uninterested subject.

There are other recent examples of this dilemma involving dogged director and uncertain subject. Beyond the established canon of observational and ethnographic filmmakers, there are provocateurs and individual films that force a documentary encounter at the expense of taste or ethical considerations. Nick Broomfield’s celebrity portraits are frequently more entertaining when he fails to reach or make a connection with his subjects. His documentation of frustrated attempts to “track down Maggie” and confront Courtney Love and Suge Knight, and the on-screen souring of his relationships with Heidi Fleiss and Aileen Wuornos, nonetheless manage to reflect the power of their personas.

Lars von Trier brilliantly manipulates his mentor Jorgen Leth in The Five Obstructions, a film that puts Leth through a cinematic wringer in a series of seemingly arbitrary exercises that only at the very end of the film are revealed to be genuinely well-intentioned. Most recently, Yaniv Schulman, the protagonist of Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost’s Catfish, exclaims in the middle of that film, “You started making a movie about me and then bullied me into it.” His resistance subsides largely because participating will allow him to stage his own forced encounter with another unsuspecting subject later in the movie. In the entertaining Catfish, the reluctant participant is prone to a Ringu-like passing forward of a mediated curse.

In addition to matters of consent and control, central to the issue of participation is what each party stands to gain or lose. In the case of Paul Williams Still Alive, Kessler aims to revive his own stalled film career and to connect on a personal level with a pop culture icon. And Williams’ disinterest suggests that his priorities have changed since he craved the spotlight, and that being on camera would create discomfort, above all else. More than half of the film is a tug of war over Kessler’s desire to shoot and Williams’ tendency to evade. While the archival footage of Williams performing and being interviewed on countless ’70s television shows is often entertaining, the documentary comes dangerously close to being unwatchable each time Kessler schemes to insert himself even more firmly into his hero’s life. Though he’s regularly (perhaps overly) self-deprecating in narrating his shamelessness, the jokey, glib Kessler doesn’t seem like a man to be trusted with one’s image.

So strong is Kessler’s coercion of Williams that it’s impossible to identify where Williams’ consent actually enters the picture. The present day footage begins in Winnipeg with the camera’s presence at Phantompalooza, a celebration of Williams and Brian De Palma’s 1974 cult film Phantom of the Paradise. On one hand, this is the best possible entryway into the emotional life of the character, as Kessler finds the singer genuinely moved by the adoration of the crowd. Between songs, he asks his fans, “Where have you been? Where have you been?” On the other hand, the moment gives the filmmaker a convenient plot point in the narrative he’s trying to craft. Never wasting an opportunity to find an easy punch line, Kessler the narrator wonders aloud how Williams went from “this” (cue image of the singer making Johnny Carson laugh) to “this” (Williams appearing in present day on a child-hosted YouTube talk show).

The energy of the film continues in much the same way, with the subject becoming temporarily unguarded, followed by the filmmaker giving him reasons to retreat again. But it’s in this very dynamic that we find the most extraordinary strength of Paul Williams Still Alive: Williams, having experienced decades in the spotlight, is a more powerful opponent than the clever Kessler suspects. And he knows how to counterpunch in ways that provide footage too incisive to leave out of the finished product. In short, he forces the filmmaker to be honest.

The first of these sparring sessions takes place in an interview Kessler will return to throughout the film. Williams recalls a story of his father, drunk and driving him recklessly to a baseball game. The story is a fascinating snapshot of his childhood, but he’s only just begun to tell the tale when the filmmaker stops him to ask if he remembers being entered into talent shows as a youngster. Williams, in disbelief, remarks, “So we’re interrupting this meaningful conversation about my dad taking me to this ball game to talk about talent shows… I want you to put this in the film because this conversation we’re having right now is more important than the story of the talent shows.” Of course Kessler gets the last laugh, as the film cuts to another story and we lose the thread of Williams and his father. But it ‘s to his credit as a filmmaker that he honors Williams’ request to leave the mid-interview negotiation in the edited film.

Next, we see that the talking head interview is not the only sort of documentary encounter that Williams knows how to navigate. At a hotel gig in San Francisco, he fights laryngitis before his performance. Paranoid Kessler doesn’t trust that the illness is real, suspecting his subject of wanting to avoid him. But when the singer’s voice begins to fail on stage, he tells the crowd that the lights are so bright because he’s being filmed tonight. So he requests that the lights be lowered in order to force the cameras to stop rolling. As a performer, he soldiers on, but not to the point of letting Kessler capture less-than-ideal singing conditions on video. Once again, Kessler attempts to outsmart his subject by switching to “night vision”. Though unlike Williams the consummate professional, the filmmaker ends up looking desperate and too satisfied with cheap shots.

Eventually, bothered by the cameras following him and unwilling to pretend they aren’t there, Williams makes Kessler a deal. He’ll play along if the filmmaker joins him on screen in order to share an authentic interaction rather than participate in some uncanny “pretend” version of observational documentary. This instance, more than any other, indicates Williams’ high awareness of performance and its often problematic place in documentary. A commercial and fiction filmmaker, Kessler clearly has no clue how to direct his subjects in a non-fiction context. Without Williams’ intervention — a specifically chosen form of subject-filmmaker collaboration — the look of the film would remain awkward and forced.

At this point, the documentary starts to move at a good pace, and Kessler does a commendable job alternating between participatory contemporary sketches and archival footage of Williams on talk shows, variety shows, and award shows. If Williams seems more comfortable, it’s probably because Kessler is now playing by his rules rather than his being at the mercy of the camera and its wielder. By inviting his director to appear on camera, Williams has shrewdly offered him the illusion of more control. In reality, this technique allows the subject to better manage what is being shot.

Williams’ strategy is not only wise, but eventually necessary. Despite the apparent bonding that takes place between director and subject, two encounters in the film reveal Kessler’s aims to be altogether different from the “getting to know you” storyline he professes in much of the narration. The first slip of the mask is during a discussion of Williams’ presence on programs like the Gong Show in the ’70s. Kessler pursues a line of questions that ask Williams to compare his own supposed low-rent appearances with those of Paul Simon, whose opportunities at the time included hosting Saturday Night Live. Williams responds, “There’s something dirty about the way this is feeling, Steve… it feels like a dig that I haven’t felt from you before, and I don’t like it.” He’s right. The question marks a significant tonal shift that creates the uneasy possibility that this sort of confrontation is what Kessler’s been building up to the entire time.

The second slip is more revealing. While the film has occasionally referred to Williams’ past struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, those issues are never presented as the main thrust of the film. Not once has Williams expressed any desire to rest on his former high achievements, and he especially seems keen not to be dragged through the lows. He’s been sober for two decades. Yet more than two years into production of the documentary, once Kessler achieves his dream of having a “sleepover” at Williams’ house, he uses the opportunity to ambush him with old footage of his drugged, rock-bottom appearance as guest host of The Merv Show. He stages what looks like an intervention designed to scare an addict.

Williams watches the footage for a little while, but then walks away, saying “It’s disgusting. You can’t use that.” Though Williams specifically mentions that he doesn’t want his daughter to see that footage, here it exists in the finished film. Always perceptive, Williams acknowledges that the “horrific behavior that night… now exists in zeroes and ones” and that he has to “choose not to get crazy” about a former version of himself that was “arrogant and grandiose and shallow and ruthless”.

One wonders what Kessler imagined he would gain by such a surprise attack. Regardless, his subject defies whatever juicy reaction he had in mind by remaining calm, articulate, and dignified. And in a move that reveals exactly how much bigger a man he is than his director, he proceeds to hand over every sort of footage from his personal collection — his whole career on film and video, locked in a storage unit, the property of the past. By giving all the old ghosts away for free, he proves to Kessler that he doesn’t need his intervention. In the parlance of a truly historic music documentary, he doesn’t look back.

Paul Williams & Stephen Kessler

Paul Williams Still Alive will not appear on any list of must-see documentaries, musical or otherwise. It’s too scattershot, with a director/narrator who renders his project slight with each facile remark and calculating move. But the film provides a unique opportunity to examine the ethics of the filmmaker-subject relationship, and the subject repeatedly outsmarts the filmmaker in the mostly unspoken battle for control.

Decades of documentary history have proven that the person with the movie camera holds the power, yet the very much alive Paul Williams begs to differ. The last bit of his interview that appears in the film finds him openly refuting Kessler’s thesis concerning his own happiness. Williams says he isn’t happier now that he has less celebrity status in his life. He says he’s happier and he lives a fuller life, with a recovery that has given him a higher purpose. He says, “My life is pretty interesting right now. I’ve got to tell you, the last couple of years have really f—- up the end of your movie. And I love that.” He speaks a truth that overpowers the director’s plotting, and by the end of the film there’s little doubt that this reluctant subject is pulling the strings.