Saturday, April 13, 2013

Movie Review: Phil Spector

Written and Directed by David Mamet. 2013.

Critics and fans like to talk about how much confidence and bravado a director needs to make an epic film. True enough, and your Leans, Kubricks, and Jacksons fairly loom large in the cinema world. On the other hand, it's not so hard to lure an audience when you give yourself three hours, a great man, and a vast stage. Now how much confidence, and skill of course, do you need to make a ninety minute movie about Phil Spector?

However much, David Mamet had both and succeeded in his HBO drama about the famed record producer Phil Spector and his 2009 murder trial. Actually, Phil Spector could have played almost without loss as a chamber play because it's essence is in the words. I don't think anyone would approach this movie too sym-pathetic to the title character, but Mamet generates it in two ways. The first is through Spector's new lawyer, Linda Kenney Baden, and her slow realization that, guilty or not, it'll be virtually impossible for Spector to get a fair trial.

Foremost, she observes, everyone is tired of the rich and famous getting away with murder, so Spector is going to be tried not just for his crime but those of O. J. Simpson and every other celebrity who's walked free since. This prejudice plays out not just in the difficulty of persuading a jury by reason, but in what kinds of methods they can use in the courtroom. , Bruce Cutler, Spector's first lawyer, tells Baden she may have a persuasive reenactment, if but you put that skull out there, all the jury sees is: skull=guilty. Baden also refuses to tear down the deceased, Clarkson, and the judge strikes down her request to use certain demonstrations in court. She also can't very well put the kooky Spector on the stand, so her hands are quite tightly tied for proving reasonable doubt.

That's all neatly handled in classic legal-procedural scenes, but the more interesting element, and path to understanding this curious character and movie, are the scenes where Baden gets to know Spector. When she enters Spector's vast mansion we've already been loaded up on media frenzy fodder, both reasonable and unreasonable. Of course we're not sympathetic. It doesn't help that Spector's shuffling around in his pajamas, hair bouffant, and that his mansion is adorned with the eclectic mix of fine art and his own pop culture contributions. Finally hear from Philip. We see a man who, according to himself, just wanted to disappear after his successes, just "like T. E. Lawrence," he adds, without a hint of awareness at the delusion of grandeur. He begins to rant about how other criminals walked off and no one seemed to care. Look at John Gotti, he says, a through-and-through criminal, and Teddy Kennedy, a talentless hack rewarded with decades-long tenure in Congress who not only murdered a woman, but fled the scene. Hit outrage at the fickle public and justice system is palpable and, if unreasoned, not unreasonable. We do come around to him a little, just in time to see his argument go off the rails when he alleges Jesus was put to death not for being the Son of God but for being "too big for his breeches," just like Phil Spector. Ooph.

One line very neatly sums up Phil Spector. Baden is flipping through a book of clippings Spector has kept about the trial. Turning a page she says how it's a bit much, with the wigs and all, and he replies, "They're not wigs, that's a prejudice." Indeed, we just assumed he was playing a crazy part to the hilt. It turns out he was authentically oddball, and authentically talented, and authentically troubled, but guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt?

On the one hand we're rationally appalled at the violence and Spector's apparent and grandiose self-concern. On the other, justice requires of us reason, precision, and impartiality. The film asks us to look at ourselves vis-à-vis this most unusual, and perhaps criminal, man. Are we "Back to Mono" fanboys, overlooking his potential guilt because he's "the great Phil Spector." Do we just want to put the rich sicko away? Do we demand justice, or "Justice for Lana?" Are we one of the many actors on the legal stage "just doing our job?" Ultimately, Phil Spector leaves the audience the way Phil Spector left the public, but hopefully more self aware. 

N.B. I've referred to Mr. Spector variously as allegedly criminal not because I believe he was not guilty but because the movie is asking us to consider that he was not.

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