Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 25, 2022 7:43 pm 
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Long-pursued film about obsessive fandom becomes its own obsession

Annie Berman, the film's maker and constant intimate narrator, says she is exploring the origins of celebrity; her narration is designed to link together videotapes she shot over twenty-plus years. There is a wealth of material here, maybe too much. She claims a lollipop in Rome with the Pope's face on it (which we see) leads her to go to Memphis to learn about Elvis. She can't take a camera into Graceland but she is allowed into a nearby related house (he lived there early on) occupied by a big Elvis fan who has a sign outside saying "Elvis Fans - Make Me an Offer," so apparently if you pay something, you get a private tour, and she films her visit to the memento-packed rooms. Twenty-three years after Elvis' death she visits here and goes to the night service in honor of his demise with 15,000 people carrying candles.

Then she returns to the Vatican to trace back those "origins." On another jaunt, she is on hand only a few years after Lady Diana's death to tape the worshipers. Then back to Elvis again, over and over. A confessional element enters. Director Berman's obsession with shooting pieces of her film, which goes on for decades, leads to her fiancee's departure, upon which her mother thinks she needs help. She indeed sees a shrink, she tells us. She shows the rows and rows of small "Elvis," "Pope," and Diana tapes she has filed, dozens of them. It seems a little like the fanatical Elvis, Di, or Pope fetishists' collections of memorabilia she has filmed, though perhaps more tidy. "Pope Tape 46," "47," and so on are shot in Canada at what is dubbed "Popestock," a massive gathering in the rain and mud for a visit from the Pope.

Berman's fascination with making all these tapes begins to seem hermetic and self-obsessed. But after years she says she stops looking for anything and starts finding interesting things, such as an Elvis cover band found by chance at a bar in Rome, the Pope's town. She understands Italian (we don't know why) and we hear from one of the people outside the bar, in Italian, about how she became an Elvis fan: she was orphaned at the age of nine, and was lonely. Askew, away from the central obsessions, the film finally seems to breathe a little - and to find a basic explanation for Elvis-mania - perhaps also Pope-mania and Diana-mania?): a void we all have in the soul and a deep need to fill it.

Berman is drawn to photographer Ralph Burns who's a friend now and who has been doing Elvis-fan-related photographs for 40 years, still working with film and developing it by hand, which she seems to like and may envy the hands-on quality of. He is searching for some will'o'the wisp of ultimate meaning in Elvis worship - or maybe just a good photograph?

It might be unfair to suggest that Berman's search for "the origins of celebrity" is based on too limited a sample in her focus on only three celebrities, be they big ones, or that her voiceover is narcissistic. One wonders if she's right that being Jewish gives her an "outsider" outlook on these fandoms. Maybe she's just an "outsider" because she's not so silly, for are not these groupies silly people? And aren't we all outsiders when observing collective phenomena like these?)

Berman's incessant, lulling narration is a sign the film's images themselves are never interesting enough. This is a kind of documentary one has seen before: one that's overworked, to diminishing returns, a self-absorbed nonfiction project in which the filmmaker got stuck in a groove for a long time and couldn't get out, couldn't stop, and went on shooting even though nothing much new was coming. Celebrity-worship is in itself a form of excess, so, in studying it, how do you know when too much is enough? Typically, this film just sort of ends.

This is about materialism though, and outsiders looking for a common bond, and it is a record of Felliniesque Mondocane absurdities like Pope-face lollipops (officially licensed, but you may not lick the Pope's face!). And it is true that Berman never becomes snide, always remains sympathetic, and the message about love and loneliness and worship, grieving and memory, therefore is personal, honest, and kind.

(A review by Mick LaSalle in the [url=""]Chronicle[/url] shows that this film was already shown in the city - at the independent cinema the Roxie - and reviewed nine months ago.)

The Faithful: The King, the Pope, the Princess, 91 mins., premiered in NYC Aug. 13, 2021 and Memphis Aug. 14, 2021., showing at Camden Oct. 2021; limited release Oct. 2021. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, where it showed July 25, 2022 at the Castro Theater with the filmmaker, JFI Filmmaker in Residence, present.

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