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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Great Speeches from a Dying World

posted by on June 3 at 12:09 PM

Great Speeches from a Dying World (a documentary about nine homeless or near-homeless people, punctuated by their recitations of speeches by Sojourner Truth, Bobby Kennedy, Hamlet, et al.) is better than Frizzelle’s review says it is.


Filmmaker Linas Phillips (in his Genius Award portrait) and Tomey (one of the subjects of Great Speeches).

I know, the conceit sounds a little gimmicky and in grave danger of bring-your-liberal-guilt-and-a-hanky patness.

But Phillips keeps a steady hand, steers clear of didacticism, and portrays his subjects as they are: partly victims of circumstance (child abuse, mental illness), partly victims of themselves (they’re all addicted to drink or crack or both), but mostly just folks trying to get it together.

And, deep down, Great Speeches is less a movie about homelessness than a movie about language—its subjects’ hard-luck stories aren’t just an end in themselves, but a means to understanding the speeches.

A homeless Native American, who spun into alcoholism after the death of his infant, recites Chief Sealth’s 1854 speech, with Puget Sound in the background: “when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe.”


A guy who has attempted suicide (and failed) seven times, recites Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech, from his hospital bed: “The dread of something after death/The undiscover’d country from whose bourn/No traveller returns, puzzles the will/And makes us rather bear those ills we have/Than fly to others that we know not of.”


This lady, a crack addict who sleeps in a wheelchair in a parking garage, where she’s been severely assaulted several times, recites Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?”: “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place!

And so on.

Great Speeches can be tough to watch—some of its hard-luck stories are pretty hard. But it’s a bracing reminder that these speeches articulate, in an immediate, visceral way, the experiences of living people in desperate circumstances.

It strips the crust of history and sterility away from the speeches, making them unsettling—and, sometimes, dangerous—again.

It plays once more, at the Harvard Exit, tonight.

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Sounds like a drag.

Posted by bah | June 3, 2008 12:54 PM

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