Review: ‘Words’

An attempt to create a sort of exquisite-corpse documentary -- its episodic thrust guided more by free-associative whim than specific thematic focus -- "Words" is a gamble that for the most part pays off. Co-helmers Gregg Brown and Jason Holzman balance project's prankish aspects with a surprisingly uncynical warmth toward both human individuality and the longing for community.

An adventuresome attempt to create a sort of exquisite-corpse documentary — its episodic thrust guided more by free-associative whim than specific thematic focus — “Words” is a gamble that for the most part pays off. Co-helmers Gregg Brown and Jason Holzman balance project’s prankish aspects with a surprisingly uncynical warmth toward both human individuality and the longing for community. Difficult-to-encapsulate yet crowdpleasing feature won’t be an easy sell, but word of mouth could lead to further fest berths and more.

A genial self-promoter who hosted his own NYC public access show, Brown is seldom off-screen for long, persuading total strangers to participate in a variety of impromptu activities. Many have a spiritual bent, some are humorously odd, but nearly all prompt unguarded reactions that can be revealing and poignant. Random folk met on the street are driven out of town to experience a Native American sweat lodge; a dozen or so women talk about their (and society’s) feelings about breasts while topless; people are arranged into a tableaux re-creating traditional images of Hindu gods.

Goofier moments include ever-game Brown challenging passers-by in Central Park to choose from a variety of ethnic music and dance with him. But bits that edge toward “Candid Camera”-type silliness are countered by the sincerity with which more profound situations are approached. Brown’s ability to get people to open up emotionally results in a moving sequence with individual mourners visiting graves in a Jewish cemetery, as well as a strong sequence in which people use a one-shot support group to discuss personal tragedies.

Undercurrent weighing mortality as part of life surfaces most pointedly in footage of 9/11 and its aftermath; Brown volunteered for several months creating aerial footage of Ground Zero from police helicopters. In that seg, however, pictures speak much louder than words — his voiceover commentary feels gratuitous.

As one sequence sparks idea for the next, pic is ballasted by Brown’s wry yet earnest presence, plus an overall sense of fun and affection toward the (187 total) participants. Result is uneven, but something more than the sum of its parts — lending conclusion that “we’re all connected” a wistfulness steeped in the belief that there’s more uniting than dividing humankind.

Tech and design contribs are all above DIY-docu average.

Words

Production

A Word Prods. presentation. Produced, directed by Gregg Brown, Jason Holzman.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Patrick Knowles; editors, Brown, Holzman, Benjamin Weinrach; original music/sound designer, Weinrach; production designer, Janna Kruse; creative consultant, Robert Hawk. Reviewed at San Francisco Doc Fest, May 14, 2004. Running time: 73 MIN.
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