As many panels as collectively make up the AIDS Memorial Quilt, there are separate documentaries to tell about those who have struggled with the epidemic. An experimental portrait of one such individual, “Books of James” reflects the evolving personality of its subject, artist-activist James Wentzy, who produced the weekly Gotham public access show “AIDS Community Television.” Drawn from 30 years of illustrated journals, video diaries and interviews, Ho Tam’s freeform docu covers Wentzy’s personal journey from sexually liberated South Dakota youth to jaded, HIV-positive New Yorker. Overly elegiac artifact will likely prove more useful to future historians than contemporary auds.
Expanding on his award-winning 16-minute short, Tam’s eight-year passion-project feels more academic than organic, lacking the dynamism or inherent drama found in more audience-friendly multimedia portraits (“Tarnation”) or living-with-AIDS docs (“Paul Monette: The Brink of Summer’s End”). Wentzy’s crude homemovies, coupled with Tam’s prismatic approach, simply don’t invite intimacy. It’s Wentzy’s journals, overflowing with evocative sketches of friends and lovers, that best reflect life before the plague, whereas his frontline footage of ACT UP demonstrations feels impersonal by comparison — angry, but lacking in individuality.