A portrait of the would-be artist as a young and aging procrastinator, “Finishing Heaven” works hard to fathom why filmmaker Robert Feinberg spent 37 years trying to complete his first feature — and comes up awfully short of the mark. Though director Mark Mann avoids trying to tie up the complex and tortured saga of Feinberg and star/co-writer Ruby Lynn Reyner in a neat bow, it becomes clear that Feinberg and his work are simply not worth the amount of attention paid to them. Pic is set for future HBO broadcast and a foreseeable double-disc with Feinberg’s film, if it’s ever finished.
Even if one strips away Feinberg’s work in progress, “Heaven Wants Out” (screened with “Finishing Heaven” at the Los Angeles Film Festival), and considers Mann’s pic as essentially a forlorn love story between Feinberg and Reyner, the results are occasionally interesting and a bit sad, but not particularly affecting. There are many tales of showbiz lives from the quasi-bohemian New York (and San Francisco and Los Angeles) of the ’60s and ’70s, in full flower for a moment and then wilted on the vine, and this is merely one of them.
Feinberg and Reyner were the subject of much downtown Gotham heat in 1969-70 as a new “it” couple, and Feinberg was able to convince fellow film student Martin Scorsese to help produce his film, then titled “Heaven.” (Presumably, the new title is an ironic twist on the old.) After an arduous weekend of shooting, much of it with Reyner in a sudsy bathtub, Scorsese asked out.
Wisely, it proves, since the filmmaking went through one chaotic episode after another, and any additional money invested would have been wasted. For no clear reason, Feinberg had been touted as the next major American film director, and it’s fair to infer Feinberg believed his press clippings. Unedited, the movie sank and so did the romance, which ended bitterly after five years.
As Mann captures Feinberg and Reyner now, they look like an old, sparring, grouchy couple, picking up where they were some 30 years ago. Urged by Reyner to stop procrastinating, Feinberg is convinced he wants to complete the film, and seems relieved by the process of simply converting his raw film reels to digital disc format.
Living in flea-bitten conditions in an old house in the Bay Area’s Marin County, Feinberg comes across as a rather immature guy who has a hard time remaining serious for very long. Reyner’s desire to see “Heaven” completed and her expressions of regret as she studies the footage as evidence of a lost career are indeed moving, and they provide the doc with some genuinely human dimension beyond that of freakshow.
Glimpses of the footage being edited by Feinberg and a few pro cutters suggest that “Heaven Wants Out,” a choppy child-of-Warhol effort that’s cloddishly staged and shot, is better as rumor and myth than as actual film. Yet nothing in “Finishing Heaven” reflects upon this, and the film lacks any appraisal of the kind of independent New York filmmaking — repped by Robert Downey Sr., Brian De Palma, Scorsese and others — that was at its height during the 1970 filming.
Perhaps most frustrating of all is Mann’s failure to get at exactly what held Feinberg back from finishing the movie in the first place. Vaguely referenced bouts of heroin addiction (by both lovers) don’t quite explain it, and for all his willingness to open up for Mann’s camera, Feinberg is either unable or unwilling to examine himself, and his work, in meaningful ways.
Lensers Maryse Alberti and Boaz Freund are nimble enough to capture many spontaneous (and combustible) moments, and editor Amy Foote smoothly weaves in and out of the new and old footage. Sound maestro Walter Murch is heard briefly for a moment after attending a rough-cut screening of “Heaven,” calling it, perhaps diplomatically, “fascinating.”