SXSW: Alexandre O. Philippe’s documentary is Shatner’s own self-portrait, a journey inside his mind.
Even when he’s not trying to be funny, laughter can be the first response William Shatner welcomes. Some might consider it a caricature. What Alexandre O. Philippe’s thoughtful and researched new documentary “You Can Call Me Bill” reveals, without ever being brutal enough to say it, is that that laugh says more about us than Shatner. About our inability to understand someone as complex, as irreducibly defiant, as the man who was once Captain Kirk.
Shatner is perhaps pop culture’s greatest pontificator, and there’s no subject he doesn’t reflect on. He has already expressed them in Peter Jaysen’s 2001 documentary “Mind/Meld”; in his self-directed 2011 documentary about the legacy of “Star Trek” in its many different incarnations, “The Captains”; and as seen in Philippe’s new film, via live poetry readings, sometimes accompanied by an orchestra. These live events feature him giving a poetic dimension to his own life experiences, such as his October 2021 trip to space, while a gong, perhaps, gently beats. The crowds he draws there reveal how “You Can Call Me Bill” could be crowdfunded.
For his largely live-to-camera film, Philippe then knows he can just let Shatner riff and the result will be a sort of documentary portrait like a one-man show of stream of consciousness. All he has to do is let the man do the talking. (Philip himself is heard only once, expressing his hope to Shatner that he will return to the studio space that has been set up to add more the next day.) And the film n is just a long monologue by Shatner about his life, his television and film roles, and his various philosophical musings. These are daydreams, however, as you’ll hardly ever find any other celebrity of her stature willing to indulge in public. There’s a candor and rawness here that’s inherently compelling.
One minute, Shatner talks about his intense feelings of loneliness in life; the next day, he tells a goofy story about being caught in the water by a seal. He opens the film with a devastating story about his parents, acting sinister, telling him that his beloved dog was outside, only for him to find his dog dead, his parents withholding the sad news from him so that he discovers it for himself. And minutes later, he talks about the importance of timing when it comes to comedy, like when he opened AFI’s tribute to George Lucas. Shatner says, regarding a similar honor he himself just received, that he deserves a lifetime achievement award for “nurturing his inner child.” He talks about “living in the moment” via the connection he finds on horseback, then mimics the tongue-clicking action of a lizard.
To much of this Philippe provides visual counterpoint via clips from Shatner’s long career, television in the late 1950s and films like “Judgment at Nuremberg”, “The Intruder” and “Incubus”, to “Star Trek”, to Denny Grue on “Boston Legal”. It’s a documentary that goes at the speed of thought, but which nonetheless remains carefully thought out. Nothing Shatner says, he says lightly. Even when he’s stupid, he’s sincere. And it’s a testament to Philippe’s extraordinary filming of him, against a dark, neutral studio backdrop, boom-mic visible. The camera follows Shatner until he almost goes out of frame at times. Philippe switches between camera setups and angles with a virtuosity that makes this the most gripping talking-head doc since Errol Morris’ “Wormwood,” in which cinematographer Ellen Kuras used 10 cameras at any time for anyone interview (staged). That’s kind of what Philippe and his DP Robert Muratore have accomplished here. The fact that their cameras are able to dynamically respond to what Shatner is saying as he goes on tangent after tangent is a milestone in reactive cinema.
What stands out is that few popular characters have blended the deep and the silly like Shatner did. It’s a mix that catapulted the original “Star Trek” into the realm of obsession: one minute you get an incisive insight into ethics and discovery and what it means to be human and the secrets of the universe. universe – and the next, Shatner fights a guy in a giant lizard costume. That Shatner embodies this combination so perfectly himself is why he’s the greatest of all the “Trek” actors. It’s a combination reminiscent of the idea of the court jester, Shakespeare’s fools who knew the most but were often the least understood.
Shatner collapses all hierarchies. Good, bad, high, low… all unimportant in his work. His only directing effort for the “Trek” franchise, the film “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” captures his sensibilities like nothing else: sky-high cheese, some of the worst production values you’ll see in a blockbuster major combined with some really thought-provoking ideas. This film sees the Enterprise team track down the planet where “God lives”, discover that he is a charlatan and, with the help of some Klingons, kill him. In which he got DeForest Kelley’s all-time best performance, in which Bones remembers unplugging his dying father. Where deep camp meets deep feeling.
The usual signifiers of quality do not apply to Shatner. What it delivers instead is intensity. Or as he says in “You Can Call Me Bill,” “passion,” the thing he says drives his life more than anything else. It kept him going even though so much of life is “a waiting room,” as he puts it, waiting for the next break, the next form of fulfillment. He reminds Philip how when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, “Star Trek” had been canceled, and he was broke, living in his car, watching the historic moment on a portable television. Yet you get the sense that even then he still wasn’t deprived, as his innate curiosity about life and what’s next kept his passion intact. Philippe has portrayed an individual completely devoid of irony, someone who, when trying to be funny (as in the many Priceline advertisements interspersed in the film), isn’t as funny as when he’s just himself.
The only other figure who comes close to Shatner in the Hollywood firmament is Nicolas Cage, whose kabuki-like acting always veers towards maximalism, but, like Shatner, also touches on the most intimate themes of what it means to be a human. What it means to express oneself. Cage was celebrated far more by the usual industry accolades; an Oscar will not be in Shatner’s future. But Philippe gave him something even more meaningful: he forever captured this 91-year-old real-life child star, the cinematic patron saint of all who, with equal fervor, gaze enviously at the sky – and look at their own reflection in the mirror.
“You Can Call Me Bill” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival.