Thursday, February 19, 2009
NFB Film of the Week: Lonely Boy
A documentary about Paul Anka might sound unappealing to anyone but the most devoted fans of the man, but Roman Kroitor and Wolf Koenig’s 1962 short Lonely Boy is actually a small gem of a film. Far from being star-struck, Lonely Boy is skeptical of the young teen idol in particular and pop stardom in general, offering a slyly sardonic vision of celebrity and media.
The film largely avoids those stylistic aspects of documentaries that create barriers between the audience and the content, such as narration and musical scores, opting instead for a direct style based on handheld cameras and informal interaction between filmmaker and subject. In one of the film’s only voiceovers (save for when it announces the names of interview subjects or locales), we are told that Lonely Boy will present “a candid look at Paul Anka from both sides of the footlights.” This might sound like a thesis, but it’s also a literal description of the film’s style. The directors capture some memorable backstage moments, like a late Anka rushing to prepare himself, but some of the most impressive footage is filmed at the singer’s feet during concert. While the singer towers above the camera in these shots, the real source of fascination resides in the faces of the girls in the audience, which the filmmakers linger over, catching these awestruck teens in various stages of intense, spastic emotion.
In what is the film’s most distinctive quality, the directors continually draw attention to their presence without overpowering the real subject of the film. At one point, a photographer asks if he is in the way of their camera, and Anka interjects that he should just pretend the film cameras aren’t even there (as the singer leaves the room, we catch a glimpse of the cameraman in a mirror). For the benefit of the filmmakers, a club owner offers to have his wait staff walk around the background of a shot to create a better sense of action and excitement. And in one of the film’s funniest moments, the club owner gives Anka a kiss on the cheek after receiving presents from the singer, which prompts the directors to ask for the two to restage the kiss for the camera using the excuse that they didn’t get a good shot the first time.
Although obviously more playful than self-important, this sort of meta-documentary strategy could still backfire quite easily, except that it fits quite naturally with the film’s view of the popstar as a manufactured spectacle. Whether crying as a teen idol croons his latest hit or watching a NFB documentary online, the audience wants to believe that it is witnessing something genuine—that it is seeing something actually happening and being invited to share in that true moment. And while authenticity may be the currency of pop culture, it’s also the foundation of documentary, which means there’s a surprising harmony between subject and style in Lonely Boy. As a medium, film’s best trick has always been that it can use the real world to construct an unreal one. The great seduction of all film is that it provides photographic evidence of a dream.
Paul Anka, as the film suggests, is attempting a similar trick of his own by transforming himself from a goofy looking, overweight teenager into a handsome, lusted-after idol. While fans gush about his sweetness and sincerity, the few personal glimpses we have of Anka in the film reveal him to be ruthlessly focused on creating an image that can be sold. With shocking bluntness, the then-19-year-old singer declares that his appeal is sixty percent emotion and—feigning embarrassment at his own crudeness before pronouncing the word—sex. His manager is even more to the point, opining over Anka’s features (“He has a great mouth”) and acknowledging that the young man has already had a nose job. This sort of candidness is startling—if no less manufactured than Anka, present-day popstars are certainly more guarded about the matter—but this lack of discretion only shows how new the phenomenon was at the time.
Obviously, there’s something mad at work here, and the filmmakers—incredibly—hold a bemused, often curious stance, even as Anka’s manager declares the singer will go on to be the biggest star the world has ever seen and girls in the audience mouth the words “I love you” with fervent desperation. One girl, waiting outside a concert hall for an autograph, looks as if she might faint just at the mere sight of Anka—she leans on someone's shoulder, mouth agape as if she is struggling to breath. Which begs the question I am left with after watching the film, and one which the filmmakers wisely do not attempt to answer: what does all of this passionate, sincere emotion mean when it is provoked by a persona so calculated and false? Can the honesty of the audience redeem the dishonesty of the performer?