There are many times when a documentary film says more than the director intended. Consciously they may be following a certain line of exploration, but in the process they dig up more than they counted on. In this biographical movie about the late folk singer Phil Ochs, Kevin Courrier discovered a portrait beneath the portrait that the director tried to put on the screen.
Watching some of the remarkable footage of Ochs that Bowser collects, which traces Ochs' sojourn to the Village in 1962 after becoming both politically and musically conscious during his time at Ohio State University, there's already an unsettling blankness in the face of this young buoyant idealist. Ochs appears lit up more by the environment than one who himself brightens it. While I've loved much of his music over the years; the deeply poignant "Crucifixion," his elegy for the assassinated John Kennedy; the reflective "Changes"; his cleverly funny "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends," which addressed social indifference; and "Pleasures of the Harbour," which was inspired by John Ford's stirring The Long Voyage Home (1940), there was an opaqueness already present in that lilting voice. While Ochs had, in his early days, a boyish handsomeness suggestive of one of his heroes James Dean (for whom he wrote "Jim Dean of Indiana"), and a disarming self-deprecating smile, he still seemed at a distance, almost unknowable. Despite his strong activism, where he fiercely dedicated himself against his country's foreign and domestic policies, there was a growing sense (long before his disillusionment after the 1968 riots in Chicago at the Democratic Convention) of a man consumed by the social and political history he was involved in. The era was filling a hole in his consciousness rather than illuminating a spirit.
Even his early idolization of Dylan, whom he castigated for abandoning the protest scene, feels more like envy than disappointment. (It lends credence to the view I've always held, too, that Dylan wrote his scathing "Positively 4th Street" for Ochs - especially with lines like "You gotta lot of nerve to say you've got a helping hand to lend/You just want to be on the side that's winning.") Since Dylan's songs, even his protest music, was always filled with the distinct presence of the singer who is performing them, Ochs always had to fall back on the electric current of the movement's determined belief to change the world to inspire himself.
|John Wayne in The Long Voyage Home|
Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune is ultimately unnerving because so much of the haunted defeats of the sixties radical culture seem to be tattooed on Ochs' face, which loses its hopeful spark and eerily turns as sagging as Richard Nixon's visage. Bowser's film though is also too caught up in the romantic ardor of the time. As absorbing and intelligent as the picture is, the documentary doesn't probe deep enough. For instance, I'm not sure if Bowser truly sees that Phil Ochs was in actuality a likable and talented cipher, an artist who created himself in the image of a movement and the events of its era.Which is why, even though he acknowledges Ochs' mental illness which led to his eventual suicide at his sister's house in 1976, Bowser also sees Ochs' death as symbolic of the death of the sixties. While Bowser's view may bring comfort to those who weep at the mere mention of Berkeley (the same way, as critic Pauline Kael once remarked, a past generation of radicals once wept at the mention of Spain), that perspective unfortunately turns Ochs into a martyr of failed idealism rather than a tragic case of a troubled, talented rebel who lost his cause.