THE IDEA of having a documentary about Henry Miller may seem questionable considering he is alive and well in California. Every day the media seize upon living people and events and records, classify and bury them relegating them to a fossilized past.
But Robert Snyder's documentary. The Henry Miller Odyssey. which opened Friday night under the joint sponsorship of the International Association for Cultural Freedom and the Advocate. is as alive, quick, and visually sensitive as Miller himself. Snyder makes no attempt to study Miller's place in literary history, but shows him as the passionate contradictory clownish person he is.
The film almost entirely narrated by Miller, follows him through his early years, from his childhood in Brooklyn to his blissful exile in Paris. The past is recreated through Miller's readings from his autobiographical works, the reminiscing of Miller and his friends old photographs and manuscripts, and through brilliant color shots of the Paris that Miller knew. The camera's eye focuses on the street life of Paris that Miller knew so intimately-the cafes and whorehouses, the rooftops and benches, the stores and moviehouses, the colors of the fruits and bowers. The Paris street people-the vagabonds drunkards, and sluts-appear frequently. Paris is seen from inside a pissoir one of Miller's favorite institutions. "To relieve the bladder is one of the great human joys."
The best parts of the film are those which show Miller the clown. In the opening shots he laughs and makes faces at himself in the mirror. "For all your ills, I give you laughter. To laugh at yourself is the most important thing." he says. His boisterous and irresistible laughter proves his point. Upon graduating from high school in Brooklyn, Miller was asked what the wanted to be later on in life. "A clown." he replied. "the symbol of man's suffering on earth."
IT IS THE SAME childlike vision which guides his appreciation of art and the execution of his own art. The watercolors he does, beautifully presented in the film, are reminiscent of Paul Klec. whom he admires. Anais Nin, a close friend of Miller's who came to the film's showing at Emerson, compared Miller with Fellini in their love for clowns. Both have a great passion for the circus. Fellini once said that if he hadn't become a filmmaker, he would have been a circusmaster.
The parts of the film in which Miller reads from his own work are too long. He is not a very good reader, and his literary style is so conversational that he is at his best when he retells a story he wrote in one of his books. His extempore dialogue interspersed with "doncha know" and "isn't that so." is witty and engaging. His gruff, gravelly voice, not unlike that of Huphrey Bogart, conveys a tone of ironic detachment which helps in sensing the tone of his books.
Miller is shown conversing and joking with some of his closest friends-Alfred Perles. Anais Nin, and Lawrence Durrell. Those meeting are not staged interviews but really show the intimacy between Miller and his life-long companions.
The style and structure of the film are as loose, confusing, disorganized, and exciting as Miller's own works. Miller's only criticism of the film is that it is not crazy enough.
Snyder said he plans to continue the Odyssey, bringing it up to the present time. Miller's life makes an exciting adventure story and a great film.