Tuesday, March 27, 2007
AFI Dallas Film Fest movie review: A Conversation with Gregory Peck
Greg Peck deserves - and receives - a medal. After one bounce.
Maybe it was because the film has been around for eight years and made the rounds of other film festivals already; maybe it was the almost simultaneous onset of Dallas' much-anticipated rain; maybe folks just couldn't figure out where to park around the SMU campus without getting their vehicle towed (which caused me considerable consternation, also - with all the construction going on, opportunities for tow-proof street parking are few and far between).
For whatever reason, the attendance at last night's screening of A Conversation with Gregory Peck was - how should I put this - lighter than a liquid hydrogen drizzle.
I sat up at the front of the auditorium, and 15 minutes before film-time the crowd numbered... exactly one (including me). I was starting to wonder if I was the only person who'd browsed the lineup of festival films when it first came out and said to myself: "Now, THAT'S one I don't want to miss."
By the time our host, local filmmaker Bruce Field (whose short film, Mattersville, screens tonight at the Magnolia as part of the SMU Presents program), took the stage to introduce the event, I think there were fewer than 15 people in the auditorium. Ouch.
Contrast this turnout with the packed venues chronicled in the film itself, and you've got a pretty decent textbook example of visual irony.
The back story to the film is that Ceclilia Peck (Greg's daughter) commissioned documentary producer Barbara Kopple to accompany her famous film father to a number of locations world-wide where he would be hosting an informal stage event centering around a brief retrospective of his prolific movie career, followed by an open-mike Q/A. The resulting film document profiles a statesmanlike elderly gentleman (Peck was 84 years old at the time of production) with a quick wit, a gracious manner and a true appreciation of the rich rewards his life had bestowed upon him.
In addition to the performance evenings, the film also follows Peck as he acts the real-life role of solid family man, loving father and expectant grandfather. Cecilia was pregnant and eventually gave birth as the production ran its course; we eventually see her holding her newborn child, Harper Daniel Voll - named in part for Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird - in the recovery room, perhaps by this time wondering whether Ms. Kopple might not be overdoing her documentary mandate.
Greg Peck was good at a lot of things, but I've got to say, by this time of his life his taste in sport shirts was deplorable. That multi-hued checked thing he wore to do his back yard gardening deserves to be planted along with the crocus bulbs.
Interestingly in light of current events (history repeating, anyone? Deja vu all over again, maybe?), Peck became an outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam; he stated that, like many others, his initial acceptance of the U.S.'s role in the conflict gradually turned to firm opposition, and although he supported our troops (including his son, Carey, who served in a combat artillery unit and returned - at least physically - unscathed), he protested our country's continued participation in the war. If Greg Peck were alive today, I think it's clear which side of the U.S. involvement in Iraq he'd come down on.
Perhaps the most moving episode of the film involves Peck's on-camera rumination concerning the death-by-suicide of his 31-year-old son, Jonathan, in 1975; he speculates that, perhaps if he'd spent more time with the boy when he was growing up (and less time making the movies that would enrich the spirits of millions of film goers), the young man might have had a greater sense of connection to his father, and a greater emotional strength.
Two amusing sequences: while visiting the French countryside, gray-haired Gregory explores a fig tree, locates one of the ripe fruits and peels it open, eating it before our eyes. The camera zooms in on this rather messy mastication: Peck demonstrating his ongoing enthusiasm for life and all it has to offer.
Later, in a televised ceremony at the White House, Peck and several others are about to be awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton. When Clinton leaves the podium to present Mr. Peck with his medal, it somehow slips from his grasp and hits the floor. Mr. Peck can be heard to mutter, "Dropped the ball, didn't you?"
The film concludes with the final question posed to Gregory Peck from one of his audience participation events. A gentleman asks him, when all is said and done, how - and for what - he would like to be remembered. Peck's briefly-considered two-part answer: first, as a good family man, husband and father; and second, as a good storyteller.
By the evidence presented, he succeeded magnificently on both counts.