Reviews Of The Captains And William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/28/13
I recently watched 2 documentaries featuring actor William Shatner, and his long and varied career in acting and other arts. They were The Captains And William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet.
The Captains is a 2011 film directed by Shatner himself, wherein he serves as the interviewer of the five actors who succeeded him in roles as captains of the Star Trek universe positions. Aside from Shatner, who kicked off the craze as Captain James T. Kirk, in the original Star Trek (and its films), there is (in chronological order) Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard, from Star Trek: The Next Generation; Avery Brooks as Benjamin Sisko from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; Kater Mulgrew as Katherine Janeway from Star Trek Voyager; Scott Bakula as Jonathan Archer from Star Trek: Enterprise, and, coming full circle, Chris pine, as a new generation’s Kirk, in the rebooted film franchise helmed by director J.J. Abrams.
The interviews are not particularly deep, but there is a charm that lifted the whole effort above mere solipsism, and for this all due credit must be accorded to Shatner who has been scorned and slandered for decades as a hammy egomaniac, but who comes off as a genial and sincere man in search of himself through his inquisitions of his successors. He connects most deeply with Stewart, both in interviews and in segments taped from a Las Vegas convention, and especially moving is Shatner’s revelation that Stewart’s portrayal of Picard helped Shatner embrace and love his inner Kirk. Brooks comes off the worst of the bunch, and even Shatner mocks him at the convention as being out of his mind. In a sense, it’s quite sad, and it would not shock me if the man really was suffering from a mental illness. Mulgrew’s thoughts on the toughness of being a woman trying to work and raise children alone strikes one as genuine, and Shatner does miss an opportunity to plumb deeper by hamming it up. After Stewart, Shatner seems most at ease with Bakula when the men commiserate over their divorces (Bakula’s was not due to his Star Trek past but his first prime time gig, Quantum Leap). Pine gets the least screen time, but comes across as a young man of surprising depth and appreciation for the arts.
The 96 minute long film is not long on technical kudos, but does have interesting clips from early in Shatner’s Canadian acting career. The rest of the film is littered with Star Trek actors as talking heads: Christopher Plummer, René Auberjonois, Nana Visitor, John de Lancie, Jonathan Frakes, Sally Kellerman, Chase Masterson, Robert Picardo, Jeri Ryan, Connor Trinneer, and Grace Lee Whitney. As an interviewer, Shatner veers between silly (especially in the Brooks segments- Crazery Brooks, anyone?) to inadvertantly poetic. The real surprise is they are always touching interviews because Shatner had been there and done that long before the others, so he almost intuits their responses and plays with them, like an expert cotton candy maker tweaking a product he invented; a point Stewart correctly points out.
If The Captains is surprisingly touching, William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet is surprisingly deep. Not that it is a deep film, but given that this 50 minute documentary is about a spoken word record Shatner made, Has Been, being turned into a modern ballet by the Milwaukee Ballet Company. The ballet is called Common People and directed by noted choreographer Margo Sappington, who got Shatner’s permission to do the ballet with no recompense to Shatner. Directed by Patrick Buckley, Bobby Ciraldo, Andrew Swant, and Kevin Layne, the film is not a technical marvel, but it does set the dancers into the songs, via visuals, in often interesting ways.
The music from the album, however, is not nearly as interesting as Shjatner’s lyrics, and this is an important point. Although Shatner calls Ben Folds a genius, and Folds declares similar things about spoken word doggerelist and faux rock star Henry Rollins, the truth is that Shatner is the artist and mind that really shines. His reminiscences, which formed the basis for the spoken word, is truly the driving force of the album and ballet, and makes one look at his earlier spoken word work with a new appreciation. No, he’s no Bob Newhart not Richard Pryor, and certainly no George Carlin, but he’s no has been, no hack, and not the idiot he is so derisively scorned as. This film, as with the later The Captains, has mainly been available on cable outlets, rather than in film theaters, but both are now available from Netflix, in DVD and streaming formats.
As in The Captains, much of the film is about Shatner, and his odd combination of egoism and insecurity, as well as his quest to synthesize and transcend these two opposing forces. And this is the thing that lends a bit of art to Shatner’s work: it is demotic, unassuming, and, well, real. And by real I don’t mean ‘real,’ in quotation marks, but really real. Both films reveal Shatner as a human being not worth the ockery he’s received, but rather a fairly deep and, yes, wise old man with a much deeper ken and vocabulary than his imitators and lampooners would dare have the average fan or bystander believe.
Of the two films under review, I would state that The Captains is the more interesting and deeper film, for fans of Star Trek or laymen, but William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet is likely the better overall film, and perhaps the more incisive into that glorious sponge surnamed Shatner.
However, even if I’m wrong on the order of consequence and excellence for these two works, I recommend people, fans of Shatner or not, to watch these films, especially on a lazy weekend, when one is tired and most appreciative of life’s, and film’s, nicest surprise.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
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