“You Can Call Me Bill” Review: William Shatner Documentary Soars
SXSW: Alexandre O. Philippe’s documentary Shatner’s own stream-of-consciousness self-portrait, a journey inside his mind.
Even if he’s not trying to be funny, laughter might be the first response that greets William Shatner. Some may think of him as a caricature. What Alexandre O. Philippe’s thoughtful, probing new documentary, “You Can Call Me Bill,” reveals without ever being blunt enough to say that this laughter says more about us than it does about Shatner. About our inability to comprehend someone as complex, as defiantly irrepressible as the man who was once Captain Kirk.
Shatner may be pop culture’s greatest master of pontification, and there isn’t a topic he doesn’t have some thoughts on. He previously expressed these in Peter Jaysen’s 2001 documentary Mind/Meld; in the 2011 documentary he directed looking back at the legacy of “Star Trek” in its many incarnations, “The Captains”; and, as seen in Philippe’s new film, through poetry readings in front of a live audience, sometimes accompanied by an orchestra. In live events, he gives a poetic dimension to his own life experiences, such as his trip to space in October 2021, while perhaps a gong is gently pounding. The crowds it draws show how ‘You Can Call Me Bill’ could be crowd-funded.
For his largely straight-to-camera film, Philippe then knows he can let Shatner riff, and the result becomes a kind of documentary, like a stream-of-consciousness one-man show. All you have to do is let him talk. (Philippe himself is heard only once, expressing his hope to Shatner that he will return to the studio the next day, which was set up to record more.) And the film is just Shatner’s extended monologue about his life, his TV. and his film roles, as well as his various philosophical musings. However, these are musings the likes of which you will almost never find in another celebrity of similar stature who is willing to be comfortable in public. There is an honesty and rawness here that is inherently fascinating.
One minute Shatner talks about his feelings of loneliness in life; in the next he tells a silly story about being grabbed by a seal in the water. He opens the film with a devastating story of his parents acting somber, telling him that his beloved dog was outside, only to find his dog dead and his parents hiding the sad news for him to discover on his own. And a few minutes later, he talks about the importance of timing when it comes to comedy, like when he opened AFI’s oeuvre for George Lucas. Regarding a similar honor, Shatner says he deserves a lifetime achievement award for “caring for his inner child.” He talks about “living in the moment” through the connection he finds while riding, then imitates a lizard’s tongue-lashing.
In addition, Philippe provides a visual counterpoint through clips from Shatner’s extensive career, from late ’50s TV and movies like “Nuremberg,” “The Intruder” and “Incubus” to “Star Trek,” So far. Crane on “Boston Legal.” This is a documentary that moves at the speed of thought, but is still well thought out. Nothing is said by Shatner, who says it lightly. Even if it’s silly, it’s honest. And it proves that Philippe shot it in an extraordinary way, in the background of a dark, neutral studio space, with the boom microphone visible. The camera follows Shatner until sometimes he almost slips out of the picture. Philippe dissolves from one camera setup to another, changing angles with such virtuosity that this is the most impressive talking doc since Errol Morris’s “Wormwood,” in which cinematographer Ellen Kuras used 10 cameras for any one at any one time. (stage) interview. That’s something Philippe and his DP Robert Muratore have achieved here. A milestone in responsive filmmaking is that their cameras can dynamically respond to what Shatner says as he goes from tangent to tangent.
What stands out is that few popular figures mix the deep and the silly quite like Shatner. It’s a mix that catapulted the original “Star Trek” into the realm of obsession: one minute you’re deep into ethics and exploration, what it means to be human and the mysteries of the universe — and the next Shatner is fighting a guy giant in a lizard costume. That Shatner embodies this combination so perfectly is why he is the best of the “Trek” actors. It’s a combination that hearkens back to the idea of the court jester, Shakespeare’s jesters who knew the most but often understood the least.
Shatner collapses all hierarchies. Good, bad, high, low… all irrelevant in his work. His only directorial effort for the “Trek” franchise, “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier,” captures a sensibility like no other: sky-high with some of the worst production values you’ll see in a blockbuster movie. with really thought-provoking ideas. The film shows the crew of the Enterprise locating the planet where “God” lives, discovering that he is a charlatan, and being killed with the help of some Klingons. In which he got the best performance ever from DeForest Kelley, in which Bones recalls pulling the match from his dying father. Where deep camp meets deep feeling.
The usual markers of quality don’t apply to Shatner. What it delivers instead is intensity. Or as he says in “You Can Call Me Bill,” “passion,” the thing he says motivates his life more than anything else. It kept him thinking that most of life is a “waiting room,” as he puts it, waiting for the next break, the next form of fulfillment. He reminds Philippe that when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, “Star Trek” was canceled and he broke down, got out of the car and watched the historic moment on a portable TV. Yet he feels that even then he was not let down, as his innate curiosity about life and what came next kept his passion intact. Philippe has created a portrait of a completely ironic individual, someone who, when he wants to be funny (as in the many Priceline commercials woven into the film), is not as funny as when he’s just being himself.
The only other figure who comes close to Shatner in the Hollywood firmament is Nicolas Cage, whose kabuki-like acting always strives for maximalism but, like Shatner, also touches on the most intimate themes of what it means to be human. What it means to express yourself. Cage was much more celebrated by the usual industry accolades; Oscar is not in Shatner’s future. But Philippe gave him something even more meaningful: he captured forever this real-life 91-year-old star child, the cinematic patron saint of all those who gaze longingly at the sky—and their own. reflection in the mirror.
“You Can Call Me Bill” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival.
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