A corny hodgepodge of gooey sentiment mixed with half-baked mush and strained pieties, fashion photographer Bruce Weber’s free-form canine documentary A Letter to True ostensibly takes the moral lessons of doggiedom as its theme, but inadvertently functions as a grating illustration of its human narrator’s privilege-blinkered solipsism. Framed as a note written to the youngest of Weber’s numerous purebreds, the film jarringly juxtaposes off-the-rack political commentary about the war on terror with obsequious celebrity worship, sun-drenched shots of the photographer’s Montauk beach house, and a piano-bar soundtrack of brassy jazz numbers. The result is an unintentional caricature of limousine liberalism and artistic overreach, conveyed through a visual style that sticks painfully close to Weber’s own Abercrombie & Fitch campaigns. Nevertheless, this dialogue-with-golden-retriever-as-dialogue-with-self may prove useful to future social historians studying post–9-11 kitsch, to be appreciated less as a work of art than as an unfortunate cultural symptom. For even with all its fussy professional lensing, one would imagine Weber’s movie best exhibited on a gallery loop alongside Chinese-made twin-towers cigarette lighters, hand-scrawled “United We Stand” convenience store signs, and a glass-case selection of fan e-mails to Toby Keith; in such a context, A Letter to True could provide a corrective reminder that bad taste emerges in high-class forms as often as low.
The film’s failures cannot be faulted to inexperience. Weber is no cinematic tyro, having directed well-received documentaries about a boxing school for boys (Broken Noses, 1987) and musician Chet Baker (Let’s Get Lost, 1988), as well as various shorts, music videos, and commercials. A Letter to True plays like an extension of his Chop Suey (2001), likewise an amalgam of free associations on topics of the filmmaker’s interest, particularly the life of a teenage wrestler. Yet Weber’s obsessions with epidermal superficialities, which might otherwise be dismissed as fashionista hooey in his earlier works, here become acutely offensive when brought to bear on ideas about war and terrorism. In A Letter to True‘s stream of barely connected sequences, a montage of pampered New York pooches (set to a dippy rendition of “I’ll Take Manhattan”), the home movies of Dirk Bogarde, and stories about Weber’s very dear friendship with Elizabeth Taylor are given equal weight with battle footage from World War II and Vietnam. Weber spends at least twice as much time relating the demise of one of his golden retrievers as he does mentioning that an associate died in one of the hijacked planes on 9-11; clips of Haitians fleeing cramped boats to reach American shores segue without irony to interviews with suntanned professional surfers.
Narrating over an archival documentary about Vietnam photographer Larry Burrows, Weber relates that seeing Burrows’s work in Life magazine made him want to pursue a similar career. “These photographs,” Weber says, “made me question everything.” Perhaps Weber should have continued with this line of inquiry, and considered how a life played out amid gunfire, napalm, and fresh corpses might differ profoundly from one spent being flown to Italy to shoot for Vogue or summering in the Hamptons with famous friends. But Weber has no time for such profundities in this film; instead, he chooses to move on to shots of shirtless, frolicking farm boys, his camera flattening whatever intricacies their lives may hold into postcard-thin advertisements with nothing to sell.