Great Speeches From a Dying World


“Rhetoric” is often wielded as a pejorative term, but itinerant filmmaker Linas Phillips (Walking to Werner) sides with the ennobling power of well-chosen words. His grandiloquently titled documentary, however, courts cynical smackdowns. Sketches of nine Seattle vagrants are punctuated with beatifying performances of prepared oratory—Phillips’s subjects recite Lincoln, Kennedy, Sojourner Truth, Jesus Christ, et al. In between come tales of struggle and resilience, and bits of hardscrabble routine at downtown corners, halfway homes, and assorted waystops. Tomey, a sociable rambling man and dead ringer for Tenniel’s Mad Hatter, gets the most airtime and nuance (animated, one senses, by the filmmaker’s romanticizing admiration). Phillips doesn’t distinguish between conspicuous sympathy and pity—a confusion most notable in how he frames and edits his most downtrodden subjects, addled or weakened by addiction and attrition. And as much as the speeches grip and even revivify their speakers, they uncomfortably remain performances. In a sense, Phillips’s mission is a variation on the tradition of semi-orchestrated socially conscious documentary that stretches back through Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery and beyond. But are the speeches moments of self-expression and empowerment, or an indulgent flattery of starry-eyed sensibilities?