It’s challenge enough to try to fit all the life we have to live into our 80 or so years, so imagine the difficulty of trying to cram one such life into 85 minutes of documentary. Compound that problem a couple hundred times and you can appreciate the task faced by David L. Lewis. The Pleasures of Being Out of Step, his feature-length tribute/study/profile of longtime Village Voice First Amendment defender Nat Hentoff, that brilliant and combative journalist, critic, screed writer, and novelist, must not only cover Hentoff’s own triple-stuffed life but also thumbnail histories of jazz, the civil rights movement, the alternative press, and the multitude of characters knocking about those worlds. What other doc is obliged to show us vintage footage of Charles Mingus and William F. Buckley, both stout, self-possessed, sui generis fellows glimpsed here amid dazzling improvisations: Mingus on bass and Buckley (seen in a TV debate with Hentoff) on bullshit?
Lewis packs in as much as a movie can hold. (For more, see Hentoff’s books, or Lewis’s excellent new oral history from CUNY Journalism Press; it has the same title as the film.) A self-proclaimed “lowercase-L libertarian,” Hentoff wrote for the Voice for more than 50 years, in his youth helping establish the paper’s feisty tone and in his later years often taking on the left itself, especially in a series of columns arguing against the right of women to have an abortion. In Lewis’s brisk and engaging film, former Voice editor Karen Durbin argues that Hentoff’s pro-life stance “doesn’t have intellectual underpinnings.” Columnist Margot Hentoff, Hentoff’s wife, offers some insight, laughing early on about how her husband has always found nothing more fun than a fight; later, she tells us that, in the years before Roe v. Wade, she once went to Cuba to end a pregnancy, a decision her husband supported only because he’s not the kind of man to tell his wife what to do.
The film has its insights, but perhaps its greatest value is in how it offers something of a record of what time with the talkative, tireless Hentoff is like. He beams as he recounts trouble he caused with his columns, just as he beams when speaking of the one subject that engages him as much as civil liberties: the jazz giants of the 20th century. Stanley Crouch turns up in the film to marvel that Hentoff’s notes for Sketches of Spain marked the first time any critic had truly understood the greatness of what Miles Davis and Gil Evans were up to.
Hentoff, indefatigable, served for years as the New York editor of Down Beat, later as a founder and editor (with Martin Williams) of the Jazz Review, the first publication to consider America’s greatest music with anything like academic rigor. Then he even produced jazz records himself, good ones.
The doc breezes through all of this, soaking a bit in the music and the big personalities of Mingus, Miles, and other stars of jazz’s high-water mark, a high-water mark Hentoff was among the first to note. We hear a too-quick snatch of Hentoff’s interview with a young Bob Dylan for Playboy, see a too-short clip of Billie Holiday singing on a jazz TV show Hentoff briefly ran, and get much-too-quick anecdotes about Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, and a host of other remarkable people. Also fascinating: a rapid tour through some of the First Amendment controversies Hentoff stirred in his weekly Voice column; always principled, Hentoff argued for the free-speech rights of American Nazis.
For a man so given to scraps, one who just this May endorsed Rand Paul for president, Hentoff comes off as an amused, amusing, endlessly fascinating man, one with more stories to tell than he could have fit into his almost three dozen books or his half-century of columns. (Former Voice editor Tony Ortega appears, looking pained, to try to explain the decision to lay Hentoff off at the end of 2008. Hentoff, then 83 years old, was soon contributing to the paper as a freelancer.) Early on, the Voice of 50 years ago gets likened to the bar talk of the Village’s smartest people, and Hentoff has lost none of that rowdy conviviality — he’s a great pleasure to watch, listen to, and read, even when you couldn’t disagree with him more.
The film isn’t the final word on Hentoff, of course. He has thousands left in him. But it is a fine and lively précis, a celebration of a life well lived (and well fought).