Alexandre O. Phillippe’s Can’t Really Unpack The Complicated Enigma Of William Shatner In New Doc [SXSW]

Mar 19, 2023

After having explored George Lucas, David Lynch, Hitchcock, and even William Friedkin in previous documentaries, Alexandre O. Phillippe turns his attention towards an unlikely subject, William Shatner, in his newest film, “You Can Call Me Bill.” Framed around a free-associative conversation with the famed actor, Phillipe’s new documentary might be catnip for any Trekkie but also represents something of a regression after the filmmaker’s probing “Lynch/Oz” last year. 
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Instead, “You Can Call Me Bill” is representative of several other hagiographic documentaries that crop up every year that purport to shed light on a figure but really act as superficial monologues in which the subject spins a particular type of narrative about their life and career. At 91 years old, with multiple memoirs and a lifetime in the spotlight, Shatner’s life isn’t exactly a mystery, so whatever novelty comes from having him tell the story of his upbringing or first time playing Henry V (as Christopher Plummer’s understudy, no less), is ultimately diffused.
Organized into chapters, “You Can Call Me Bill” begins with a John Muir quote: “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” This sets up an interesting parallel between Shatner’s TV persona as the relentless explorer Kirk in “Star Trek” and his more recent turn towards conservation. Yet, that thread is never really followed through, with the film settling into a more linear move from Shatner’s childhood onwards. 
As he discusses his life, Phillipe freely includes home photographs and clips from his various shows and movies. Of course, we get a lot of “Star Trek” and “The Twilight Zone,” as well as his stand-up comedy and musical performances. These montages mainly serve to underline whatever theme a given chapter explores — “Love, Death, and Horses,” “Masks,” etc. At the start, it’s a compelling structure, but as the film wears on (and the chapters pile up), the organizational scheme begins to read more as a way for Philippe to try and make sense of Shatner’s rambling associations.    
By ceding the floor to Shatner, the film misses the kitschy aspects associated with his body of work. Anyone who has listened to a Shatner album, or seen his talks at conventions, understands that Shatner’s persona has always straddled self-seriousness and knowing self-mockery; it’s what made his performance as Denny Crane in “Boston Legal” so memorable. Here, however, the film leans more towards the former, with Shatner describing his work as Kirk and the Priceline Negotiator with equal reverence.  
Further, the film seems unwilling to move beyond the scope of its titular subject. There is very little here about his complicated friendship with Leonard Nimoy or his decades-long feud with George Takei. There’s a brief interlude about his travel aboard Bezos’s Blue Origin rocket in 2021, but less about his relationship to space travel and NASA. The film only shows what Shatner is interested in talking about, leaving a considerable chunk of his life out. Obviously, Shatner is using the film as a way of writing a more complete narrative of his life. Still, the film completely eschews outside context by focusing so singularly on him. 
“You Can Call Me Bill” isn’t a travesty; hearing Shatner discuss his life is always fascinating. But instead, the film’s a missed opportunity to unpack one of the more enigmatic figures in our public consciousness. Shatner’s career has constantly whiplashed between high and low, popular and avant-garde (seriously, listen to his albums). His body of work deserves the same type of treatment as Phillipe’s other documentaries. 
The filmmaker’s most interesting work has often used the documentary form as a type of extended literary analysis, either in the form of juxtaposition (as with “Lynch/OZ”) or close reading (with “78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene”). It’s odd, then, that Phillipe would revert to such a hermetic approach to someone who is so well-known for his outsized public persona. What we get here is too attuned to Shatner’s recursive narration that everything bleeds together even with Phillipe’s chaptering. [C]
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