directed by Alexandre O. Philippe
by Walter Chaw There's a moment in Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on 'The Exorcist' (hereafter Leap of Faith), the latest feature from cinephile documentarian Alexandre O. Philippe (78/52), where Friedkin talks about a shot he framed so that Max Von Sydow is in the foreground of the Tomb of Nebuchadnezzar. It's followed fast by Friedkin talking about how he didn't intend anything in The Exorcist. In other words, he says he didn't impose meaning and then immediately offers exceptions. He brings up instinctual filmmaking after speaking to how carefully he developed the script to be a series of slow revelations and portents. Friedkin is, in short, a mass of contradictions. But rather than look on it as disingenuousness or confusion, I sense that he doesn't really know why The Exorcist works the way it does, but it got under his skin and into his bed in the same way it has for audiences these past 47 years. We do our best to dance about architecture, but in the end, architecture can only be enhanced by the dance, not defined by it.
Leap of Faith indirectly calls into question the usefulness of artists talking about their own work. The temptation is to take Friedkin at his word on all things The Exorcist, but as we listen to him reflect on William Wyler and Cary Grant, it becomes clear that Friedkin may not be that great a critical theorist. Phillipe, for his part, cuts on Errol Morris-esque beats and inserts ironic counterpoints now and again. For instance, when Friedkin recounts Von Sydow's difficulty proclaiming the power of God in the film and how Von Sydow said the problem was that he didn't believe in God, Phillipe takes the opportunity to cut to Von Sydow's knight praying in The Seventh Seal and then to Von Sydow playing Christ in The Greatest Story Ever Told. It's intriguing, but is the intent to paint Von Sydow as a hypocrite? Friedkin recalls Von Sydow explaining that he hadn't played Christ as God, but as a man; does that explain how the actor was able to channel all that fire and brimstone as Father Merrin?
Leap of Faith is slippery in the way it vacillates between productive and anti-productive. I liked seeing scenes from The Exorcist as Friedkin narrates them. I liked less seeing interpretations and stealth commentary on the things Friedkin is saying that I'm not certain Friedkin intends as he's saying them. Images used to illustrate the most mundane of topics are loaded with unexamined contextual ballast. Friedkin mentions how difficult it can be for actors to do things in front of the unseen crew behind the camera, a topic illustrated with a behind-the-scenes photograph of Friedkin on a platform looking down as he directs a violent scene with four grips at his side. Is there, in fact, more trauma than just self-consciousness embedded in this image? Later, he reveals that he punched one of his actors to elicit a response right before calling "action" and says he couldn't do that now because of how times have changed. This segues into a story about how George Stevens used to fire off a gun during shooting to fuck with his cast and how Friedkin fired a rifle to get Jason Miller's shocked reaction during that infamous jump-scare in The Exorcist. Leap of Faith, then, becomes something like an endorsement of effect over process, and its interest in effect over process should be something that gives pause to both the director and this documentary.
Anyway, the stories are familiar for the die-hard fan of The Exorcist, which is, of course, one of the all-time milestones in world cinema. Leap of Faith is a feature-length monologue on favourite films, featuring boilerplate cinematic philosophy and psychology and other flights and digressions. I do wish it had resisted the archival footage of Hitler and a Holocaust victim, but it's perhaps not inaccurate to observe that megalomania is the driving energy of the piece. I love Friedkin's work, truly. I wonder if it would've even been possible to do some of the things he did without his level of broad, freewheeling confidence and its implicit endorsement by the awe of others. Towards the end, Friedkin says "I'm not attracted to ambiguity" while disclaiming how much he enjoys that there's a variety of interpretations of The Exorcist out there. That, I guess, is as good a final word on this project as any. The more you're sure, the less you should be trusted. Programme: Special Events