Ron Mann’s Altman (2014) chose to look at the director’s career largely through his own eyes, combining archive material and interviews together with the recollections of friends and family. A Fuller Life (2013) is another biographical doc about a master of independent American cinema, but Samantha Fuller’s affectionate portrait of her father Samuel goes one step further – the words are exclusively the subject’s own. Friends and collaborators lend their voices to gobbets of Fuller’s autobiography, which proves the ideal source text. Whilst the surrounding film is a little rough-and-ready, the core dialogue between auteur and audience encapsulates the kind of penetration and energy inherent to his oeuvre.
The chronology runs from Fuller’s journalistic beginnings – from copy-boy to freelancer, through an almost imperceptible segue into writing for Hollywood and later directing. His prose is always full of both colour and soul, but his years travelling – first the US in civvies, then war-torn Europe in uniform – that are the most arresting. These are the passages that seem to divine the ideas that will later populate his cinema. In all honesty, the documentary labours these parallels a little too much, playing clips from the relevant films as his words touch on the same issues. In fact, the handling of Fuller’s oeuvre never quite finds its home. The clips played are too short and without context for any substantial analysis, but their on-the-nose placement leaves little connection to be forged by the audience: assuming prior knowledge yet never going beyond.
And yet, this is not a documentary about the films as much as the man himself. Fuller describes the moment he understood the power of image against word when he relayed a scene he saw of a mother breast feeding whilst decked in full Ku Klux Klan regalia. His editor excised the passage, finding it far-fetched, and Fuller saw the scope both for the actual and metaphorical truths that a visual representation would have a provided. Visuals are of largely incidental value here, though. A Fuller Life tells its story in fairly straightforward linear fashion and steers away from experiment in terms of the accompanying footage. There is some previously unseen stuff, recently discovered in Fuller’s own archive, but it is, once again, mostly mundane. The readings are where the character of the man is being channelled and whilst this is not unanimously successful – a little bit of overreacting creeps in to one or two performances – for the most part it works well. Mark Hamill in particular lives up to his reputation as a voice artist and approximates Fuller himself. In the end, nobody can do that better than the real McCoy and whilst other people may be bringing it to life, this is Fuller’s story in his words.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson