The personal essay documentary is kind of old-hat now. Everyone who powers up a camera is at least tempted to pull a Michael Moore and make their movie largely about themselves and some sort of personal investigation or journey.
Mark Blumberg’s “The Act of Reading” harks back to the pre-Michael M. origins of the genre, to Ross McElwee’s quirky, droll and revealing personal journey films “Sherman’s March” and “Bright Leaf.” That’s the tone Blumberg goes for here — dry, personally insightful. He doesn’t deliver, but that seems to be his goal.
“Reading” is set up as an act of contrition. Blumberg flunked 11th grade English twenty years ago because he dodged reading “Moby Dick” and failed to file an essay on it. The film endeavors to “finish that book report I should have done for you,” to take us on a journey into the book, maybe show some appreciation of that teacher.
We meet people connected by blood to “Moby Dick’s” author, visit museums with ties to Herman Melville, hear from academics on the importance of reading, learn about dyslexia, see scenes from amateurish plays based on Melville’s life and adapting “Moby Dick,” and we hang with a great teacher in Austin, Texas.
Vicki Hebert wasn’t Blumberg’s teacher. Seeing the way she charms and challenges her high school class — dissecting this 19th century novel, breaking it into component parts, parsing characters and many a revealing sentence from the book, donning a facial tattoo in the style of Queequeg the harpoonist from the story — we can infer that maybe Blumberg would’ve read the damned thing had she been his teacher.
That could have been his organizing outline. And maybe his debut feature documentary wouldn’t be so scattered, indulgent and flat-footed.
The classroom material is rich, with Hebert facing the “mutiny in class” that she’s seen every other time she’s taught the novel, a “Why are you making us do this?” day. Kids break into study groups or fumble about in the darkness of the prose on their own. Or give up and go jump on their trampoline.
Blumberg frequently cuts into the annual New Bedford Whaling Museum “marathon reading” of “Moby Dick,” scores of fans watching, listening and pitching in to read the novel aloud, start to finish on a snowy winter’s weekend.
That’s where he meets Peter Gansevoort Whittemore, great great grandson of the author, a guy wuo takes his heritage seriously even as he jokes he’d never own up to that in high school “because everybody in school HATED ‘Moby Dick.'”
Blumberg’s wife also meets a Melville descendant, a yoga teacher and aspiring playwright named Elizabeth Doss, who scripted a play of the author’s life, imagining him as a woman as she struggled with marriage and getting the book into a publishable form.
Doss and Blumberg’s wife act out some of this play.
That isn’t really where this film went off the rails for me, but it hints at the mission creep to come. We meet the extended Blumberg family at dinner, drift off to a series of brother-to-brother chats where Blumberg finds out why his nurse/paddle-boarder sibling “never reads.” “Dyslexia” is his (self) diagnosis.
So we wander off into an exploration of that.
We’re treated to some on-the-spectrum/way-off-topic bickering in the filmmaker’s marriage, and ponder our clean-cut protagonist/director in fresh ways.
And we wonder what happened to the promising idea of “finishing the essay” on the book he long-ago promised his teacher, Janet Werner, a mea culpa picture that celebrates teachers, reading, a book that’s “required” and tough but dense, decipherable and the very definition of “literary fiction.”
Because that movie, with a sheepish protagonist humbled by his past and humbled further by learning about this book, why reading matters, why kids fear it and critics and academics now exalt it, would be worth watching.
The fact that he re-gathers his family, who tell him that very fact to his face over dinner for the finale, isn’t funny or cute and doesn’t let him off the hook, either.
MPA Rating: unrated, profanity
Cast: Vicki Hebert, Riccardo Pitts-Wiley, Janet Werner, Peter Gansevoort Whittemore, Elizabeth Doss, John Cleary, Maryanne Wolfe, Mark Blumberg and family
Credits: Directed by Mark Blumberg. A Barrow House release.