Phyllis and Harold
Filmmaker and video artist Cindy Kleine’s intriguing and unflinchingly honest personal documentary about her mother and father, “Phyllis and Harold,” starts off looking like a family home video. There are interviews with her parents, married 55 years at the time, along with flashbacks to home movies and photographs. The first 20 minutes consist of material that would not seem to be of interest to anyone outside of Kleine’s family. Be patient. It is all back story for what will follow.
The footage takes on greater significance when Phyllis begins to talk about an affair that she had early in her marriage. Shortly after this, individual interviews with each parent reveal contrasting opinions about their marriage. Harold, the father, feels that the marriage was fine. Phyllis, the mother, tells a different story. The juxtaposition of the two points of view causes the film to take on a more universal significance as Phyllis and her daughters, Cindy and Ricky, pull the curtain back further and further. We are given a portrait of the 1950s suburban-housewife angst of Phyllis, whose marriage’s bad points out weighed its good points.
An obvious comparison to “Phyllis and Harold” is filmmaker Doug Block’s 2005 personal documentary “51 Birch Street.” In his film Block uncovers and reconstructs his mother’s life of suburban quiet desperation after she has died. In the case of “Phyllis and Harold,” Kleine is able to interview her mother who is very forthcoming about the problems in her marriage. There are pluses and minuses to Kleine’s approach. Kleine is certainly able to give us the maternal interviews that Block was not able to capture. On the other hand Block’s film is riveting because without being able to interview his mother he has to delve into the genuine mystery of his parents’ marriage. Along the way Block examines his own marriage and his relationship with his still living father. In other words Block takes us on his journey as a filmmaker and as a child. Kleine does this too, but not to the extent that she could have. All that I know about Kleine from having seen “Phyllis and Howard” is that she is the daughter of the titular subjects and the film’s creator.
In last week’s column I talked about documentarian Ross McElwee’s style of putting himself in his films, an essential part of the personal documentary. Kleine does appear on camera at a few points, commenting on the story and also narrates. She seems a bit uneasy and does not convey the type of presence that McElwee and Block do in their films. We learn about Klein’s close childhood relationship with the family house-keeper but we do not get to know much about Klein’s present life. Additional footage and narration about Kleine’s own marriage in comparison to that of her parents, and Kleine’s motivation for making this documentary would have made for a more well rounded story.
What is here though is a portrait of Phyllis, a woman who grew up in a different time than her daughter. Phyllis did not have the advantages and opportunities that Kleine had. As a result she did not attain personal satisfaction and freedom until very late in life. “Phyllis and Harold” is poignant, frank and bitter-sweet.
“Phyllis and Harold” opens at Cinema Village on February 19.
Phyllis and Harold, director Cindy Kleine, 2008, Silver Penny Pictures, 85 minutes