Rebecca Miller’s new documentary Arthur Miller: Writer, attempts a wide-ranging documentary from a daring vantage point: her father.
Premiering for Spotlight on Documentary today at New York Film Festival, Rebecca Miller puts Arthur Miller, one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century behind the lens – not just as her subject, but as her father. The child of Arthur Miller and his third wife Inge Morath, Rebecca Miller has independently paved her own way into the New York film scene (we’ll see her again at NYFF in The Meyerowitz Stories, where she has a small acting role).
She’s written and directed a several of her own spirited features, including most recently Maggie’s Plan, which debuted at Lincoln Center two years ago.
The new work is her first documentary; Arthur Miller: Writer is presented at the start as less of a project than a humble assemblage of footage she shot of her father. Though the narrative follows typical interview format, it’s clearly pieced together over years and has a definite home video quality. Rebecca preludes the footage with a voiceover, attesting that she began shooting her father to capture the side of him previously omitted from the public sphere, and, for a long time “the footage just sat there.”
What made the junior Miller want to assemble the footage now is left to mystery, but the initial dangers of the project are obvious. Presenting a parent’s life and character under the posture of objectivity is hard enough, even when that parent wasn’t also, for a time, the most popular and public working playwright.
When he was married to Marilyn Monroe and living in New York, Miller was engaged in the Hollywood hysteria of the 1960s, a household name in his own right thanks to The Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, and handsome enough to photograph alongside Marilyn. On video, shot mostly in the 90’s on his Connecticut farm, he looks not unlike Alan Alda. The film plays chronologically through Miller’s life and life-works, focusing far more on the man and is family than his theatrical significance.
For Rebecca Miller, making a piece on her father has far more to do with paying tribute to a loved one than anthologizing the remarkable.
Rebecca Miller’s piece has a lot in common with Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, which premiered two days prior to Arthur Miller. The two pair nicely as biographies in that both reframe their subjects through the eyes of younger relatives. But Joan Didion, unlike Arthur Miller, is still living, and thus has no need for a eulogy. For Rebecca Miller, making a piece on her father has far more to do with paying tribute to a loved one than anthologizing the remarkable. If anything, she anthologizes the quotidian; not that her film is boring, it’s just that Miller’s great achievements onstage seem to have little to do with the man she shows us.
We do learn a lot about Miller that would be lost to the ages otherwise. As her daughter states, he did have a persona that was entirely kept from public view – that of a parent. Voiceover addresses Miller mostly as “Dad.” Those chosen for cutaway interviews are, apart from Tony Kushner and Mike Nichols, all family. The personal history is notable, such as the fact that he grew up wealthy on West 110th St. until the family plummeted into the working class after the stock market crash of 1929. History on his father’s early success and ultimate failure in business almost broaches on the fact that some of Miller’s greatest literary preoccupations were between fathers and sons – until it doesn’t, and leaves this for the audience to put together.
Miller’s proximity to her subject becomes a hindrance when she becomes unable to extricate herself from her storytelling and ask the hard questions.
I would have been happy and fascinated by Miller choosing to document her father’s life if only she hadn’t presented it like a complete portrayal of him. Unlike with Dunne and Didion, Miller’s proximity to her subject becomes a hindrance when she becomes unable to extricate herself from her storytelling and ask the hard questions. Miller’s love for Marilyn Monroe is thus portrayed as a deeply committed collision of opposites, where Miller heroically took on the task of lightening the movie star’s load. The fact that she took her own life six months after filing a divorce for incompatibility speaks to a much more complex story, one that the younger Miller would be unable to get to no matter how candidly she spoke to her father.
Ultimately, the documentary comes off as a heartwarming elegy for the life of a man who was remarkable not just for his works but his values. Miller is effortlessly quotable in his most candid moments, and the intimacy of the camerawork leaves us with an honest picture that truly intends to show everything. As a longtime fan of Miller’s work, however, my interest in the film required the mental task of attaching these details to the persona I already had. Miller’s importance here is not an argument but a prerequisite, and the father is put above the writer for posterity.