Docurama // 1999 // 54 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // April 23rd, 2009
"The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason they write so very little." -- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
San Francisco-based writer Anne Lamott has been a darling of the Christian left since the 2000 publication of Traveling Mercies: Thoughts on Faith. The book is a conversion memoir notable for its honesty, transparency, authentic drama, and Lamott's self-deprecating humor. A far-left intellectual with a deep distrust of organized religion (especially Christianity), Lamott was drawn kicking and screaming to God by way of the travails of alcoholism and single motherhood. In Traveling Mercies, she demonstrates a unique ability to lay bare her soul -- even its ugliest parts -- without ever coming off as narcissistic or solipsistic. When Lamott speaks about writing, she often speaks of the importance of truth. Her work is characterized by an unflinching, closely observed, emotionally powerful, and often quite funny drive to tell it like it is.
To label Lamott a Christian writer would be reductive, though (at least if you're using the term in its marketing sense). In addition to her three memoirs on faith (2005's Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith and 2007's Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith are the two follow-ups to Traveling Mercies), she's written a half-dozen novels since her 1980 debut, Hard Laughter, a book on writing (Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life), and a magnificently raw and honest book on parenting (Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year). All of her books -- fiction and non-fiction -- are imbued with Lamott's keen eye, humor, and deep sense of compassion for the human beings with whom she interacts (whether friends and neighbors or products of her imagination).
In Bird by Bird with Annie: A Portrait of Anne Lamott, director Freida Lee Mock (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision) caught up with Lamott a decade ago, when she had published five novels, two non-fiction books, and was hard at work on Traveling Mercies. While sections of the movie touch on Lamott's faith, the piece is much more about Lamott as a writer, lecturer, and teacher of writing. It includes long excerpts from Lamott's signature lecture on writing, scenes of her teaching a writing workshop and performing a reading at a bookstore, and a fascinating and funny duel Q & A she did with her close (and unlikely) friend, Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. These scenes of Lamott carrying out her professional duties are balanced with interviews in which Lamott muses on writing, faith, motherhood, and life in general. Luckily for us (and for Mock) Lamott's speaking style is as warm, funny, candid, moving, and thoroughly engaging as her prose style. Bird by Bird with Annie packs a lot of laughs, practical instruction on writing, and unvarnished humanity into its 54 minutes.
Docurama's DVD release presents Mock's film in its original full-frame aspect ratio. The image is gritty with an attractive patina of coarse film grain. Colors are accurate. Detail is decent, though not exceptional. It's a solid transfer of a limited source more concerned with naturalism than presenting a glossy image. The best that can be said about the Dolby stereo audio is that it is pleasantly unobtrusive in the sense that it doesn't bother one with hiss or crackle.
Extras include a full 34-minute version of Lamott's lecture delivered at the Sun Valley Writers' Conference, excerpts of which appear in the main feature, and a text-based biography of Mock.
For fans of Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird with Annie: A Portrait of Anne Lamott is essential viewing. Everyone else should grab one of her books instead (Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is a great place to start).
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 54 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated