It is easy to measure your life by achievements, to look at the accumulation of awards and accolades, of personal and professional victories, and say, “This accumulation represents empirical success.”
It is more difficult to measure your life not necessarily by failures, but by the possibilities that remain unfulfilled, by tasks half-completed, or by the stored objects that remain unused, and to say, “Despite or perhaps even because there is still success.”
It comes down to
Plucks something very universal from life’s loose ends.
Chris Wilcha’s new documentary, Reverse, takes on the second challenge of painting an autobiographical portrait of how a life seemingly full of disappointments and failures can be a life well lived. Glimpse Reverse at the wrong time or from the wrong angle and it can feel a bit solipsistic, albeit in a way that will be relatable to many viewers. But in its entirety and with some reflection it is a profound and philosophical expression of satisfaction with everything that is not yet finished in life.
Even on paper and without the reflection of a documentary, Wilcha’s life is not a failure at all. His first documentary, The target shoots first, was critically acclaimed on the festival circuit and offered a very Gen He won an Emmy for his help adapting Ira Glass’ This American life for television. Mostly he has worked steadily as a commercial director for some of the biggest brands in the world. He seems to have a family fit for picture frames.
But Wilcha also has stacks of hard drives full of footage from documentaries he never completed, imagined works of art that have been left on the shelf for various reasons. All this time, his paying job was in glorified marketing. For a storyteller who grew up in a generation that, at least for a while, found some ideological expression in the uncompromising cynicism of Reality bites, this feels like disappointment. Wilcha’s father was in marketing and that is not the path he wanted to follow, even though all signs point to his father being very happy.
The apparent backbone of Reverse is Wilcha’s return to his hometown in New Jersey, where he simultaneously reflects on two monuments to the blurred line between collecting and hoarding. There is his childhood closet, a repository for albums, books, concert shirts and memorabilia of the youngster he was. And then there’s Flip-Side Records & Tapes, a vintage record store where he had his first job, a struggling warehouse from a bygone era that looks more like a museum than a store.
As he struggles to identify the value of his neatly organized mess, and through conversations with Flip-Side owner Dan and some of Wilcha’s former friends and colleagues, he also flips through footage from some of those unrealized documentaries. And wouldn’t you know it? The values – spiritual, if not financial – all intersect.
Wilcha’s cemetery with shortened projects is an intriguing whole. There are interviews with legendary jazz photographer Herman Leonard – trust me, you know some of his images – conducted shortly before his death. There is some strange material from an Ira Glass touring show in which the host took part in fully choreographed dance numbers.
Then there are the documentaries that could have been started that border on other unrealized efforts. One of the regulars at Flip-Side is Uncle Floyd, a New Jersey television personality and icon whose journey included unexpected connections with Saturday evening live and David Bowie. Wilcha’s connection with Leonard came about through an association with Dead wood creator David Milch, emerged from Milch’s connection with Judd Apatow, with whom Wilcha worked on a documentary about the making of Funny people. There is a network of editing work that connects these unfinished documentaries Reverse and unites them as facets of Wilcha’s life. The idea that what may seem like loose ends from our past are actually storylines awaiting an unexpected resolution is both pleasantly Dickensian and wonderfully uplifting, when you think about it.
You’ll probably watch Reverse thinking that many of these films, not yet completely out of production, could be more compelling as feature films than this partial autobiography or the story of a beloved old record store. In particular, the material with Milch, who has Alzheimer’s disease and is interviewed in conversation with his wife Rita, and with Apatow, left me hungry for more. That’s also the point. Wilcha thought they would also be more attractive as features. But the care with which Wilcha uses Milch, Leonard and Uncle Floyd, finding something ambitious in each of their attitudes and spirits without it actually being about him, is thoughtful and sometimes inspiring.
No one inside Reverse lives exactly the life they dreamed of. Even Apatow, also executive producer here, is connected to Wilcha through a film about the stand-up career he didn’t have. But as Leonard puts it, “There will always be circumstances.” Whether you overcome those circumstances, adapt to them, or find a way to learn from disappointments and move on can be a matter of perspective, determination, or luck.
This could be a metaphor for the general pursuit of life, for the specific making of art, or for the utterly universal experience of picking your way through your clutter and rubble and learning to see the treasure in the rubble. Maybe you don’t connect with the moments of Reverse they are mostly about Wilcha, but in 96 minutes the film makes a case for creating something new from whatever your own unused equivalent of documentary footage may be.