Yesterday morning, I scoured Netflix’s list of new-to-watch, instantly available movies for something interesting and something short. At 79 minutes, Michael W. Dean and Kenneth Shiffrin’s documentary, Hubert Selby Jr: It/ll Be Better Tomorrow fit the bill. Selby’s novel, Requiem for a Dream, was turned into one of my favorite movies, and though I’ve never read his books I have great affection for the honesty that shines through his characters.
I wish I could say the same for the film the directors made about him. It starts out on the wrong foot, with cheaply filmed talking heads praising his influence and decrying his lack of notoriety in wider circles. Their voices accompany old photos of the Selby family and are set to the most godawful, up-beat K-Mart jazz I’ve heard in a professionally produced movie (it’s not so much the music as the context in which it’s played—stories of contracting bovine tuberculosis and spending four years in a government hospital don’t call for finger-snappin’, feel-good tunes).
Robert Downey Jr.‘s pre- Iron Man narration is cute at first (especially if you consider where 2005 was on his comeback timeline—i.e. prehistoric), but suffers both from a somnambulant monotone and text that sounds like it was lifted from Wikipedia. It’s only when we get to archival interview footage with Selby that It/ll Be Better Tomorrow takes off.
For those not in the know, Selby’s 1964 novel, “Last Exit to Brooklyn”, was a wildly popular and controversial look at hard-living fringe characters that’s as notable for its unconventional writing style as for its bleak subject matter. Selby freed himself of the constraints of grammar, spelling, and punctuation to create a vivid portrait of the way real, down-on-their-luck people interact with one another. This was born partially out of Selby’s own upbringing and partially out of a desire to do something great with his life following his hospital stay—wherein he had one of his lungs and several ribs removed before the age of 20.
To hear Selby talk about his work and odd writing choices is inspiring. Though he’d never intended to be an author growing up, he clearly has an enthusiasm for words and is a great believer in their power and malleability (for instance, he found early on that reaching for the apostrophe on his old typewriter interrupted his flow, so he opted for the easily accessible slash instead) . Unfortunately, Selby takes up a little more than a third of the movie, and we’re left to contend with more talking heads rambling on about his genius and influence.
Half the interviewees are interesting; half are not. Artists Lou Reed, Jerry Stahl, Amiri Baraka, offer neat little insights into what Selby meant to the generation of writers in which he came up. Friends Gilbert Sorrentino and Carmine DeFeo help flesh out Selby’s life story, particularly how he got into writing, and his life after quitting hard drugs at age 40. But radio host Michael Silverblatt and filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn come across as a bland, academic spectator and a caricature of the sniffling European filmmaker, respectively. Ellen Burstyn, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role as Sara Goldfarb in Requiem, speaks of her time working with Selby as if she’s hosting an acting workshop.
I might not have minded these distractions had the movie provided more information about Selby’s life. His decade of drug use is glossed over—a blown opportunity, in my opinion, to explore his work pre- and post-heroin. And I didn’t find out that he has four kids until the closing minutes of the documentary. These offenses are worse than burying the lead. One doesn’t include a great story intro like, “I asked him where the $60,000 went, and he showed me the track marks on his arms” and then refuse to dig deeper. And learning that Selby died practically broke despite his numerous successes and large family raises even more questions that the filmmakers seem to think aren’t nearly as interesting as celebrity fawning.
Another issue, which has less to do with the movie than with perspective, is the inclusion of a segment in which the filmmakers let us know just how much Selby hated George W. Bush. It/ll Be Better Tomorrow came out in 2005, when it was not only fashionable to bash the president but practically a prerequisite for getting a documentary released. It’s problematic here because the angle pops up out of nowhere. All of a sudden, we’re shown political cartoons of the snarky cowboy POTUS and told by Selby and others how distraught his presidency made the author. But we’re never told why. Until this point, Selby isn’t painted as an especially politically minded guy, and the rhetoric surrounding his disdain is bumper-sticker liberalism at best. I’m not saying he didn’t have reasons to hate the man, but those reasons are never made clear.
That lack of clarity is the gaping hole at the center of It/ll Be Better Tomorrow. I would much rather have watched a Marc Maron-conducted 80-minute interview with Hubert Selby Jr. than this spruced-up infomercial for his books. The author comes across as a kind, no-bullshit humanist with a keen ability to not only understand the human spirit but to transcribe bits of that cosmic mystery to the page and screen. I understand how hard that is to capture in a movie, but the deceased Selby looks to be the only one who tried.
[Originally published @ Kicking the Seat on 08/05/11.]