Even when he’s not trying to be funny, laughter can be the first response that greets William Shatner. Some may think of him as a caricature. What Alexander O. Philippe’s thoughtful, searching new documentary “You Can Call Me Bill” reveals, without ever being so blunt as to say as much, is that that laughter reveals more about us than about Shatner. About our inability to comprehend someone quite as complex, as defiantly irreducible, as the man who once was Captain Kirk.
Shatner may be pop culture’s greatest master of pontification, and there is no topic on which he doesn’t have thoughts. He’s expressed them before in the 2001 Peter Jaysen documentary “Mind/Meld”; in the 2011 documentary that he himself directed looking back at the legacy of “Star Trek” in its many different incarnations, “The Captains”; and as seen in Philippe’s new film, via poetry readings in front of a live audience, sometimes accompanied by an orchestra. Those live events feature him giving poetic dimension to his own life experiences, such as his October 2021 journey to space, while a gong, perhaps, lightly thrums. The crowds he draws there reveal how “You Can Call Me Bill” could be crowd-funded.
For his largely direct-to-camera film, Philippe knows then that he can just let Shatner riff and the result will be a kind of documentary portrait as stream-of-consciousness one-man show. All he needs to do is let the man talk. (Philippe himself is heard just once, expressing his hope to Shatner that he’ll return to the studio space that’s been set up to add more the next day.) And the film is just an extended monologue by Shatner on his life, his TV and film roles, and his various philosophical musings. These are musings, though, the likes of which you’ll almost never find any other celebrity of his stature willing to indulge in public. There’s a candor and a rawness here that’s inherently compelling.
One minute Shatner is talking about his intense feelings of loneliness in life; the next he’s recounting a goofy story about being grabbed in the water by a seal. He opens the film with a devastating story about his parents, acting grim, telling him that his beloved dog was outside, only for him to find his dog dead, his parents having withheld the sad news for him to discover on his own. And minutes later he’s talking about the importance of timing as it relates to comedy, such as when he opened AFI’s lifetime achievement tribute to George Lucas. Shatner says, regarding a similar honor he himself has just received, that he deserves a lifetime achievement award for “nurturing his inner child.” He talks about “living in the moment” via the connection he finds riding a horse and then mimics the tongue-flicking action of a lizard.
Over much of this, Philippe provides visual counterpoint via clips from Shatner’s expansive career, from TV in the late ’50s and films like “Judgment at Nuremberg,” “The Intruder,” and “Incubus,” to “Star Trek,” to Denny Crane on “Boston Legal.” This is a documentary that moves at the speed of thought, but it’s still well-considered. Nothing Shatner says he says lightly. Even when he’s being silly, he’s being sincere. And it’s a testament to Philippe’s extraordinary filming of him, against a dark, neutral studio-space backdrop, boom-mic visible. The camera tracks around Shatner until sometimes he almost slips out of the frame. Philippe dissolves from one camera set-up to another, and changes angles with a virtuosity that marks this as the most compelling talking-head driven doc since Errol Morris’s “Wormwood,” in which cinematographer Ellen Kuras used 10 cameras at any time for any one (staged) interview. That’s something of what Philippe and his DP Robert Muratore have accomplished here. That their cameras are able to respond dynamically to what Shatner is saying as he goes on tangent after tangent is a milestone in responsive filmmaking.
What comes across is that few popular personas have mixed the profound and the silly in the way that Shatner has. That’s a mix that catapulted the original “Star Trek” into the realm of obsession: one minute you have a trenchant insight into ethics and discovery and what it means to be human and the secrets of the universe — and the next you have Shatner fighting a guy in a giant lizard costume. That Shatner embodies that combination so perfectly himself is why he is the greatest of all “Trek” actors. It’s a combination that hearkens back to the idea of the court jester, Shakespeare’s fools who knew the most but were often understood the least.
Shatner collapses all hierarchies. Good, bad, high, low… all irrelevant in his work. His one directorial effort for the “Trek” franchise, the film “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” captures his sensibility like nothing else: fromage elevated to the celestial, some of the worst production values you’ll see in a major blockbuster combined with genuinely thought-provoking ideas. That film sees the Enterprise crew tracking the down the planet where “God” lives, finding he’s a charlatan, and, with the help of some Klingons, killing him. In which he got the best-ever performance from DeForest Kelley, in which Bones recalls pulling the plug on his dying father. Where deep camp meets deep feeling.
The usual signifiers of quality don’t apply to Shatner. What he delivers instead is intensity. Or as he puts it in “You Can Call Me Bill,” “passion,” the thing he says motivates his life more than anything else. That kept him going even though so much of life is “a waiting room,” as he puts it, waiting for the next break, the next form of fulfillment. He recalls to Philippe how when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, “Star Trek” had been canceled, and he was broke, living out of his car, watching the historic moment on a portable TV. Yet you get the sense that even then he still wasn’t bereft, because his innate curiosity about life and about what’s next kept his passion intact. Philippe has crafted a portrait of a completely irony-free individual, someone who, when he’s trying to be funny (like in the many Priceline commercials interwoven in the film) isn’t as funny as when he’s just being himself.
The only other figure who comes close to Shatner in the Hollywood firmament is Nicolas Cage, whose kabuki-like acting goes for maximalism at all times, but, like Shatner, also touches on the most intimate themes of what it means to be a human. What it means to express oneself. Cage has been celebrated far more by the usual industry accolades; an Oscar will not be in Shatner’s future. But Philippe has given him something even more meaningful: he’s captured forever this real-life 91-year-old star-child, the cinematic patron saint of all those who, with equal fervor, longingly look to the skies — and gaze at their own reflection in the mirror.
“You Can Call Me Bill” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival.