This is my first film festival. Already it occurs to me that festivals don’t try to book “Hello, Dolly!” or any other film in which the sun shines and people dance and the morning mail is hand-delivered by birds and squirrels. So if you’re gonna sit through three festival selections, it’s best to get yourself good and fortified in the morning so that you can blame your depression and sour mood on the gin.
“Begging Naked” is a simple and effective documentary, free of topsy-turvy or artifice. It’s nine years in the life of Elise Hill, a New York artist who paints, sculpts and strips, making just enough to get by. At the start of the film, she’s living in a tiny, Terry Gilliam-esque servant’s flat near Central Park. By the end, she’s homeless and living inside the park. The cameras are there for most of the slide.
It’s tempting to wonder whether her mental illness created her circumstances, or if it was the other way around. Mental illness doesn’t work that way, of course. But you can’t help but compare the Elise from the first few frames — in a mainstream romantic comedy, she’d be the artist friend of the female lead; zany, but together — against the woman living on the streets at the end of the film nine years later, wondering if her living circumstances will jeopardize her chances of being hired by the CIA.
I wonder if the right person, with the right words under the right set of circumstances, could have steered the earlier Elise into treatment and a program of medication.
There’s no such curiosity about the later Elise. Her paranoia and delusions seem to have formed a thick resistance to help. Her perception of the world prevents her from trusting a person enough to accept medical intervention.
The movie wasn’t as depressing as I’d feared. “Begging Naked” contains no messages, no admonishments, no dire warnings; it’s too confident a film to stoop to that sort of thing. Above all, it doesn’t want to distract our attention from the simple facts of Elise’s life.
“Begging Naked” left me in mood for thought, not for drink. Which makes it a far more effective engine for changing perceptions and attitudes about mental illness. When you’re drunk and phoning your Mom for an audio hug, you’re really in no shape to do anything about the problem.