By Agnieszka Tennant
Bird Watching with Anne Lamott
There's a bit of just about everyone in Anne Lamott. She's a born-again Christian, a writer, an iconoclast, a single mother, a recovering alcoholic, a former drug addict, a nursing home minister, a comedienne, a liberal, a neurotic girl, a sinner, a saint, a gay-rights activist, a Sunday school teacher, and a dreadlocked peace marcher.
If you're one of the above, Lamott is likely to raise your spirits in Bird by Bird with Annie. The 40-minute documentary, airing Tuesday night on PBS, flatters its subject by allowing her to narrate her own story. She does it casually, openly, hilariously. Indeed, the device works so well that you forgive the absence of an outsider's commentary and willingly let her do the talking.
The film is a win-win for Lamott. If you already relish the wit and candor that animate her bestselling collection of essays Traveling Mercies and her columns at Salon.com, you'll love her more after you see the documentary. And if you can't stand Lamott—perhaps for the cheap shots and liberal pandering that are routinely featured in her shtick, such as her gratuitous comparison of George W. Bush to a Klansman in a recent column, or for her bigotry against white Southern males in general—you might at least find yourself understanding her a little better. And, no matter how much you fight it, she'll get a belly laugh or two out of you.
The camera follows Lamott everywhere, and Academy Award-winning filmmaker Freida Lee Mock makes you feel like you do, too. You see Lamott working with writing students; you see her in a photograph as a girl with hair so unmanageable that she got teased for it in what she calls "drive-by shoutings;" you see her singing gospel songs at her church, driving a convertible in the Bay Area, weeping over a friend's death during a book reading, picking flowers with her ailing mother; you see her clutching onto her son, then under 10 years old, as she presides over a gay wedding ("with virtually no power vested in me that is recognized by the state of California").
The documentary opens with Lamott doing what she does best: getting writer's block sufferers to write something—a word, a sentence, a page maybe. She tells the classic story that inspired her guide for writers, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor, 1994). When, over three decades ago, her older brother was struggling to write a school report on birds due the next day, her dad, a published writer, put his arm around him, and said, "Just take it bird by bird."
With a pink rose softening her dreadlocks, Lamott is an angel of understanding to the writers attending her workshops. "It's a given that it's hard to keep your butt on the chair," she says. A natural stand-up comic, she describes the way she bribed her inner writer to keep herself writing during the O.J. Simpson trial: "If you just write for half an hour, we will get up and watch a little O.J." The following, too, are breaks for writerly freedom: "Get one page down, and if you can't, get one sentence down," and "Anything anyone has ever done to hurt you, you own it! And they should have acted better if they didn't want you to shape a novel around it. You own that ex marriage."
Giving feedback to students reading their work at a Bay Area bookstore, Lamott is like a casually truth-telling yet admiring mother. "I just found it exhilarating to see how in charge of this you were," she tells one writer. "I just get this sense of confidence … a sense that you've bitten off a lot. Felt like the material didn't get away from you this time. … There are things you could cut though."
At the center of Lamott's life is her faith. The footage of her rocking gently, clapping, and singing hymns (with her eyes shut) pulls you in so close to her that you almost feel like an intruder. A scene at a fund-raiser reveals something that Lamott, to her credit, hasn't broadcast. Introducing the famous member of her mostly black congregation, the pastor of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church says, "I see Annie nearly every Sunday bringing folk to the Lord, bringing folk to St. Andrew, and saying, 'You've got to see what I've found!' " The camera also captures Lamott leading the elderly in worship at a convalescent home. Another surprise: She's done that on Sunday afternoons for ten years. "I never want to go," she says, but "they fill me with something close to joy." Here, too, her son, Sam, is by her side.
He is the only person in the documentary who confronts the viewer directly—without realizing what he's doing, perhaps. On several occasions, the boy, frequently written about by his mother, looks straight at the camera with his huge dark eyes. It's as if he was protecting his mother, asking "What else do you want from her? Hasn't she given you enough already?" You feel like a peeping Tom.