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Doc Directors Face A Situation No Filmmaker Ever Wants to Handle In “Left On Purpose”

Thanks to Left On Purpose, a new documentary now screening in theaters and on VOD, a pertinent question has been raised in light of the recent resurgence of radical activism. Does it take being a little crazy to fight for progressive issues in reactionary America? Or, in surviving a sustained period of activism, regardless of the futility of fighting for issues in this reactionary country, does such radicalism drive you crazy?
After all, legendary Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, a writer and member of the Chicago Seven, committed suicide at age 52. So did 33 year old Tom Forcade, founder of High Times Magazine. And certainly there have been other suicides by progressive artists such as avant garde jazz musician Albert Ayler and poet Sylvia Plath. There have been bio pics and forensic analyses of such individuals as Hoffman. 
But until directors Justin Schein and David Mehlman filmed their encounters with New York based Mayer Vishner, nothing in recent memory has offered such an insight into a lefty radical activist’s psychology, suicidal condition and decline. The film is really Schein’s tale of his exchange with Vishner as he copes with his subject’s threat to commit suicide while filming; Schein tries to both  reconcile with Vishner’s declaration and make his effort to convince the aging writer not to do it. 

Says Schein, “He was a yippie and yippies are all about spectacle. I think he saw an opportunity and he saw me as a willing participant. But I think he maybe overestimated my participation; he wanted me to really glorify [his life] in a way that I wasn't ready to do.  

schein right mehlman leftHe had been talking about ending his life for decades. So when he first told me, one of my questions was whether it was serious, whether he was being serious. So I spoke to his friends and his doctors, and even up to the end I wasn't sure if it was just his way of getting attention.”

What a dilemma Schein faced. 

After he had made No Impact Man, his previous film which detailed a man and his family living off the grid, Schein decided to develop a film on Vishner after they had met in the course of making this notable feature. Vishner managed the local garden that provide food for the film’s subject. Schein decided to document Vishner’s radical legacy and cultural engagement. He had a huge archive of the last half century of culture change and his own psychological disarray. 

As this documentary reveals, the portly greying Village resident had tried to live up to his radical notions. He doesn’t have a bank account or contemporary tech tools. But as a hoarder, he’s saved his history in radicalism — storing many boxes and living among the piles of clutter. Some of his deterioration is partly his own doing, having been an alcoholic who didn’t take care of his health even while he sustained his radical ideals. 

The 48-year-old filmmaker obviously admired his efforts and those of his peers who continued as believers while the movement deteriorated. He had had a presence in the Village as the night manager of St Mark’s Books, engaging in next-generation movement members. But he became tired as his physical and mental pain increased. 

When Schein took Mayer to Occupy Wall Street, we see his engaged political persona; when we see him talk with an older woman friend we see his emotional defeatism. But he also turned down opportunities to teach, use the money he gets for selling his archive for his own emotional well-being. “I took him to Occupy and took him to other events and though he was interested, it also depressed him…”

So when Vishner announced that he wanted to end his own life as part of making the film, the production veered wildly into another direction. Before that declaration, it might have been a very different film — in fact, at the point when Vishner made his announcement, it might have only been a 30 minute film. Said the director, “I started off thinking, ‘Oh, this is a little bit, like [the film] Grey Gardens, you know, this is a brilliant man but kind of [deteriorated] and I wanted to know how he got to this point, what his perspective on the world was… Bush was still president maybe, [it was 2007 or 08]. 

I wanted to better understand him and I saw it as a short film about this village character, [like those guys] you see walking through Greenwich Village and you know they have a history but you never got to meet them, and this was this opportunity.”

But once Vishner made his declaration, the production took on a different focus and mission. While Vishner thought it was his final political act, Schein — and his co-director/editor David Mehlman — realized that they had to grapple with such moral issues while doing this documentation. They had to even ask whether to stay involved or not.

Said Mehlman, “Justin didn’t know what to do, what to film, and he would go and have these dates with Meyer trying to find out what and, why he was feeling this way, why he would do it, what he could do, what he couldn't, what he should be thinking about. He was going to Vishner’s doctor, and do all these different things thinking that [there] might be another whole strand of this story. 

“I think what it became was that there was a sense from Justin that he needed to gather as much as he could, certainly in the first six months to year after hearing that Meyer wanted to kill himself. When it drags on beyond that, the shooting was a little more sporadic, there was a lot of, knowing that something is important, but not knowing what the story is, so you sort of have to collect it all.”

And that they did, hundreds of hours over four years, of Vishner ruminating, his various friends and associates and most important, the therapists and doctors involved.

As Schein and Vishner became friends during the filming, Vishner did not reveal his wishes until later in the filming. The plethora of conflicting emotions confronted Schein which he incorporated into the film; audiences then have to confront these issues as well. A he explained, “Mayer talked about dying of loneliness but he really pushed everyone away. He was really seeking attention. There’s a certain narcissism involved in the whole process. On some level, this question of someone’s right to live or die is fundamental.  

I certainly was not interested in being a co-conspirator, but I respected what I thought were his rights. Especially since he had spent a lifetime of being in treatment for his depression, and he was taking medication and he had been hospitalized. 

Part of it is Abbie Hoffman, who was his very good friend, [as was] Tom Forcade. There is this concept of a suicide contagion — when people close to you do it, it then became an acceptable option for him and no matter how the people who loved him tried to suggest otherwise, he had it as his plan. Also you know, that suicide for men Mayer's age has doubled in the past decade.”

Audiences also grapple with what sometimes seems to be a futile effort to save a man who — through the film’s biographical nature — felt this has been happening to him for years not what he had accomplished. “Why has it doubled is a good question. Part of it could be because of drug and alcohol abuse. Part of it could be the lethality of guns — more people are using guns. And part of it has to do with this generation who took [control of their] life and, tried to lead it on their own terms; now they're facing death and they feel like they want to be empowered.”

Schein asked himself, “How am I going to edit it and more importantly, how am I going to end this? I felt that in some ways the process was keeping Mayer alive and if I said, ‘Listen, I’m done…’ He would then end it.

“Conversely I felt a certain pressure to find an ending. I was in a bind. I told him very clearly that I didn't need his death to be the end of this movie, that it could have a happy ending — that it didn't have to be a dramatic result. I wished that it was enough for him, but it wasn't so.”

Even though he has been a cinematographer on over 60 films, nothing quite prepared him for this. Thankfully, the director had Mehlman’s distance as both an editor and outside observer to help him cope with completing the film.

Added Mehlman, “I never met Mayer. I had the opportunity to meet him [when] he was still alive. I knew Justin all through the time when he was filming with him, and we started editing 2-3 months before. 

“We didn't know when or if, because he kept so many false alarms over the years and this didn't seem any different. From my perspective, I felt I needed to be detached enough that, if I had a relationship with Mayer, might have changed. I pushed the material and pushed him and that because I didn't have a relationship with him, because I didn't love him, I also didn't necessarily think it needed more spectacle.

"I approached it in some ways like, ‘OK, here’s a story to tell, how do I tell the best story about this person’s life and what they’re going through and [Justin was] the essence of another character. How do you build the narrative with the nonfiction material?’ 

LOPFor the same reason I was looking at the footage — like, say, the scene with Justin when he's cleaning up Mayer's apartment, he puts the camera down and rubs [Mayer’s] back. If you're watching that in a fiction film, it means one thing. But as soon as you’re thinking if Justin was making the choice to include that, it's a very different thing for me as a storyteller, as opposed to perhaps [me] making commentary of my own involvement in this person’s life.”

Vishner did finally commit suicide; 12 hours after dropping off his cat with writer Michael Ventura in Texas, he fulfilled the act on on August 22, 2013. The night before his death, Vishner told Ventura while smiling, “Part of me really wants to see the movie."

On reflection of that, Justin added,  “I don't know if the film could have happened if I didn't have the access to his doctors. Doctor [Shuller] really let me into the process and was also there to consult with me when I had questions about what was going on and whether my role and the film's role was helping him or hurting. And that was really important. 

“I also spent a lot of time with his psychiatrist and Meyer, filming them. In the end, he chose not to be in the film and I respected that. But it was not such a good process to watch, and there are few moments when I actually participated in the therapy. But, to go on with what Dave what saying, there's so much sadness that we filmed that you have to take this step back when you editing and try to decide how much can a viewer take. Also, how do you set somebody up who's in that state without crossing somebody out?”

Thankfully, he and Mehlman have substantial experience as the co-founders of Shadowbox Films. An Schein is known for his work on cinéma vérité films which also includes directing America Rebuilds: A Year at Ground Zero and as the cinematographer for the documentary My So-Called Enemy.

Born in New York, he attended the Bronx-based Horace Mann School, Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University where he graduated in 1990. After working for a  film company in NYC, he returned to school earning a documentary film master's degree from Stanford University where he met Mehlman who became an established film editor. For more than 20 years, he’s worked on films that have appeared on The BBC, The Discovery Channel, HBO, and PBS.

Now after this long process of creation, stressing out his wife (who gave birth over the course of the film’s creation), Schein is finally at work on something else. “I’m working on several projects right now. I made a film in ’93 about homeless kids in San Francisco. It's called Down on Polk Street and was my thesis film at grad school. It became this HBO film on Black Tar heroin that I worked on with Steven Okazaki. Anyway, I have all this amazing footage and now I’m in touch with some of the kids who are grown-ups now. i'm going back to find them, it's pretty intense…”

Yet there’s still some cleaning up to do after all that Vishner left behind. “Over the years like every decade, his friends would take his stuff and put it in boxes in this warehouse. That was the collection that he sold to the University of Michigan. When he was done, there was still a whole new round of stuff that I [saved]. Some of it was garbage, but it was like a treasure hunt. I went to the University and over the course of four days looked it up.  I looked through a hundred and seventy-five boxes, because he had 40 years of stuff, photos with John Lennon, posters, and this amazing [archive].

“After he died I [cleaned] up [his apartment.] I kept a few posters… And also I have all his t-shirts. They’re in my basement, the ones that I could clean [laughs]. I would love to give them somewhere. I wish the University of Michigan would take the t-shirts but... I guess, storing textiles is a whole other thing so they said no. I'd thought about it, but I really need to move on. I’ve done enough but hopefully that’s the last thing I have to do to close the book on this — find a place for those t-shirts.”

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