Dir: Matthew Ginsburg. US, 2002. 84 mins.
The first documentary to be produced by Kevin Spacey's Trigger Street Productions, Uncle Frank is an affectionate, touching and often hilariously funny portrait of the director's octagenarian uncle, who plays the electric piano in old people's homes. Although it deals frankly (so to speak) with problems of ageing and the approach of death, the film is in no way depressing. At its out-of-competition Berlin screening, Uncle Frank scored one of the highest guffaw-counts of the festival so far. It may even achieve some form of theatrical release, particularly in English-speaking territories. Frank's voice is so distinctive and carries so much of the humour that dubbing or subtitling would make this a lesser film.
Frank Pour lives with his wife Tillie in an unremarkable suburban house in Rome, New York. Though he had a day job as a mechanic at the local General Cable factory, Frank's real love was music. He even published a song, Patty ('I wanted to call it Patricia, but that had already been taken'). When the factory closed down, Frank bought himself an electric piano, taught himself how to play it, and started getting gigs in local old peoples' homes, entertaining the residents with a mix of old favourites and ditties of his own composition. By the time Ginsburg began documenting his uncle's life, Frank's geriatric knees-ups were taking him all over the state of New York.
Over the next two-and-a-half years, Ginsburg shot 105 hours of tape, then
edited it down to a lean 84 minutes.Pretty much the first thing Uncle Frank tells his handycam-wielding nephew is that he wants to be buried face down - "so that the rest of the world can kiss my butt'. We see Frank carting his piano from home to home, we see him flirting with his retired groupies, we see him joking at home with his wife Tillie, who is hugely jealous. Especially when she discovers that Frank shared a rug at Woodstock with three young ladies (he was there to see one of his idols, Willie Nelson). What Frank (and his nephew) don't tell Aunt Tillie is that the three young ladies had next to no clothes on. Ginsburg, though, is hardly the detached observer: he is fed sweets by old ladies, he prompts his uncle and aunt with deadpan questions, he even has to eat Tillie's dubious recipes while filming.
The first part of the film is edited for laughs. But the fear of illness and death is there just behind the badinage, and when Frank's prostate starts to play up, Tillie is on the verge of tears in her smiling jousts with her filming nephew. There is a happy ending, though; and we come out having learned some important lessons. Such as the fact that snapping turtles eat their weight in fish every day.
Prod co: Clark Street Films
Intl sales: TBA
Prods: Matthew Ginsburg, Andrew Morreale
Exec prods: Dana Brunetti, Ross Partridge, Kevin Spacey
Ed: Andrew Morreale, Pierre Takal
Music: Frank Pour
Main cast: Uncle Frank, Auntie Tillie