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A Letter to True, the meandering new documentary
by Bruce Weber (who made Let’s Get Lost, the great 1988 film about Chet
Baker), is addressed to the youngest of the photographer-filmmaker’s five golden
retrievers. The pack, who live like kings, bounces between the New York and
Florida homes of Weber and his 30-year companion, Nan Bush. Because “sometimes
he is the only one who will listen to me,” Weber is writing True a long
letter, and assembling for him this hodgepodge film collage of the people and
things that have meaning to the artist, among them: Vietnam War photographer
Larry Burrows, who literally gave his life for his art; poetry by Rilke and
Spender (read aloud by Julie Christie and Marianne Faithful); Kelly, a good-natured
redneck mom sporting in the mud ponds with her puppyish brood of military-aged
kids; and, most effectively, the lifelong friendship of actors Elizabeth Taylor
and Dirk Bogarde, two popular icons who lived wild but always took care of their
dogs.

Weber clearly reveres Bogarde, who may have provided a role model
for how to enjoy a fabled, luxurious life without losing your soul. In fading
home movies, Bogarde is seen with his 50-year life partner, Anthony Forwood,
and their Welsh corgi, entertaining Ava Gardner and Jean Simmons poolside. While
Weber’s voice-over throughout the film often strains for profundity on subjects
such as 9/11 and the Iraq War, he’s concise and on point in relating Bogarde
and Forwood’s love story, and their simultaneous fatal illnesses, capping with
Bogarde’s typically wry deathbed comment to his lover, “Well, this has
become a bloody mess.”

A golden nugget to be sure, as is the use, at the film’s opening
and close, of two long, disconcertingly moving clips from The Courage of
Lassie,
a forgotten, utterly unhip 1946 tearjerker starring a 14-year-old
Taylor. In the movie, Frank Morgan, forever famous as the man behind the curtain
in The Wizard of Oz, tells young Kathie (Taylor) that her dog worships
her as she does God, an analogy that may not occur to every dog owner (including
this one) but seems inarguable when the god in question is as transplendent
as the young Taylor.

Far less endearing is Weber’s inclusion of a long audio selection
from Martin Luther King’s sermon “A Preacher Leading His Flock,” set
against seminal photos from the civil rights era, such as those of Montgomery,
Alabama, children being hosed by police. The words are as stunning as ever,
but including them alongside footage of handsome Australian surfers and luxury-laden
movie stars is not only infuriating but downright insane. It’s also rather sad,
leaving one with the sense of a gifted popular artist on a quest for another
kind of credibility.

In the end, Weber returns, wisely, to Elizabeth and Lassie. Up
again comes reliable Frank Morgan, in a scene where he’s shaming a packed courtroom
of citizens lobbying to euthanize the collie “Bill” — who, it turns
out, is Lassie, just returned from World War II, where he helped the good guys
execute a secret mission that took place on . . . September 11. You can’t help
but shiver at the coincidence of dates, but what really gets you is the scene
that comes immediately after, when a newly freed Lassie glides onscreen and
begins licking the face of a weeping, disconsolate Taylor, a human who appears
to need her dog a lot more than he needs her, not a profound insight in the
grand scheme of things, but a rather sweet one nonetheless.

A LETTER TO TRUE | Written and directed by BRUCE WEBER
| Produced by NAN BUSH | Released by Zeitgeist Films | At the Nuart