Burt’s Buzz (Shapiro, 2013)

I like quiet, unassuming people. If their reticent demeanor isn’t for show, and if you can get them to open up, they are usually a well of worthwhile wisdom. I love quiet, unassuming movies. They often provide a refreshing counterpoint to the summer’s cacophony of explosions. For both those reasons, I thought I would love Burt’s Buzz, the documentary profile of Burt’s Bees creator Burt Shavitz.

But the film strives so hard to model its subject that its practically not there.

We start promisingly but familiarly enough with a mob waiting to greet a celebrity at an airport. The place is Taiwan and the unlikely star is a bearded entrepreneur whose visage is the very symbol of the all-natural product line that bears his name. Then we get a flashback to six months earlier, so we are set up to expect that there will be a clever twist explaining what brought us to the place where the documentary begins en medias res.

Roger Ebert once famously opined that alternate story lines are only as interesting as they would be if presented separately. A corollary here is that a film relying on a flashback structure is only ultimately as interesting as it would be if presented in a chronological order. It can create some mystery by withholding information, sure, but if  audiences are not genuinely engaged–if they are only sticking around for the revelation–chances are they are feeling idle curiosity rather than real interest.

That’s not to say Shavitz isn’t an interesting cat, because he is. The interviews with him might make for a good news magazine profile, but stretched over ninety minutes, they begin to sound a little like affectation.

Something else about the documentary raised red flags. Three years ago, I was over the moon about another profile, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, despite the fact that it briefly alluded to personal issues of the protagonist that might complicate an otherwise favorable portrait. That film mentioned some strain in itts protagonist’s marriage and strangely brushed over the puppeteer’s relationship with his own child. At the time, my enthusiasm for the portrait being painted helped me barrel past the red flags that were, in retrospect, easier to see when additional information about its subject made the news.

Burt’s Buzz is similarly fuzzy when it comes to explaining Shavitz’s exile from the company he founded. We are told that Roxanne Quimby (who appears only through archival footage), threatened to take Shavitz the court. The words “sexual harassment” are mumbled, and Shavitz himself claims he was not a willing participant in the buy out that eventually excluded him from a share of the profits when Burt’s Bees was sold to Clorox. Perhaps Shavitz did nothing wrong and Quimby is the opportunist preying on an aw-shucks, New England, can-do guy. The film certainly invites us to think so by juxtaposing her evasive statements regarding Burt’s disinterest in the business with Shavitz’s own denials. But, tellingly (for me, anyway), Shavitz declines to provide any details for his side of the story, simply intimating that he was forced out against his will without offering an alternative narrative of his own.

In the end, Shavitz agreed to be a spokesman for the product line, explaining his trip to Taiwan. The film thus explains why he made a trip to a foreign land, but it declines to press him for answers to tough questions and leaves us to draw our own conclusions with too little information.

Burt’s Buzz is playing theatrically in selected cities, but it is also available simultaneously via VOD from FilmBuff.

 

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