Watching documentaries on Netflix can be engaging yet frustrating. On a single afternoon I watched a 2009 Discovery Channel documentary, called The Science Of Sex Appeal, which offered insights into the whys and wherefores of its titular subject matter, then watched a 2008 theatrical documentary film, Phyllis And Harold, which was the epitome of the noxious brand of film I call the vanity documentary, wherein a filmmaker makes a film about themselves or someone they know, of little import to anyone outside of whom they know, and try to propound it is artistically or culturally significant.
The Science Of Sex Appeal, which runs 87 minutes, takes a scientific look at what attracts human beings to one another. Well, if you are young, fairly attractive, and heterosexual, for that’s the only sorts of people the film deals with. Nonetheless, it’s a good look at a plenum of subjects, showing a number of tests and discoveries made in the field, from the universal appeal of the golden ratio and bodily symmetry, to subtle hormonal changes in female bodies during menstruation, which can alter appearances and chemically change a male’s scent from repulsive to attractive. It also states much of what is already known, such as masculine looks appealing more to women than feminine ones, in males, deeper voices connoting more testosterone, and the fact that flirting is basically role playing to advertise the health of one’s genes for a potential partner to survey.
The film also follows the search for human pheromones and traces the way the brain neuro-chemically reacts when in lust, in love, and when in a long term monogamous relationship. There are talking head segments with assorted couples pontificating or babbling on about why their beloved (seated next to them) is such a prize, but the most interesting segments were those with individuals of both sexes pairing up with members of the opposite sex, and seeing how those the opposite sex considered most to least attractive, usually paired up with those fairly close to them in physical attractiveness, on a scale of 1-10. Of course, this is well known, as one often sees two ugly or fat people paired, but rarely does one see a George Clooney clone dating a Roseanne Barr doppelganger, nor a Gwyneth Paltrow twin married to an ugly guy.
Except for when things like status and wealth are factored in, and again the film reiterates well known tendencies: women value long term prospects while men shoot for one night stands. Yet, the film falls a bit short in its explanation for why exceptions exist. As example, I am an average looking guy, and have been so all my life. I am not going to make woman swoon, nor repel them. Thus, other factors come in to play, such as my much higher success rate with women in the arts scenes I used to traffic in, because, in that milieu, what made me a ‘catch’ was not my looks, pro nor con, but my great a talent and ability as an artist; and it’s this currency which needs deeper exploration in the science of sex appeal.
Sometimes, though, deeper exploration is not needed, and even borders on the emotionally pornographic. Such was my reaction to the 84 minute long Phyllis And Harold, a vanity documentary from Cindy Kleine, wife of playwright and writer Andre Gregory, of My Dinner With Andre fame. This film follows the 59 year old marriage of the titular couple, who were the parents of the filmmaker, in its final years before the death of Harold, then Phyllis. They were a rich Jewish suburban couple. He a successful dentist who was often aloof and controlling, although also loving, protective, and seemingly devoted, while she was a JAP (Jewish American Princess) who denigrated her husband behind his back, raised their two daughters to emulate her (even though she fobbed off their upbringing almost solely on a black nanny named Annie), and betray their father by helping her reignite a decades forgotten affair she had with a former boss of hers, when she is in her seventies. That both daughters, the filmmaker and the older sister Ricky, help Phyllis cheat on their father is really one of the more disgusting things I’ve ever seen on film. It’s emotional pornography and far, far more tasteless than any sexual-based porno I’ve ever seen.
That stated, it is an effective film, if its aim is to show how Cindy Kleine aimed to get vengeance at her parents for seemingly not caring for her as much as she claims to have been due, for, at its end, viewers will pity poor Harold- who seems to have lived an entirely different marriage than Phyllis did, for he clearly loves her and has a good sense of humor. They will think Phyllis is a self-centered, none too bright, self-pitying, attention seeking narcissist and drama queen; and the best evidence of this comes when she is asked what to do with Harold’s cremains, and she has to be reminded what he wanted, and that the decision is not about her. But Kleine will come off the worst- a spoiled little rich girl who repulses viewers by being exploitive, hiding her mother’s affair from her father, as she allowed him to continue to believe his wife was good and faithful, thus participating in her mother’s deceit, and pathologically enabling it- along with her sister, and even met the lover, claimed he was a good guy, then trots out that most vapid of clichés- that her mother was somehow ‘courageous’ to cheat on her father. Something tells me that were the roles reversed and she had found out her father had cheated on her mother, Kleine would have condemned him, called him a liar and coward, and would have exposed the affair. She certainly never would have aided him in reigniting the affair. Kleine comes off as a smug, clueless hypocrite.
But, who, outside the family, really cares? These sorts of sordid affairs are commonplace. They were when the Kleines were first married and are now. Is there anything Phyllis’s faithlessness or Harold’s cluelessness teaches the viewer? No. But, as a portrait of a pitiable human being (Phyllis, not Kleine) it is effective. Phyllis talks of no one but herself and her life’s misery for having….drum roll….married the wrong man; even as we find out the lover is a louse who has a wife and kids, is clearly a manipulator, and, when Harold finally dies, never calls Phyllis again, even though, for the first time in half a century, he could have the woman he claims to love so deeply all for himself. We then watch Phyllis get her due, after Harold chokes to death on a lamp chop. She abandons her house, moves to an assisted living apartment, starts enjoying life, sans the burdensome Harold, only to suffer a series of falls and bone breakages, then end up bedridden, and losing her mind. Yet, in the film’s most telling moment, we find out which man really meant the most to her, when Kleine tells us Phyllis forgot her lover’s name and person entirely, while, of her husband, she is said to have said that ‘he was the man who showed her the world.’ This is a profoundly sad moment, as I pitied poor bedbound Phyllis, dying of pneumonia, who reminded me of my own mother’s struggles in her last few weeks of life. Yet, I also thought it showed how shallow a shell of a human being she always was. The lover who ‘excited’ her was not even recalled, while the man who provided for her, is only recalled for what he was able to give her. A more appropriate title for the film might have been All About Phyllis.
Or, It Should Be All About Cindy, for the film, like most vanity docs, is poorly filmed, poorly edited, poorly scored, and quite amateurishly done. The worst offense is how Kleine almost always feels a need to insert herself into the documentary by visual or aural means. Some of the more pointless parts of the film are Kleine’s trip to visit her old nanny and when she whines about first finding out of her mother’s lover when she first had a boyfriend- accusing Phyllis of undercutting ‘her moment.’ The apple does not fall far from the tree, indeed. Then there is Kleine’s abysmal narration, which tells far to much of far too little about things no one will care of. Without Kleine’s having her celebrity husband as producer, would this film have even gotten made, much less distributed?
I doubt it, for, as mentioned, this stuff is commonplace, however sad. Yes, at some level, the viewer can intuit that Phyllis had deep psychological problems, and spent most of her life convincing herself her great life and husband were not so good, even as most women would kill for the life she led, even as, ultimately, as mentioned above, she likely loved Harold more than she could comprehend, more than her lover, but was unable to show it, for they stayed together long after romantic love’s fade, even if Phyllis demeaned herself and her marriage in the process. Kleine, however, likely hated both her parents, for there is no other reason for this total exploitation of their lives, deaths, and failures, as nothing of depth is revealed in this shallow faux exploration of human mating.
Phyllis And Harold, however, is a not too well told tale of two painfully average and unimportant people whose lives and deaths teach a viewer nothing. It is not the worst vanity documentary I’ve seen, but it may be the most pointless and disgusting. Fortunately, The Science Of Sex Appeal fares better, as a film and exploration of its subject. It I can recommend. Phyllis And Harold is strictly for the pretentious, dour, and masochistic.