Clerks director Kevin Smith once wrote, “It feels like every year at this time, someone ‘discovers’ that Harvey Weinstein is a tough businessman with a temper as large and legendary as his passion for cinema. Whoa. Stop the presses.” In 1998, that someone was Troy Duffy. The New England native was 25 when he was tapped by Weinstein as the next Great American Independent Filmmaker; he was 26 when the Miramax co-founder decided to stop returning his calls. But because Duffy, the subject of Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith’s quick-rise-and-long-fall documentary Overnight, is such an unbelievable prick, it’s arguable whether even the schadenfreude offered by his undoing is enough to make watching the guy’s story satisfying.
Mercifully, at least, it’s short. But it won’t be long into Overnight’s 82-minute runtime before you start rooting for Duffy’s failure. In 1997, the aspiring director was tending bar in Los Angeles when his script, The Boondock Saints, was bought by Miramax for a “high six figures.” Not only did Weinstein agree to make the movie, he also decided to let Duffy direct, have casting approval, and supply the soundtrack with his unsigned rock band, the Brood. For good measure, Weinstein also threw in ownership of J. Sloan’s, the bar where Duffy had been working.
Duffy’s Cinderella deal made him the toast of the tabloids, with Variety and other entertainment rags quick to grant him next-big-thing status. As Duffy, a bearded Kevin Smith look-alike, proudly points out his headlines or gleefully moves into his production office, he’s initially likable, apparently a decent and hardworking, if occasionally misguided, blue-collar boy. He insists on including his brothers and bandmates in the deal, and he seems appreciative to have been recognized. Or maybe not: Between chain-smokes and expletives, Duffy boasts, “If you got the goods, you got the goods—no matter how much of a fuckup you are.”
It turns out, though, that Duffy much preferred to talk about the goods than to deliver them, which shifted Montana and Smith’s project from a making-of doc to a caught-on-film train wreck. The filmmakers are there from the signing of the deal until 2000, when most of his partners are working construction jobs and Duffy is far from the superstar he’d imagined himself becoming. Besides a tangential, gee-whiz look at Duffy’s flood-ravaged apartment, the narrative is simple and relentless: success, failure, failure, failure.
Montana and Smith never actually give us the Weinstein view, but it’s not hard to guess what colored it: Duffy’s mouth, which is giant, hateful, and never-shutting. The man’s logorrheic megalomania runs uncensored throughout Overnight, souring the deal with Miramax (which he insists will “pay dearly”), scotching a contract with a record label that was going to sign the Brood sound-unheard (which Duffy then accuses of being “scared of me”), and dissolving the goodwill of Duffy’s bandmates, to whom he refuses to give any money until he’s good and ready (“‘This is a band—we all did this,’” Duffy sneers. “Did we all do this? I don’t think so”). After this no-name is shown itching to play hardball with the William Morris Agency and calling Jerry Bruckheimer an idiot—OK, that’s forgivable—it’s clear that “Hollywood’s new hard-on” doesn’t have an inch of sense.
As deals continue to fall through and Duffy gets increasingly unhinged, Overnight skirts Some Kind of Monster territory, with Duffy’s associates sometimes defending him but more often expressing their misery. The Boondock Saints eventually does get made for another studio, starring, unfathomably, Willem Dafoe and Billy Connolly (both of whom supply some welcome humor by taking shots at their asshole boss), and the Brood, now renamed the Boondock Saints, even manages to put out a record (total sales: 690 copies).
Though each project fizzles pathetically, the directors’ attempt to make Overnight a cautionary tale never quite succeeds. It’s impossible to relate to Duffy, or to imagine that sudden success could go so wickedly to one’s head. And because Montana and Smith never really take us out of Duffy’s world—agent, distributor, and family-member interviews are fleeting and uninsightful—the result is more psychological torture than psychological portrait. Overnight’s resounding—and ultimately insignificant—message is only this, spoken by one of Duffy’s cohorts: “Why am I doing business with this man?”
Whereas Overnight provides a bitter example of humanity, there’s enough goodness in Paper Clips to make your teeth hurt. And though cynics may find salt-of-the-earth saintliness and disenfranchised demonic self-possession equally distasteful, this documentary about a backwoods school’s unusual history project, despite itself, does exactly what it sets out to: move you to tears.
Paper Clips tells the story of a middle school in Whitwell, Tenn., a “poor but not depressed” town of 1,600 with two traffic lights and almost zero diversity. Principal Linda Hooper, noting that her student body contains five African-Americans, one Hispanic, and no Jews or Catholics, admits that when the people of Whitwell meet someone different from them, “we don’t have a clue.” What the school has long needed, she says, is a way to teach the kids that, outside of their Mayberry borders, “not everybody is white and Protestant.”
In 1998, she and Assistant Principal David Smith decided to introduce an intensive study on the Holocaust into the curriculum, reasoning that it would both expose the students to another religion and different nationalities and teach them the consequences of intolerance. When one student responded to the statistic that 6 million Jews were killed during the period by asking, “What is 6 million? I’ve never seen 6 million,” the administration suggested that the kids figure out an object they could collect 6 million of to help them visualize the enormity of the genocide. Once the students learned that the citizens of Norway, where the paper clip was invented, had worn the lowly bit of hardware as a symbol of patriotism and Nazi resistance, the after-school project was born: With the help of Hooper, Smith, and eighth-grade teacher Sandra Roberts, volunteers began sending out letters to organizations and famous folks (including Tom Hanks, Bill Cosby, and the George Bushes) to ask for paper-clip donations.
Somewhat haphazardly directed by Elliot Berlin and Joe Fab, Paper Clips consists mostly of interviews with the school’s administrators and students and footage of these tirelessly sunny Southerners as they meticulously catalog their booty—which, for the first few years, came in waves so unremarkable that Roberts determined it would take them 10 years to reach their goal. After the project caught the attention of NBC Nightly News and the Washington Post in 2001, however, things changed, leading to a chain of events that culminated in Whitwell’s acquiring its biggest piece of hometown pride, a German rail car formerly used to transport Jews that was turned into the Children’s Holocaust Museum.
Similarly, it’s only the final third of Paper Clips that makes the project seem worthy of celluloid instead of the news blurbs that it had already garnered. Berlin and Fab embellish the film with constantly swelling strings as both the student and adult volunteers talk about what they’ve learned, predominantly about not stereotyping and recognizing that others may be less fortunate. That’s nice, but, well, who really cares? Kids learn to look outside of their own isolated little worlds every day, courtesy of millions of educators whose creativity is just as remarkable as the Whitwell bunch’s. As the project’s collection soars—at the end of the film, more than 29 million paper clips have been collected—the boxes of clips and volumes of books recording every donor’s contribution simply seem like a colossal waste of time, space, and office supplies.
But then Berlin and Fab inject a dose of much-needed reality: The school invites Holocaust survivors to speak to the community, and the episode is devastating. As a series of elderly, heavily accented men and women tell of their personal experience—one man chokingly tells of asking a guard what happened to his mother and brother, only to see him point to the smoke in the sky—the project suddenly takes on a poignancy that moves it beyond mere homework. The survivors are grateful that their trauma is still being remembered, and remind their listeners that in not too many more years, people will be no longer able to hear their accounts firsthand. As one notes, “There’s not enough paper in the whole world and not enough pens to write down what we went through.”
From this point until its finale, Paper Clips argues that although the resulting Children’s Holocaust Museum, which houses 6 million paper clips for the deceased Jews as well as 5 million for other Holocaust dead, may not rival other memorials in size or sophistication—or, for that matter, the resonance of Berlin and Fab’s most unflinching footage—it’s still valued by those whom the tragedy has personally touched. “If we have accomplished nothing else,” Hooper summarizes, “we have helped these people find a resting place.” Of course, memorials, like documentaries, are also for the rest of us. And in that respect, Paper Clips is marginally more successful than its subject: For a few minutes, at least, it connects past and present in a way you won’t soon forget.CP