A bonfire of documentary ethics, “Left on Purpose” combines two nonfiction subgenres. The first is the embed-with-a-hoarder movie (“Grey Gardens,” the recent “Almost There”), in which the camera follows a disheveled subject who has partly withdrawn from society and lives in a clutter-filled home.
In the second, the documentary itself functions as a sort of final testament (“Farewell to Hollywood”). Here, a man tells his friends, including this film’s director, Justin Schein, that he plans to commit suicide.
The man is Mayer Vishner, at various times an activist with the Youth International Party (better known as the Yippies), a managing editor of LA Weekly and a tender of LaGuardia Corner Gardens in Greenwich Village. He sees ending his life as an extension of his longtime advocacy for individual agency. (“As my friend, you have to participate in this political act,” he tells a member of his circle.)
But alcoholism complicates this stance. The movie opens with Mr. Schein delivering beer to Mr. Vishner and noting how troublesome it is for him to become an enabler. As a doctor later notes, the continued film project is at once a lifeline for Mr. Vishner and a source of pressure for him to act. (“Not being able to see the movie is one of my few regrets,” Mr. Vishner tells Mr. Schein in what appears to be their last meeting. Mr. Vishner killed himself in 2013 at 64. Some friends and the filmmaker are shown finding the body.)
Arguments over whether the documentary’s existence honors Mr. Vishner’s wishes and spirit — and whether continuing to film was appropriate — lead in circles. (In fairness, he is shown getting medical care, and Mr. Schein becomes a helpful presence in his life.) But tickets can’t come with enough steel wool.
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