What begins as a traditional examination of the life and times of anti-war activist Mayer Vishner soon evolves into a deeper look into depression, loneliness and being caught in a forever changing world.
“I know my filming is impacting your life,” confesses co-director Justin Schein to Mayer Vishner as they sit in the former Yippie’s dilapidated apartment on MacDougal Street. Schein refers to this impact as the “Heisenberg principle,” wherein the documentarian influences the subject and vice versa. But what Schein is really exhibiting is the “observer effect,” a term commonly confused with the Heisenberg principle due to its similarities in definition. It is a physics paradigm theorizing that certain aspects of a system cannot be changed unless other parts are changed as well—a quality that is most certainly employed in the system that is the relationship that Schein builds with Vishner in his touchingly poignant award-winning documentary Left on Purpose.
Justin Schein (who acts as the director of photography) and David Mehlman (who is the editor) start their documentary by chronicling one of the more influential members of the Yippies, Mayer Vishner. Belonging to an anti-war activist organization that reigned during the 1960s and ‘70s, Vishner was influential in organizing many of the most memorable protests of the tumultuous two decades. Using archival footage, interviews and stills of newspaper clippings and photographs, Schein and Mehlman attempt to celebrate the life of Mayer Vishner, who had spent most of his life trying to help others take their lives into their hands and voice their opinions.
But what soon begins to emerge is a somber look into Vishner’s present-day circumstances, one that is filled with misery, alcohol abuse, depression, sadness, seclusion, anxiety and hopelessness. Halfway through the film, Vishner decides he has one more political act left to perform—suicide. Struck down by doctors and therapists to help him end his life, he decides that the only way to do so is through his own accord, something that Vishner sees as a strong proclamation of his right to free will, volition and agency.
Soon, the lives of both Vishner and Schein life begin intertwining significantly, with one coming to influence the other in many unimaginable and yet tender ways. Schein introduces Vishner to his family, he comes with the aging hippie to his brother’s wedding in Berkeley and he even helps Vishner clean up his apartment after one of his unsuccessful suicide attempts. Schein realizes early in his film that he now has an obligation to be directly involved in his movie, and thus in his subject, for how could he not be? After all, Vishner most certainly needed his help and perhaps at that point, Schein stopped questioning his duties as a filmmaker and instead began taking on the responsibilities of a friend. A friend that Vishner found too little too late.
Vishner is at times in an abhorrently depressed state, seldom leaving his rundown apartment save for the occasional visit to his local garden, his friend in the Bronx or to the local deli for another 40-ounce bottle of beer. Nonetheless, the former Yippie occasionally exhibits a jubilant aura that shines through his dark psychological shroud, that suggests that there is a level of apprehension regarding his suicidal thoughts. Unfortunately, this sense of contentment only appears to be a façade. Schein had inserted himself into the system that is Vishner’s life, coming to influence his just as he had Schein’s. “It’s very difficult to convey just how different I am when I’m out with people—especially with you—than when I’m alone at home days at a time,” admits Vishner.
No matter how much of an observer effect the two instilled in one another, it seemed that the physics theorem does not come into play with humans as much as one might think. While Schein most certainly effected Vishner’s desire—or maybe hesitation—to commit suicide, it seems that it was a futile act that was doing nothing more than putting off the inevitable. “I’m in a lot of pain and I have to do something about it sooner rather than later,” reveals the anguished Vishner.
The touching direction by both Schein and Mehlman leaves one heartbroken and teary-eyed and yet inspired and intrigued. With sharply adept editing, Mehlman ensures that the heart-wrenching subject matter never strays from the humanist to the morbid or insensitive. The directors’ handle the subject by meandering beautifully between its original thesis and its eventual dark outcome. And yet the ethical questions regarding Schein and Mehlman’s influence on Vishner’s life persist. On one hand, did their presence in Vishner’s life give the MacDougal Street native a new reason to live? Or perhaps it did the opposite, driving the lonely, depressed hippie over-the-edge and finally into his premeditated grave.
These are moralist dilemmas that are difficult to answer and ones that may never fully be understood as they should. Perhaps some might see it as unethical that Schein had inserted himself so deeply into Vishner’s teetering life. Perhaps it was manipulative to rely on editing and narrative techniques to instill intrigue and inquiry on the part of the viewer on what appears on paper to be a rather macabre matter.
The film eventually becomes just as much of a reflection on the filmmakers as it does on Vishner’s life. The famed documentarian Errol Morris once wrote that “there’s no reason why documentaries can’t be as personal as fiction filmmaking and bear the imprint of those who made them. Truth isn’t guaranteed by style or expression. It isn’t guaranteed by anything.” Therefore, maybe Schein and Mehlman did more than just make a documentary. Maybe they painted a portrait of themselves through the life of Vishner by helping him in any way they could. Maybe they provided Vishner with one more seeming usefulness—a usefulness that he perhaps understood to be his last one. Unfortunately, we may never know the true extent of the observer effect in this relationship. But in this growingly insane world, maybe we shouldn’t try.
Check the film out for yourself come February 10 On Demand and at the Cinema Village Theater in New York