By Elias Savada.
A raw journey into immersive filmmaking, asking for a wide berth when it comes to social ethics.”
With over half-a-million homeless people in the United States today, most folks treat them as a plague. Some toss a few coins or dollars their way when they’re panhandling at a street corner; others pass them by with nary a nod of acknowledgement. About a dozen and a half years ago, John Dentino, a filmmaker and recovering alcoholic, took a much more determined approach.
Patty Looper had been through the ringer. Her face creased with ravine-deep wrinkles and her dental work in need of major repair, the years had not been kind to her. After deserting her family 25 years earlier – blame within the family would be tossed about like dressing on a salad – Dentino befriends the barely remorseful 55-yearold mother at an AA meeting. She agrees to his charity for the price of filming her story. For Dentino, the price of airfare back to her home in Mississippi – to her now grown kids, Darrell and Dee Ann, and her sister Barbara – would be just a drop in a drunkard’s bucket for the multi-year effort that became this film.
For I Know My Weakness is a raw journey into immersive filmmaking, asking for a wide berth when it comes to social ethics when Dentino begins his film in Los Angeles’ Skid Row. Unwilling or unable to deal with the abuses that grew out of her poor choices in men, Patty had hopped a freight train for points unknown, leaving behind two young children. Dentino feels Patti’s journey of potential redemption needs a larger audience. Not everyone will agree.
This obscure 83-minute cinema verité documentary, shown at a few film festivals back in 2012 and 2013, has recently become available online (Amazon Prime for $1.99 rental, free – with ads – on Tubi). Even as a decade-old time capsule (flip phones!), its urgency works today as well as it might have for a wider audience – if it earned one at all – back then. There are no heroes around, just a continuous flow of detritus that follows in Patty’s wake. For all the talk of God and the Bible, there’s not much that’s heavenly here.
Darrell and Barbara agree to the reunion; Dee Ann, who was only 5 when her mom scooted out in the middle of the night, not so much. She relents during the second half of the film. Darrell insists, while drolly postering for the camera, that he’s “chaining (Patty) up.… you ain’t getting away this time.” He’s had his own share of run-ins with the law, and his half-hearted, born-again philosophy doesn’t seem terribly honest.
Nasty recriminations erupt on and off screen as the reunion begins to wear itself out. A year goes by – the film does a lot of start and stops – and Patty’s flown the coop to Tulsa, one of her old haunting grounds, with $40 and no place to stay. Dentino, who must be regretting some of his life choices to make this film, helps her through this, perhaps too involved with his subject’s mental and alcohol problems. And, yes, the kids are not alright. They have their own baggage.
The filmmaker-amateur family counselor (it’s hard to call him a director, and he does take sole “writing” credit) admits in taking some responsibility for what’s happening. He’s the strict parent; she’s the petulant child. Ever intrusive, it’s easy to see why various members of the family are as pissed at Dentino as they are at each other. Only late in the film will you find out the filmmaker’s motives behind this weird cinematic excursion.
Dentino keeps the camera close (co-credited with Erik Diener and Frank Nollinger, deserving battle pay) to his subjects, observant of the events within Patty’s family, and even has a glimpse of his own. He often pops up on screen and on the soundtrack to give texture. Dentino and Diener also editing this beast together. Dentino also composed the score.
The title is from part of a poem by American missionary Howard Arnold Walter, and the words were later used as alternate lyrics for the tune Londonderry Air. Most folks probably remember it as one of the songs sung at Princess Diana’s funeral:
I would be friend of all, the foe, the friendless
I would be giving, and forget the gift
I would be humble, for I know my weakness
I would look up, laugh, love and live
Patty’s road is paved with boulders, and there’s no getting over them. Dentino wonders if he’s not on a journey of discovery but on a road to hell.
For I Know My Weakness is a dragged-out tale that ultimately takes everyone down. For They Know Their Weaknesses.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).