Actress Diane Keaton is probably best known as Woody Allen's persistent muse in films like Annie Hall or as the often irritatingly hesitant, insecure straightwoman in a variety of mainstream comedies like The First Wives Club and Town & Country.
But Keaton has always nurtured her own weird little intellectual garden on the side, mining pop culture ephemera and a kitschy interest in old movies, educational films, vintage news photography and film stills in a personal archaeology of America's dreams and bitter disappointments.
Like other camp and retro-archivists from musician/artist David Byrne, filmmaker David Lynch, cookbook and travel authors Jane and Michael Stern to filmmaker Errol Morris, Keaton has consistently found inspiration in the culture of the past. Her book Still Life, published in 1983, was an introduction to Keaton's retro-fixations. A collection of production and publicity photos from Hollywood's Golden Age, the book featured surreality galore, like a photo of Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan reclining poolside, guts sucked, ankles crossed, looking like creatures dipped in Polyurethane. Keaton continued an interest in some of the sinister elements underpinning normality in the 1993 photo book Mr. Salesman, a collection of images from the Jam Handy Corp. salesman training seminars, which Keaton described as "a rule book on how to lose your soul."
Last week, Keaton's 1987 directorial debut, Heaven (Image Entertainment) was released on DVD for the first time. In this documentary, Keaton interweaves clips from films like Stairway to Heaven, The Passion of Joan of Arc and Metropolis and equally quirky interviews with "real people" who are asked to speculate about the land beyond the pearly gates.
Rockabilly musicians, long-married couples, street people, permed evangelists, little kids and an elderly man ready to die all ponder the afterlife. Zooming in close to capture gold-capped teeth and beads of sweat popping out on one subject's upper lip, Keaton's camera bobs and dives with a catchy tempo. She does the same kinetic dissection on her film clips, often honing in on the telling detail while maintaining a fluid, masterful montage.
One of Keaton's wackiest inclusions has to be Mississippi evangelist and Earth-shaking Baptist orator Estus Pirkle, shown in film clips addressing his obedient congregation of subjects who sport the earthly fashion sins of plaid sports jackets, face-eating sideburns and doo-doo pile hairdos. Heaven proves that Keaton has a true subculture surfer's eye for the bizarre. Included is one of Pirkle's Christian movies using that same lumpen congregation now sporting glue-on beards, bedsheets, cardboard crowns and other heavenly regalia culled from the Halloween sale bin at Woolworth's. Alejandro Jodorowsky couldn't have dreamed up weirder material than the tiny woman in a green sequined gown and a wheelchair belting out a God-tune like nobody's business for Pirkle's enraptured audience.
Keaton allows us to enjoy the eccentricities of her subjects without necessarily making them into goofballs. Just when whimsy seems destined to run the show, Keaton takes the film splendidly off course, as couples talk about their partners and the fear of separation in death. Keaton illustrates these often-heartbreaking confessions with a montage of incredibly tender and often erotic film embraces.
In Keaton's hands, conventional movies become as revealing as her interview subjects. She succeeds at spotlighting the ridiculous without losing sight of the simple honesty of human feeling and the profound power of cinema to convey those fears and passions.