Midway through the new HBO documentary Bright Lights, after a near overdose of saccharine nostalgia, Carrie Fisher goes to London to begin rehearsals on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. She’s taping an interview for this documentary and gets a visit—you can’t help but wonder if it was planned—from longtime friend and American Werewolf in London star Griffin Dunne. They have a wistful moment, singing a song to each other at the foot of the stairs of the house where she’s staying.
It’s canned and cringy because we’ve seen Fisher do this two or three times already with mother Debbie Reynolds and because watching Hollywood royalty have a wistful moment—in front of and for the benefit of a camera crew—is inherently canned and cringy. These two have spent enough of their lives on camera that they’re naturals at playing natural.
And then, for the first time in the film, the blinders come off.
Dunne recalls that they were in London together many years ago, when Dunne platonically relieved Fisher of her virginity so she could sleep with her then-boyfriend sans hymen. Fisher recounts that her mother had offered to get her laid “with this guy Albert,” Fisher says. “She would supervise Albert and I having sex. For some reason, she had some tips on that.” And then, recalling her earliest education in the male anatomy, Fisher demonstrates her naked stepfather getting out of bed. “And here comes Dumbo,” she says bending over, waiving her hand behind her, “this angry slather of balls.”
There’s so much Carrie Fisher in that scene—the Hollyweird childhood, the punchy and revealing sense of humor, the evolved awareness of her own history—that is trapped under the layers of nostalgia that come before and after. It’s a candid, insightful moment, but Bright Lights strikes me overall as the wrong film at the wrong time. The nostalgia porn of archival footage overpowers the more elegiac near present. There’s a lot of family footage of kids jumping in the pool and running around the house in the Ozzie and Harriet 1950s, and every pass is another packet of Splenda.
Like Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” Bright Lights points backward to a warmth and certainty that wasn’t as warm or certain as we’d like to remember.
That’s not the majority view. The film has had overwhelmingly positive reviews this week as a timely and intimate documentary about the relationship between two complicated, damaged and reflective Hollywood icons. The film is those things, and it doesn’t downplay the the problems that Reynolds and Fisher had in their own lives or the problems they caused for each other. But those recountings come almost entirely in contrast to what you see on screen. Reynolds tells you that Fisher was a manic-depressive kid who was chased around by paparazzi when she was 13 years old, but Fisher frolicking on the beach at that age and stopping to wave to the camera suggests something wholly different.
Much of Bright Lights is given to that nostalgic longing. There are scenes of Debbie Reynolds singing over her own film clips; Carrie Fisher signing autographs at a charity event; and son/brother Todd Fisher, who manages his mother’s memorabilia collection, telling his parents’ life stories through the chronologically placed movie posters on his living room wall. Even Todd Fisher’s wife, Catherine Hickland, lives in her own past: She did a three-episode arc on Knight Rider in the 1980s and was married to David Hasselhoff, so Bright Lights includes footage of her talking KITT replica.
As to the timing, Bright Lights suffers from Reynolds and Fisher having died just weeks ago and from 2016 being such a shitshow. We lost a lot of especially beloved celebrities last year, and the shock of the election left half the country—slightly more than half, if you want to get technical about it—in a fugue state that isn’t over yet and may not be for a while. Of course, the harmless nostalgia of Bright Lights is of a different sort and magnitude than Donald Trump’s propagandizing "Make America Great Again” campaign, but both point backward to a warmth and certainty that wasn’t as warm or certain as we’d like to remember.
It’s too early to know what kind of impact 2016 will have on film and television in the new year, but I’m ready for the future.