It’s very telling that this documentary begins with Dunne telling a story about his relationship with Frank Sinatra. The story in and of itself is kind of funny, but it tells more about Sinatra than it does Dominick Dunne, and that speaks to not only to the main problem with this documentary, but with how we perceive Dunne’s life: he’s a bit player in his own story.
For me Dominick Dunne represents our obsession in the United States over celebrity. Not celebrities, per se, but the concept of celebrity. Once upon a time celebrities were people that became famous because they could do something better than ninety-nine percent of the population, whether it’s writing, singing, hitting a baseball, etc. But now people are celebrities, well, just because they’re rich. The concept has devoured the reality in this case, producing a group of culture that’s obsessed with being seen.
And Dunne has been at the center of this culture for a long, long time. When he was a young man he worked as a producer, but spent most of his time throwing elaborate parties and generally basking in the reflected glow of his celebrity friends. Then later, after a painful divorce and the failure of his producing career, he took up writing at the age of fifty, and following the adage “write what you know” he wrote about celebrities, eventually landing the job as the writer for Vanity Fair. And after the death of his daughter, Dominique Dunne, and his subsequent rage over the outcome of her murderer’s trial, Dunne became a champion for victim’s rights and focused his prodigious writing talents on covering the trials of the rich and famous.
The majority of Dunne’s life has revolved in some way or another around the cult of celebrity. His fame and livelihood comes from his association with famous people, and the only thing that elevates him above the likes of TMZ, other than his writing skills, is his sense of journalistic integrity. His conviction that the rich and famous be subject to the same laws and same ideals of justice as everyone else has fueled his career, making more than a few enemies along the way.
All of this should make for a fascinating documentary, but what we get instead is a plodding, somewhat aimless trip through Dunne’s life, told almost exclusively by the man himself. All of the elements are here to make a fine production, but the film is hampered by some basic flaws that make this almost excruciatingly boring to watch.
Like any other film, a documentary needs some kind of narrative to hold it together. After the Party attempts to do this by juxtaposing Dunne’s following of the Phil Spector trial with him reminiscing about his past. The idea is that this is the writer’s final piece before retiring, but that gets forgotten pretty quickly in the midst of him reliving his past. And to make matters worse, there really isn’t a strong narrative to his life’s story, either. Each chapter of his life is presented almost as a separate reality; there’s no sense of buildup from one event to the next, no sense that these moments lead to who Dunne will become.
Now I understand that life doesn’t work out that way. Not every experience leads to the person you eventually become. Randomness is a fact of life, but not a fact of stories. Stories are built around causality and synchronicity. I think this is one of the reasons why we as a species feel compelled to tell them, because, in a way, they provide the myth that life does have a purpose. Things don’t just happen in stories—at least not good ones—but this documentary doesn’t seem to understand that. It’s a series of reminiscences that lead to nothing. I find it very hard to believe that After the Party was an official selection at the Melbourne International Film Festival, the Hampton’s International Film Festival, and the Sheffield Doc/Fest. If I had to say why it’s landed so many kudos, I’d blame it on that cult of celebrity. Dunne has built his own celebrity through his books and his articles for Vanity Fair, but he also benefits from the reflected glow of all the celebrities he’s been around for so much of his life. There’s a mystique about him; he walks through the halls of the rich and famous without technically being either, and works almost like an ambassador between that golden realm and ours. And the odd thing about it all is that he has the life story to make for a great documentary. Maybe next time it could be made by better documentarians.
The documentary was shown in 16:9 widescreen with the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo for audio. There were no problems with either the audio or the video.
Dominick Dishes the Dirt: Deleted Scenes – The deleted scenes are categorized into five sections: On Writing (18:58); Personal Matters (32:19); Celebrity (35:17); the Justice System (20:55); and Behind the Scenes (2:59). They really don’t add anything to the overall documentary, and there are so many deleted scenes here that it’s really not worth the hour and thirty some-odd minutes to watch them all.
Excerpt from Book “Too Much Money – This has to be accessed via the internet as a .pdf file. I found the writing style to be good, but the story really didn’t catch me.
Exclusive Home Video (16:01) – I don’t think there’s a way to say this without sounding snarky, but I don’t like watching home movies that I’m in, much less home movies starring people I don’t know.
Rare Photos (8:09) – This is an eight minute slideshow with no music to make it interesting.
Theatrical Trailer (3:08)
This whole documentary was disappointing on pretty much every level. The lack of a strong narrative structure makes the documentary slow and boring, and the extra features are just tedious. Considering the great reviews and recognition it’s received, I wonder what others are seeing that I’m not. Whatever it is, I’m not rewatching it to find out. Not recommended.
Mercury Media presents Dominick Dunne: After the Party Collector’s Edition. Directed by Kirsty de Garis and Timothy Jolley. Starring Dominick Dunne, Robert Evans, Graydon Carter, Liz Smith, Joan Didion, Tina Brown, and Griffin Dunne. Written by Kirsty de Garis and Timothy Jolley. Running time: 83 minutes. Rated NR. Released on DVD: December 15, 2009. Available at Amazon.