A legend in his own mind
Point and Shoot, documentary, not rated, Center for Contemporary Arts, 2.5 chiles A self-image is a carefully crafted thing. We spend our adolescence and beyond agonizing over what to wear, how to act, what affectations to affect, until finally it all sorts itself out into something that somehow becomes who we are.
For Matthew VanDyke, the subject of Marshall Curry’s documentary Point and Shoot, that selection process plays out on film in a very public forum. He’s in his late twenties when he decides to throw off the traces of a pampered upbringing and find the self of his fantasies. Declaring that “everyone creates their idealized image of how they want to be seen,” VanDyke leaves behind the comforts of home and goes looking for a grand adventure. He reinvents himself as Max Hunter, swaggering child of destiny. He sets out on an overland-motorcycle odyssey across North Africa and the Middle East, and he brings along a video camera to record himself doing it, lest the tree should fall in the forest with nobody there to film it. It was, he reflects, “a crash course in manhood.”
And while there’s unquestionably a broad streak of narcissism at work here, there is also an admirable determination to act, to put Walter Mitty daydreams to the test. He eventually covered some 35,000 miles over sometimes pretty rugged terrain. And he did this carrying, along with his backpack and his camera, the added baggage of an obsessive-compulsive disorder that had him washing his hands obsessively and dealing with assorted other foibles. “Part of my OCD,” he says, “was a fear of doing something that will accidentally harm someone else.”
As a boy, VanDyke dreamed of being a spy. He lived in video games and adventure movies. Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia was a key role model. In a clip from that David Lean epic, Sherif Ali shouts at Lawrence that the ragtag army of criminals and misfits he has assembled are not ordinary men, and Lawrence replies, “I don’t want ordinary men!”
If Lawrence had had access to a digital video camera, he probably would have become the subject of his own documentary. What VanDyke recorded, as shaped by Curry with added interview footage of the subject and of his girlfriend Lauren, waiting for him back home in Baltimore and keeping in touch via Skype, is no T.E. Lawrence. But he does get off the couch and live his own adventure, and he does don a headdress and get involved in an Arab war.
When the uprising against Qaddafi broke out in 2011, VanDyke, who had just returned to try on a normal life again in Baltimore, packed up his camera and headed for Libya to fight alongside friends he had made on his travels. He was captured by loyalist forces, and spent nearly six months in a dark filthy hole of solitary confinement in a Libyan prison, a period dramatized by Curry in this film with some impressionistic animation. VanDyke seems to have been released when the rebels liberated the prison, although how he got his camera back we’ll never know.
When he rejoins his Libyan comrades-in-arms, he is told to shoot a sniper, and he has himself filmed as he takes the shot. “I had myself filmed trying to take another human life,” he muses. “What does that say about me?”
What this documentary says about Matthew VanDyke, aka Max Hunter, is complicated and not always flattering. But these are things he really did, not just the fantasies of a Baltimore couch potato. It’s all there on film.
— Jonathan Richards