Presenting Princess Shaw Dir. Ido Haar

[Magnolia Pictures; 2016]

Styles: documentary
Others: Twenty Feet From Stardom, Catfish, Amy

The Void is an intimidating place. Also seen as the silent public, that abysmal entity where so many artists submit their work and then never know how people feel about it. Even in this age of comments and social media, most people really only respond when they feel negatively, skewing how people feel about what they’re putting into the world. Are my thoughts resonating? Is my work making an impact? Many artists never know, they simply put their music or their poetry or their films or whatever out there and just hope that some day they hear someone likes it. Maybe it is egotism to assume that you can affect the world with your work, so you head once more into the breach. But a lot of it is hope, that thing with feathers, that what you’re doing is valid, is important, is real.

The flip side of The Void is The Muse, something that moves a person to act and create. It can take all different forms and you never know just what will connect with a person to lead them to make their own new piece of art. A simple firetruck can be used by a painter to create a hallmark of Futurism and Cubism. Eating a simple dessert can lead to thousands of pages about life, love, and everything in between that inspires and stumps readers for generations. Watching Linklater’s Slacker can lead to a wave of filmmakers realizing their stories can be told and seizing the means of production to tell them, however ordinary. We never know where we will find inspiration for our work, what thing however small or large will set us off on a path of discovery and innovation. But finding it, discovering another thing with feathers to lift up our souls and inspire us to do great work, is an miracle in a world that seeks to reduce everything to cynical product and bland populism.

These two sides of the same coin come crashing together in Ido Haar’s triumphant documentary, Presenting Princess Shaw. The story is a bifurcated one that tracks two different people who are destined to collide in a way neither ever dreamt of previously. Samantha Montgomery works as a nurse in New Orleans, but has another persona on the internet as Princess Shaw, where she records messages about her daily life and also some songs she writes. Montgomery aspires to be a professional singer and desperately wants to get her heartfelt songs about love and loss out to the world; so far, only a handful of people seem to be watching or paying attention. Meanwhile, around the world in a kibbutz in Tel Aviv is Kutiman, an innovative musician that uses found music footage from YouTube to mix together to create wholly original pieces. Kutiman is a fan of Princess Shaw, not just her singing but also her more confessional posts, and is looking to make her the centerpiece for his latest collaborations. Montgomery has no idea that Kutiman even exists, but that may all change with the click of an upload button.

Presenting Princess Shaw works mainly because the two leads (though much more time is spent with Montgomery) are so different yet so similar. Montgomery toils with daily frustrations of her job, lack of money, lack of support, and the fear that her dream will never come through. But still she persists. There’s never a sense that the (rather enigmatic) Kutiman suffers the same indignations that Montgomery experiences, but he’s also someone on the edge—is his art form valid? Is what he’s doing fair to other artists or even considered art itself? With both there’s a purity found in self expression (even if, in Kutiman’s case, it’s expression through others); neither seems happier than when they are creating and releasing their latest work into the void, even if no one will consume it or appreciate it.

The film begins feeling a bit aimless and jumbled, with an unnecessary screed from the Free Society manifesto; is this going to be about artists’ rights? It is not. And the day to day tribulations of Montgomery seems odd, and her reasons for documenting so much of her life in YouTube and Instagram is never truly explored by the filmmakers. In fact, they seem to be there under false pretenses, saying to Montgomery that they are merely making a film about YouTubers when clearly they know that Kutiman has already selected her to be the cornerstone to his next musical endeavor. But that is easily forgiven as the momentum begins to build, a great work of cross-cutting between Kutiman’s falling in some form of love with his muse and using her brave words about her past to fuel his new song and the recurring defeats that Montgomery experiences in her personal and aspirational life. Soon it becomes clear that we are heading towards a climactic collision of the two worlds, where those nights of throwing work into the void is validated and a muse is uncovered.

Most people will see that climax coming, as it is fairly obvious, but director Haar does a great job of earning it nonetheless. As Montgomery opens up about her troubled abusive past, audiences grow to care for this wounded woman who seems unlucky in love and life, so when that moment comes it feels like a real triumph. It’s a shared joy that is infectious and can only be accomplished by willingness to take time to build this woman as a real person with real issues. By the end, you’ll be racing to YouTube to see more and feeling like you’re participating in something great. When the constantly beaten are suddenly validated, it’s a singular emotional moment that takes an artful hand to describe and capture — which Haar does with aplomb.

The Void and The Muse seem like opposites. One is a potentially crushing endeavor where people send their work off and never hear back; the other is bountiful resource of energy and inspiration, positively moving someone to create something new. Yet they aren’t so different, because they both rest on hope. Hope that this project will be seen, or heard, or embraced by somebody somewhere. Presenting Princess Shaw shows that serendipitous moment when the two meet, where the Void is validated and the Muse uncovered, and hope is awarded. And, if only for a brief moment of time, everything feels a bit better about this world.

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