Chris Waitt has been unlucky in relationships, and decides to make a movie to figure out why that is.
Dir. Chris Waitt, 2008, 90 min, Viewed via Netfilx Instant
One of the greatest documentaries ever made is 1987’s Sherman’s March. That film began as a journey to follow the historical route of General Sherman’s campaign through the South, but director Ross McElwee’s bad breakup in the early stages of filming made him drastically shift tack. He instead used the film to muse over his past relationships, and try to suss out just what he was doing to drive women away from him. The movie is funny, blisteringly personal, and surprisingly spry for something that’s two and a half hours long. A Complete History of My Sexual Failures is a lot like a modern-day Sherman’s March, except that the main character is a total twat.
When making a doc about yourself, you run the high risk of not at all being what you try to portray yourself as. It’s unclear to what degree Christ Waitt realizes how unlikeable he is. It becomes apparent very, very quickly why he’s had a long sting of failed romantic endeavors: he’s a filthy, apathetic, often mean layabout. Most of the exes whom he tries to contact throughout the story want nothing to do with him. One agrees to an interview on the condition that her real name, face, and voice not appear in the film. None of them have much nice to say about him, his habits, or his personality. All the way, Waitt quietly listens to each criticism and jots it down in a notebook, accumulating a comprehensive analysis of his lacking as a decent partner for any good human being.
Oddly enough, Waitt being so relentlessly unlikable isn’t the movie’s problem. In fact, he even seems to recognize it, and never tries to make himself look like the good guy (although he makes more than one woman out to be the bad guy in rather false ways). The doc forms a great study in relentless self-destruction. The fact that it isn’t really on Waitt’s side goes a long way towards making him palatable. And the various ways his exes react to him are a constant source of hilarity. It’s impossible to hate the guy when the rest of the world does all the hating for you.
The problem is that A Complete History of My Sexual Failures is the fakest documentary that I’ve watched in a while. It’s so bad on this front, in fact, that it may actually be better classified as a mockumentary. There are just too many moments that scream “movie!” and not “real life captured,” moments that don’t at all feel true. It starts early on, when a woman answers the door, sees Waitt, and immediately slams the door in his face without saying anything. That’s a movie moment. In real life, people ask questions and tell their unwanted solicitors to go away.
This only gets worse the longer the film goes on. All the while it feels increasingly self-indulgent, an exercise in narcissism from Waitt rather than anything genuine. The explicit, pointless visit to a dominatrix certainly doesn’t help. It culminates in a ridiculous sequence in which Waitt, suffering from impotence, tries out some Viagra, and then supposedly becomes so frustrated by his erection that he runs out into the street to proposition random women for sex. It’s unbelievable in every sense of the word, not just because I don’t buy for a second that it’s anything but a put-on for the camera, but also because it’s a crass attempt to use sexual harassment for humor.
This level of artifice isn’t a negative in and of itself. Catfish is at least half, if not more, a charade, and yet that’s a terrific, intriguing doc. But that film also concealed its fakery extremely well. The only way to figure out that there’s anything off about it, in fact, is the sheer implausibility of the premise as the movie presents it. But A Complete History of My Sexual Failures distracts with its faking, mainly because its in the service of unnecessary outlandishness. It’s even more painful given that this isn’t a bad film. Waitt, in turning the camera inward, has created a great picture of how a lack of empathy and drive has ruined a not-small segment of the population’s ability to love and be loved in return.
McElwee was unceasingly self-critical and hyper-attuned to the effects his actions had on other people. Given the unreliable nature of this doc, it’s tough to figure out how self-aware Waitt is. But the jaw-droppingly false finale to the film, in which he presents himself as finally finding a connection in an utterly contrived way, suggests that he doesn’t really have a handle on anything he’s talking about, and that any relevance that he finds is purely accidental. A Complete History of My Sexual Failures is extremely funny, entertaining, and untrustworthy. And when you can’t help but be distracted wondering how much you can believe from a doc, then that doc has failed you.