Ask Dr. Ruth: A Documentary That's Not So Open and Frank As Is Its Subject
Dr. Ruth Westheimer is the world’s best known sex therapist. She possesses an ability to communicate universally and her warmth is irresistible. Dr. Ruth (no surname needed for identification) is a certified media darling. She possesses the ability to communicate universally. At 90, she moves like a twenty year-old and dispenses her wisdom with infectious charm on a delicate subject with the ease of someone reciting a recipe for matzo ball soup. She has not only been on radio, television and the Internet, written over 35 books, but also is an academic currently teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University and the New School.
Ask Dr. Ruth is meant to be a well-deserved tribute to her. It is the story of her early heartbreaking life, and her success in later life. Dr. Ruth’s story is riveting and the events in her life invite undivided attention. But the documentary’s failure to do so lies in its production by committee. Seven producers were credited on this movie and they pooled their production experience and visions into a disjointed, misfired work. Some parts were so boring, a factor so unworthy of the subject, that I almost feel asleep. Animated scenes of Ruth Westheimer’s early life seemed to be intended for an audience under 12. I’ll get to the animation later.
The documentary ran 1 hour and 40 minutes but is felt like over two hours. The animation in the movie was employed to illustrate Ruth Westheimer’s parting with her parents who were arrested the day after Kristallnacht. The German name Kristallnacht comes from the pieces of broken glass that littered the streets after windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues were smashed. These events are a totally inappropriate context for animation as part of a live documentary.
In addition, the two-dimensional animation was of poor quality. It looked like it was salvaged from outtakes of another project. Archival photos or archival films should have been used to illustrate the horror of Kristallnacht. To see the successful use of archival footage in documentaries, watch Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old (2018), a magnificent labor of love depicting, through actual footage, British warfare in World War I.
Not only was the animation a mistake, but the editing was sloppy and thoughtless. For example, near the end of the movie Dr. Ruth is on a train and noted the beauty of a rainbow she sees. The camera captures the rainbow, but cuts to some cows she observes. The mashing together of a magnificent rainbow with a mundane shot of cows in the field destroys the power of her delight upon seeing the rainbow. Ultimately the movie treats Dr. Ruth condescendingly, almost as if she were a vacuous dwarf, quite demeaning for the first trained therapist to publicly discuss sex. She came into our homes through the media of live television and radio. Sadly, the makers of this movie took a great and worthy subject and devalued it.
I had the pleasure of seeing Ask Dr. Ruth at the documentaries’ preview. She was larger than life in person compared to the diminished person in the movie. Dr. Ruth cooperated with the documentary as a way to help a bunch of kids not unlike her young students at Colombia University. To her, it was just their student project. Unfortunately, if I were to give the film a grade, it would not be higher than a D.