The bright and bushy way to consider television producer Norman Lear goes like this: He had something to do with '70s socially-aware sitcoms such as "All In The Family" (in which an endless ideological battle is fought between an annoying, usually correct liberal and a racist but very entertaining aged white hardhat) and "Good Times" and "The Jeffersons" (in which, respectively, the resiliency of black poverty and the black middle class is explored with a great deal of sympathy and some troubling buffoonery), and "Maude" (in which the women's rights movement got the sitcom treatment via a liberated, white woman who, in one episode, has an abortion) and singlehandedly changed the scope of television by making funny, penetrating comedies that seemed to be painfully aware of the world beyond the idiot box.
You'll find plenty of that kind of talk in "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You," especially when white comics such as Judd Apatow, Lena Dunham, and Amy Poehler pop-up on the screen (the byproduct of which is a sense that comedy hasn't evolved much since Lear's form of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too satire of racism and sexism flipped the mainstream's shit). But look past the white talking heads heaping praise on Lear and try to ignore the strange directorial choice to only frame black voices (such as John Amos and Esther Rolle of "Good Times") as dissenting, and this is a tricky and eventually quite devastating documentary: A series of stage-like, Robert Wilson-esque flashbacks in which a boy playing Lear as a child is dwarfed by projected video of interviews with Lear, scenes from his shows, and contextual historical footage illustrate the ways age and experience turn our minds into a kind of museum of memories; and then there's the time spent with Lear himself, who at 93 is sincere and ready to reflect.
When Lear isn't ready to reflect—mostly about his father, who went to jail when Lear was nine and as Lear explains, "forced [him] to become an adult" at that age—he is ready to reflect on how he still isn't ready to reflect. "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You," might at first read as another solid tasteful documentary bound for the Netflix midbrow doc industrial complex, but it ends up as a curiously stylish, quietly withering portrait of Lear, Important Liberal TV Man, yes, but flailing human nearing 100 and still figuring some things out.
Screens on Saturday, May 7 at 6 p.m. and Sunday, May 8 at 11:05 a.m. at the Baltimore Museum of Art