Picture for a moment the iconic Burt's Bees logo. Staring out from the brand's various salves and ointments is the face of a heavily bearded man, his wild tufts of hair barely contained under a pinstriped train engineer's hat.
His expression is calm but unreadable. A cuddly Berkeley hippie is what I see in that woodcut portrait. A man just as likely to spend his days fishing or growing weed as he is tending to his bees.
That assumption is wonderfully, purposefully dismantled in "Burt's Buzz," filmmaker Jody Shapiro's documentary about the company's co-founder and namesake. It is the single most compelling character study I've seen this year, and it will likely alter whatever vague preconceptions you have about the man behind the brand. The doc screens this week at the Siskel (with Shapiro joining by Skype for a post-show discussion Friday).
The thing about the Burt's Bees logo is that if you examine it long enough, you start to wonder if that face maybe belongs to a late-19th-century pioneer, one that's been co-opted by the brand. That would be a fiction as well, but it gets a bit closer to the truth of who Burt Shavitz actually is.
Looking like Tom Hanks before he was rescued in "Cast Away," Shavitz is an uncompromising individualist who lives on several acres of rural land in Maine. Self-reliant. Contemplative. Smart. Stubborn. Willful. "He likes interaction in the sense that he loves to be able to finally tell his stories," Shapiro said when we spoke recently. "He doesn't necessarily like it when somebody shows up, but if you're there, he'll talk to you all day."
His preference, in terms of house and home, is a small converted turkey coop on his property, one that lacks running water and electricity. He doesn't seem interested in money or creature comforts. He keeps to himself by choice. He lives a solitary life, observing the change of seasons and hanging out with his dogs.
When people wander up his driveway looking to get their picture taken with Shavitz, they are not welcome. Early in the film he tells Shapiro: "I'd like to point the shotgun at them and tell them to be good or be gone."
Not much about his life is documented online. His Wikipedia page consists of just five short sentences — four of which focus on the company's co-founder, Roxanne Quimby, who eventually nudged Shavitz out before selling a percentage of the company to a private equity firm for $141 million. In 2007 the entire company was sold to Clorox, netting Quimby another $150 million.
Though she and Shavitz were partners early on, Quimby was the ambitious, business-minded one, and there has been plenty written about her rise in corporate America.
But go digging for information on Shavitz and there's not much there. He made some noise after the initial sale and eventually got a $4 million payout from Quimby. (He never states it outright, but you come away suspecting he pushed for it out of principle rather than a desire for money.)
But you won't find details about his early life (including his birth name, which is Ingram) or his career as a photojournalist for Life magazine and other publications. Shapiro includes one of Shavitz's photos, of a sea gull flying over a garbage barge in New York harbor, the Statue of Liberty in the distance, but even this iconic image doesn't turn up when you do an Internet search. Apparently no journalist or filmmaker was curious enough to search him out until now.
Shapiro's technique is especially skillful in the way he unravels not only the back story of Shavitz (whose relationship with Quimby today is nonexistent and the source of some tetchy melancholy) but also in the way it observes this unconventional man interacting with others.
Social contact does not come easily. Trevor Folsom, who looks to be in his 30s, lives on the property and helps Shavitz with various tasks. "Burt's a really interesting guy that I spend every day with," he tells the camera. "And sometimes I want to throttle him."
Folsom's energy is entirely 21st century — let's get this show on the road — whereas Shavitz is a meanderer who is easily distracted. Their dynamic is a curious one, especially because Folsom does not mask his impatience. But he has a real appreciation and respect for Shavitz: "He lives in a hoard of his own personal peculiarities."
Since the buyout, Shavitz, now 79, has done some personal appearances on behalf of the company, and Shapiro follows him on one such trip to Taiwan, where he is a bundle of contradictions.
"Here's a guy that doesn't need anybody," Shapiro said. "He sits in the same chair in Maine eating a can of sardines out of the same bowl every day, and yet at the hotel, at the front desk when he checks in, he's asking for rice milk instead of soy milk. That's the interesting contrast." A man who deliberately lives off the grid but insists on four-star accommodations when he travels. "Burt, do you need Internet?" he is asked at one point. "Like a hole in the head," he says, but moments later, there he is Skyping with his dog, howling at each other.
In Taiwan there is awful guy in a suit, a slick, back-slapping (literally) American executive with the company who is like something out of "Entourage." He completely misreads Shavitz, persistently engaging him in empty small talk, and the contrast between these two is cringe comedy: the superficial company man smashing up against Shavitz's stubborn authenticity.
Just as fascinating is the goodbye at the airport between Shavitz and a young Taiwanese sales representative who has accompanied him at his appearances. She is crying and you think, "Is this a cultural thing, her response?" Shavitz, though, is the one to watch. He awkwardly holds his hands out, then pulls them back, clenching, not sure if he should touch her. And then he does, placing both hands on her shoulders near her neck, affectionate but strange, as if he were about to choke her. Is he debating whether to kiss her? He seems very attracted to this woman, but he is so clearly aware of his social blind spots.
"He's trying to figure it out," is what Shapiro said when I asked about the scene. "I don't have answers for everything that we shot. It was really his only connection with a human. That was the only person I saw him like that with. After I finished shooting I thought, here's the best way to explain Burt: He lives in a 5-foot-radius bubble, and if you're in that bubble you're in his universe and he'll relate to you. But if you pop out of that bubble, you don't exist for him."
And then Shapiro offered this as a coda: "We had a screening in New York last week and Trevor was going to come with Burt. And then Trevor calls me and says, 'OK, I gotta stay. I can't come because Burt doesn't want to go because he's afraid he's going to miss the lilacs blooming and the dogs. So the agreement is, I'm going to stay here and I'm going to take photos and I'm going to be on the phone if he wants to speak to the dogs.'