Friday, June 6, 2014

Burt's Buzz (opens in Cleveland June 6th exclusively at Tower City Cinemas)

[BURT'S BUZZ opens in Cleveland on Friday June 6th exclusively at Tower City Cinemas.]

Review by Pamela Zoslov

A gaunt, gray-bearded man arrives in Taiwan and is met at the airport by throngs of cheering fans carrying posters bearing his image. Seventy-six-year-old Burt Shavitz, the Burt of Burt's Bees natural cosmetics, is the unlikely focus of this rock-star adulation, which seems more suitable for Justin Bieber.

Shavitz is as flummoxed by the attention as we are. As he explains to filmmaker Jody Shapiro in the documentary BURT'S BUZZ, he'd much rather be at his farmhouse in Maine, where's he's lived alone for the last 30 years, gathering next winter's firewood and feeding the birds. “All they know is the image,” says Shavitz, who is indeed quite a bit different from his sketched likeness on the yellow Burt's Bees logo on lip balm and other products, an avuncular backwoods Santa Claus both friendlier and fleshier than the dour, taciturn Shavitz. He can't understand why people continually want to take his picture. “I'm contractually obligated not to say 'buzz off,' he explains resignedly. He'd just as soon point a shotgun at them.

He never wanted to be a businessman, but he reluctantly found himself the face of a multimillion-dollar enterprise.

Shapiro paints a revealing portrait of this paradoxical character, who came to his life of backwoods simplicity (no electricity or hot water) by an unexpected path. Born Ingram Berg Shavitz in New York City, he grew up in Great Neck. He refused to enter the family business, changed his name and became a street photographer of considerable talent, vividly capturing the antiwar protest rallies, street people and African-American life of the 1960s. “New York was a series of scenes,” he recalls. “It was a good place to be a photographer.” He worked for Time-Life, which gave him access to loftier subjects – Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy.

Then he decided to give it all up to move to upstate New York, live in an abandoned house and become a “high-class hobo.” He got some monks to teach him about beekeeping. He bought 37 acres in Maine and started selling honey from the side of the road. He would be asleep in his car, he recalls, and customers would have to rap on the window to wake him.

Shavitz would have been content to continue his quiet, simple life had he not met Roxanne Quimby, a divorced mom whose strength and resourcefulness impressed him. They became romantically involved, and Quimby set about minding Burt's beeswax, launching a business selling candles and other bee-based products. Quimby was clever, artistic and very ambitious, and before long, Burt's Bees grew from a craft-fair novelty to a $900 million business.

Eventually, the business relocated to North Carolina, where Shavitz found himself unhappily installed behind a desk, the fate he had specifically refused back in New York. It was perhaps inevitable that Quimby would leverage him out of the business, persuading him to sign away his rights and with them hundreds of millions of dollars. Shavitz is rueful, perhaps not so much about the money as the way he was treated. “Roxanne wanted money and power and I was just a pillar on the way to that success,” he says. “She wanted to own me.” Shavitz lives like a Zen master, but there was still enough of the shrewd New Yorker in him to hire a lawyer. He got a contract with the company to continue to represent the brand in personal appearances like the one in Taiwan.

Shavitz's brother and his very patient assistant lend insight into this reclusive, paradoxical character, who merely tolerates people but is uncommonly devoted to his Golden Retriever. (The only emotion we see him express is when he's in Taiwan, wiping away tears while talking to his dog, incredibly, via Skype.) His assistant says Shavitz, who can be exasperating to be with, cares only for “his dog, the land, his fields, his oatmeal in the morning.” Yet the company representative in Taiwan thinks he really does, in his own way, enjoy the celebrity attention.

Shavitz's lifestyle is a model of Buddhist simplicity, but it's the kind of comfortable simplicity achievable only by the independent wealthy. His brother notes that money doesn't mean much to Burt, but it means enough to him to continue to fly around the world to be the face of Burt's Bees. At a Q&A session in Taiwan, Shavitz is asked why he chose to live without modern conveniences. “It's important to be able to separate one's wants from one's needs,” he says wisely. Though most people could not live the way he does, many of us can relate to his statement, "A good day is when no one shows up and you don't have to go anywhere."  3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

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