In reply to Ben Kempas's post on Wed 23 Mar 2011 :
Leacock's obituary and also a piece by filmmaker/scholar Brian WinstonShow hidden content
Remembering Richard Leacock
By Brian Winston
photo: G. Andrew Boyd
Here is how The (London) Guardian obituary of Richard Leacock, who died in Paris, March 23, 2011, began:
If you remember the 1960s, you may well remember the documentary films shot by Richard Leacock, notably Monterey Pop (1968)…… Leacock, who has died aged 89, was one of six cinematographers on the film – including its director, DA Pennebaker – and had already established himself as a leading figure in the “direct cinema” movement, the American version of cinéma vérité.
Not, perhaps, how any who know anything about the documentary would situate Leacock. There is, though, a reason for quoting this frankly absurd take on the life of one of the most crucial pioneering figures: it speaks to a far too common view. Even if people better understand the relationship between direct cinema and cinéma vérité, they are likely to downgrade Leacock’s foundational contribution to the development of the observational documentary, his greatness as a cinematographer and the warmth of his humanity. Moreover, as Flaherty’s camera operator on Louisiana Story, he was the last living direct link to film documentary’s roots.
Why this comparative marginalization, then?
Well, for one thing, Ricky had the otherworldly insouciance that sometimes comes with being a scion of the eccentric edge of the English upper-class. His family were descended from 16th century French Huguenot protestant refugees and his father was a veritable oxymoron, a communist plantation owner growing bananas in the Canary Islands. Ricky, born in 1921, was educated at experimental (and very expensive) English private schools. Not for him, then, the obsessive petty bourgeois hoarding of the images he captured, the threat of writs if anybody tried to reproduce them; he somehow finished up, with rather lordly disdain, owning the copyright to barely any of his work. Nor was he given to the endless self-promotion which can so entrance the scholarly gullible. Moreover, Ricky became, essentially, a film professor, as sure a way to obscurity as any and his achievements were in consequence, of course, obfuscated. These, though, were, without question, monumental. He is the emblematic American figure in documentary’s observational turn of the late 1950s and early ’60s.
His privileged background had given him an education unconventional enough to expose him — at school in England (!), private (!!), in the early 1930s (!!!) — to films such as Turin’s Turksib. He also had the wherewithal to take up the expensive hobby of filmmaking as a teenager. His first finished work, Canary Bananas, was a poetic impression of his home made to convey to his schoolmates, who were intrigued by his exotic background, an impression of where he came from. In what was to become his motto for the documentary, he wanted, he said, for them to gain ‘the feeling of being there’. His biology master had also taken him, aged 17, to film an expedition to the Galapagos – not your average school outing then or, indeed, now. And he had met Robert Flaherty who was visiting his daughters who also attended the school. He screened Canary Bananas for Flaherty and Flaherty promised that they would work together someday. The promise was kept in 1946 when Flaherty, remembering the school-kid’s movie, hired him to be the cinematographer on Louisiana Story. Having attended Harvard where he studies physics, Leacock served in the American army during the Second World War as a newsreel cameraman, but Flaherty did not bother with that – just Canary Bananas had stuck in his mind.
A happy moment at VEXV in 2008. (photo courtesy of Ohad Landesman)
After the war, giving the audience ‘the feeling of being there’ was to be, increasingly, the driver that fueled both his impulse to carry the camera and his central contribution to the technological development of film, the synchronization mechanism between camera and tape-recorder. I used to think that the following quotation, taken from an interview given to Gideon Backmann at the time of Primary, held the clue to his motivation:
Already when we were working on Louisiana Story, I saw that when we were using small cameras, we had tremendous flexibility, we could do anything we wanted, and get a wonderful sense of cinema…. [Shooting synch, though,] We could no longer watch things as they developed, we had to impose ourselves to such an extent upon everything that happened before us, that everything sort of died.
Blowing out 87 at VEXV in 2008. (photo courtesy of Barbara Evans)
At Visible Evidence XV in Lincoln, where we celebrated his 87th birthday in 2008, he told another story.
He explained that the oppressive nature of conventional documentary filmmaking had really struck him was when he was preparing to shoot Bernstein in Israel in 1958. He had set up the gear in the concert hall – this is in essence a concert film – when he found himself in Bernstein’s hotel suite. The Israelis were eager to hear about West Side Story, which had just opened to a sensational reception in New York. Sitting at the piano the hotel had provided for the room, Bernstein and his wife, Felicia, did the whole score. Ricky watched, frustrated, his stand-camera locked away in the concert-hall.
But he had already by this point begun to lay out his response to this frustration. Two films he made in 1954 demonstrate his direction of travel. In Jazz Dance the camera was hand-held but the film was shot silent. The synch was faux. In Toby and the Tall Corn which he shot for Willard van Dyke (another link to the first generation) he actually managed some hand-held synch.
Toby was to be crucial. This was the film that inspired journalist Robert Drew, a Time-Life reporter eager to breath new life into the March of Time newsreel operation, to seek Leacock out. From that connection came Primary in 1960 in which Leacock hand-held a 16mm version of the square studio synch camera, developed by Walter Bach for the burgeoning US TV news industry. This Bach-Auricon combined picture-and-sound camera was but a first step to the sep-mag standard of an Éclair or Arri BL plus Nagra. Ricky’s contribution to this development was to take the crystal from a Bulova electronic watch, then new to market, and use it as the control enabling the physically separate camera to run in synch with the Nagra. Breaking the umbilical cord between camera and recorder significantly increased the flexibility of the system and its unobtrusiveness.
This was the most enduring of Leacock’s technical innovations as his life long fascination with the machinery of image capture otherwise sometimes led him up blind allies – 8mm sep-mag for example. The coming of the miniature digitized video-camera delighted him, although he could not resist messing about it. For example, his last intervention was a home-made mike that could be converted from directional to omni-directional at the flick of switch. The crystal control though, was the real winner. It was at the heart of the rigs that became the standard for documentary filming until the arrival of equally portable single system broadcast-standard video equipment a quarter of a century later.
I want to remember something else about Primary, though. Although the outcomes are quite opposite to each other, there is something common to both the un-filmed Bernstein hotel room in 1958 and the filmed (famously with an Auricon Ricky was resting on the arm of the chair he was sat in) Kennedy hotel suite two years later: Ricky’s personal relationship to these protagonists.
He knew Bernstein, for instance, from Harvard days when Lenny was the pianist at silent movie screenings of the university film club. And he also knew John Kennedy personally. He knew lots and lots of people – and not just the famous. He was a man of strong opinions and much of the dogme surrounding Direct Cinema came from him, but I have a distinct impression Ricky never filmed anybody he didn’t like – small-time police chiefs wondering whether their town councils would stand for them buying some bazookas; fundamentalist Christians who spent their Sunday mornings vomiting up the devil; deranged race-car drivers. In fact, Leacock’s humanity, which was sometimes contradicted by vigour of his conversation, was suffused by a certain radicalism. Ricky shared the family politics. For example, he was involved in establishing IATSE after the war and then in fighting for the Union to be colour blind. Yet the politics took second place to the care he brought to filmmaking. All humanity from Nehru, say, to a KKK wizard were captured but not skewered.
Perhaps the best example of this is Happy Mother’s Day, a film on the lunacies surrounding the birth of quintuplets in a small South Dakota town. Leacock, it is quite clear from the footage, becomes the placid mom’s co-conspirator in viewing the attendant brouhaha with jaundiced eye. His was an elusive talent in this regard – not merely the charm that the documentarist needs to win trust and co-operation but the empathy that conditions the images the filmmaker captures. The line between this human sympathy and intrusive voyeurism is difficult to draw and infinitely permeable, but Ricky was always on the right side of it.
And he was, above all, let it not be forgotten, a great cinematographer. The opening sequence of that paean of praise to oil-exploration, Louisiana Story, remains so exquisite that one struggles to remember who paid for it to be made. The fleeting gestures that reveal character, the complete mastery of the technology, the instinct that led him to be always in the right place — his ambition for the documentary might have been overstated and film will never really give us the ‘feeling of being there’; but it can offer incontrovertible proof that Ricky Leacock, for more than half a century, was there, bearing witness.
March 28, 2011