Friday, March 25, 2011

Richard Leacock (1921-2011)

Richard Leacock, 2009, photo by Teemu Rajala.
I am writing a few paragraphs today in memory of Richard Leacock, the British-born documentary filmmaker who died this week in Paris. Leacock was a pioneer of a kind of film making called cinema verité, or direct cinema. When hand-held 16mm cameras and fast film made it possible to shoot real-life unstaged, unscripted, as it happened, he was there reinventing the genre.

One summer in the 1970s, I took a filmmaking course from him. A few years yet before camcorders, he had us using a synch-sound system that he had developed using Super-8 cameras. I made a little film about a flea market. It’s on a reel of videotape that’s probably still around here somewhere in a closet.

We watched a lot of documentaries that summer, too, and I thank him for opening my eyes to this form of storytelling. Maybe more than anything, he made me aware of the camera’s presence in any shot of a film, as well as the editor selecting and placing each of those shots into a particular sequence.

TV reality before reality TV. In the early days of American TV, people like Richard Leacock were making documentaries that are now considered classics of realism. They were the original reality TV, and much more deserving of the term than the crap that goes by that name today.

Photo, Michael J. Owens
Documentary has evolved beyond cinema verité, though Frederick Wiseman still works in that style and honors the tradition. Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence (2006) is another powerful example. Meanwhile, the Maysles Brothers’ Grey Gardens (1976) has had renewed life as a stage play and as an HBO movie.

What this all makes me think of is the over-mediated world we live in. There’s always someone telling us what we’re supposed to see and hear, interpreting events for us. [Insert Anderson Cooper here or just about anyone else with “news.”]

Leacock simply followed people with a camera and a sound person and captured whatever there was to be seen and heard. He didn’t ask questions; he didn’t explain what we were seeing. There was no music track to cue emotional reactions.

If reality was ambiguous, then so be it. He trusted us to make our own sense of his films, think for ourselves, and come to our own conclusions. Watching this kind of documentary, you have to pay attention. This is an ability that is diminished by disuse. His films show us that there’s more for our eyes and ears at any moment of a day than we can hope to understand in a lifetime. We need to be reminded of that. Often.

The video below begins with a sequence from Leacock’s 1964 film Republicans – The New Breed. It’s followed by a TV interview in 1973 in which he talks about his early years as a filmmaker. This is the man I remember. (The sound is a little out of synch, but it's worth ignoring that.)

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons 

Coming up: Martha Sandweiss, Passing Strange


  1. I just went to IMDB and I don't think I have ever seen one of his films although I have seen a few of Wiseman's. Too bad I missed them.

  2. That's a very nice tribute to Leacock. A friend emailed me as soon as news broke that Leacock passed, he was a terrific filmmaker and very important.

    When I was working at The Robert Flaherty Film Seminar a few summers back, I got a phone call from an elderly gentleman. The person he wanted to speak to wasn't in the office, so I asked if I could take a message. The gentleman said, "Have them call Ricky Leacock back." My jaw dropped to the floor. I think I mumbled something like, "Ok they'll call you back, Mr. Leacock."

    So cool you got to take a class from him!

  3. What a long, productive life he lived.

  4. Was sorry to hear about Mr. Leacock.

  5. Patti, he's had a greater impact on other filmmakers, so you've seen a lot of his "work" indirectly.

    Cullen, lovely story. Thanks.

    David, indeed.

    Oscar, thanks for the visit.

    Charles, he was some guy...