|Richard Leacock, 2009, photo by Teemu Rajala.
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
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