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Richard Leacock (1921-2011)

By Drew Morton | Miscellaneous | March 24, 2011 |

By Drew Morton | Miscellaneous | March 24, 2011 |

Documentary pathfinder Richard Leacock (1921-2011) passed away yesterday at the ripe age of 89. Readers are probably more familiar with the two documentary movements he helped refine, Direct Cinema and Cinéma Vérité, than his work on the Direct Cinema doc Primary (1960). Produced by former LIFE magazine editor and correspondent Robert Drew, shot by Leacock and Albert Maysles (whose work with his brother David include Gimmie Shelter and Grey Gardens) and edited by D.A. Pennebaker (the rock documentarian who brought us Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop, and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars), Primary chronicled the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic Primary between John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. The joint forces of Drew, Maysles, Pennebaker, and Leacock on Primary, with the aid of mobile cameras, faster film stocks, and mobile sound equipment gave rise to the Direct Cinema movement.

Direct Cinema, often considered synonymous with Cinéma Vérité (they are very different, but that’s a nuanced discussion for another time), is essentially a “fly on the wall” approach to documentary filmmaking. The philosophy behind it is to capture reality and represent it truthfully (leave the filmmaker’s involvement out of the equation, let the social actors drive the narrative of the doc) while also acknowledging the cinema’s role in constructing reality (this is how Direct Cinema is tied to Cinéma Vérité which, in films like Dziga Vertov’s 1929 epic Man with a Movie Camera, is the main focus). Direct Cinema, while we take it for granted today, was an attempt to shift the sands of documentary towards truth and reality and away from what the disputable founder of the doc, John Grierson, described as “the creative treatment of actuality…the telling of a story or illumination of theme by images, as poetry is a story or theme told by images: I mean the addition of poetic reference to the mass and march of the symphonic form.”

A cinematographer for another father of the doc, Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North), on his 1948 film Louisiana Story, Leacock went on to shoot Toby and the Tall Corn (1954), which aired on US cultural program “Omnibus” (1952-1961) and came into contact with Drew after the film aired. Together, their approach to documentary as life in the raw would re-define documentary, for better and for worse. Essentially, the fly on the wall approach that was produced by the Direct Cinema movement is still an approach in which the filmmaker is involved: editing, always a controversial aspect of the doc, is still performed. Yet, viewers tend to forget that and simply equate the documentary for an indexical representation of an actual reality. Essentially, Direct Cinema is a means of constructing reality for a film while attempting to reassure the audience that it is objective. Now, Leacock and the Direct Cinema filmmakers hearts were in the right place: They wanted to turn documentary into journalism. Yet, what they tended to underestimate is both that documentary always involves subjectivity (the filmmaker must always decide what is and is not shown) and that uncertainty principle is still at work in the doc: if J.F.K. and Humphrey knew they were being observed for a documentary, are they showing us themselves or acting?

Direct Cinema’s influence was greatly felt all around the world from documentary filmmaking to Dogme 95, tying documentary to a treatment of reality instead of a creative treatment of actuality. This only has repercussions if we neglect to interrogate documentary’s conflicted relationship with the real world. While Leacock and his associates wanted their films to stand as objective documents, that is a premise we can never fully embrace. The real legacy that Leacock has left with me personally is seen in the films that counter the Direct Cinema approach: Orson Welles’s F for Fake (1974), Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988), and Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans (2003, all of which are available on Netflix Watch Instantly). These three films question documentary’s representation of reality. While they are not any more truthful than the Direct Cinema docs produced by Leacock, they cause us to ask fundamental questions about the genre which would not have been posed if not for the work of Richard Leacock.

Rest in peace.

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