“There are daily acts of generosity and kindness and love that should be represented on film.” – Albert Maysles
Albert Maysles, one of the pioneers of the cinema-verite movement in the United States, has passed away at 88.
Cinema-verite, versions of which emerged nearly simultaneously in Canada, the USA and France, amounted to a revolution in the way documentary films were being made. Filmmakers were longing for greater freedom of movement in order to go out and explore the world, and by the early 1960s (way, way before the reality TV craze that owes its legacy to Maysles and his peers), new portable, 16mm cameras and syncronized sound capabilities were finally allowing to go out into the streets and attempt to capture life as it was.
A new kind of observational-style film, quickly dubbed “cinema-verite”, or “film-reality”, was born.
Much debate ensued over the years: is it naive to believe a camera can capture reality, free and unhinged from the subjective perspectives of the filmmakers and their potential biases?
I’ve thought and written a lot about cinema-verite, which became a passion of mind when I chose it as a focal point of my graduate studies in film. I can summarize my views in a very concise way, though, as I’ve come to believe that we can exhaust ourselves talking about biases and subjectivities and how there is no “reality” to capture, uncover or make sense of.
The point, I believe, lies less in a semantic debate about reality and more in the intention of the visionary artists and filmmakers of that time (the early 60s), and this intention amounted to a desire to peel back various overt layers of artifice and approach the world in a spirit of observation. Of course the cameras were angled in a certain way, and decisions about what to shoot and then edit were made. However, looking at the films themselves – “observations” of such subjects as a presidential race, music sensations, a salesman – one is continually struck by the sense of wonder and captivation with the world on the other side of the lens, something that almost amounts to a reverence, and a plea with audiences to regard the world beyond the footage the way the filmmakers did – in the spirit of observation and discovery.
When we approach the world with this kind of wonder and adventurous spirit, and allow our tools and media to follow suit, there are endless things that can be discovered, and an entire universe of awe and magic to behold.
“We get crushes and we get crushed from almost all the subjects that we film.”
“The film is sort of the the beginning of a love affair between the filmmakers and the subjects. Some filmmakers make targets of the subjects they film; that’s not our way.”
“I think my training taught me above all to be unprejudiced. Psychology was social science and so in a way my work has always combined a kind of scientific approach with art.”
“People are people. We’re out to discover what is going on behind the scenes and get as close as we can to what is happening.”
“I have no difficulty in getting access or establishing rapport. Usually, it’s just from the first moment of meeting someone. I think it’s the way I look at them and establish trust right away. There’s nothing in my method that is subversive or hurtful and I think people get a sense of trust right away.”
The Sound of Art: Lonely Boy
by Tammy T. Stone
What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art … Equally valuable would be acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art …
This article is an unabashed love letter to a film that many of you may not have seen, but which forever changed the way I look at movies. And since I’ve long believed that we can learn much about how we construct the world around us from the way we watch movies, it’s fair to say this film changed the way I look at the world too.
The movie is called Lonely Boy, a half-hour documentary made by Canada’s National Film Board in 1962, at the zenith of its artistic and technological innovative prowess. Using then-new synchronized sound technology, directors Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor (one of the key inventors of IMAX a few years later) created a brilliant gem of a film, doing – in my humble opinion – unbelievably sophisticated and resoundingly philosophical things with the raw yet profound material that is sound. I should also mention here that Lonely Boy was sound-recorded by Marcel Carriere and edited by Kathleen Shannon, two of the Film Board’s regular posse of gifted artists.
So what is this little film all about? First of all, it was made during a very exciting time in cinema’s history – and the greater cultural history at large. Koenig and Kroitor had just made a series of documentaries as part of a collective, Unit B, at the Film Board. Called Candid Eye, the films used a purely observational style to examine topics like tobacco farming, the Salvation Army and Montreal’s wintry days leading up to Christmas, all with a sense of ironic detachment that became emblematic of Canadian filmmaking in general. At this time, no small thanks to the Film Board itself, it was now possible to synchronize recorded sounds with the images being shot with 16mm Arriflex cameras. As documentary filmmakers, Koenig, Kroitor and their peers were ever-seeking ways to get closer to a more directly experienced and immediate ‘reality’, and more authentic ways of transcribing witnessed actualities as they were happening before them. The ability to record sounds and images simultaneously rather than use recorded interviews and found sound (like road traffic and music) over images – as was the tradition until then in documentary film – would prove to be an instrumental achievement in fulfilment of this goal.
Everything was pointing in the right direction, then, when they decided upon a subject for their final film of the series. They got word that Paul Anka, a native of Ottawa, Ontario and then 19 years-old, was going to be doing a few performances in Atlantic City. Anka was rapidly becoming a superstar in the era that eventually saw the likes of The Beatles causing girls to faint at the mere thought of them – but Anka did it first.
Anka-mania preceded the Beatles 1964 invasion of America by about three years, which means Lonely Boy, the little movie that could, is in effect the first film to capture a music idol sensation in all his glory on film. One could even say it’s the predecessor to the now-famed genre of the rockumentary.
What better way to use synchronized sound, you may think, than to go to a few concerts and record the footage of an apparently very likeable star? Anka does, in the film, sing his legendary hits like Put Your Head on My Shoulder, Diana and the song that became to film’s title, Lonely Boy, and watching a teenaged Anka do so is startling and impactful. And we also get interviews with Anka about his artistic and fame-oriented goals, as well as a few scenes of him schmoozing with his manager and preparing future songs. But this is no mere canned portrait of the artist (or celebrity) – the filmmakers have a much more complex and even obtuse interpretation of what they found before them during the shoot. The best moments of the film, I think, occur when the filmmakers deviated from their standard mode of using pure observation to record events, and manipulate the sound and image juxtapositions to paint a multi-faceted picture of a young, ambitious performer.
In one scene, Anka performs at the Copacabana club to an older, more sophisticated crowd than the nubile ones screaming and swooning at his concerts. Anka’s manager, Irvin Feld, has earlier commented in an interview that if Anka could corner this older market his success would be guaranteed. As he performs, the viewer can see that Anka is engaging his audience. The camera shoots Anka from behind so that he appears in the frame alongside the white-cloth tables and metropolitan couples. The sequence also cuts to medium shots of Anka with the microphone in his hand, arms flailing and thrashing about, lips moving in song, and to close-ups of the smiling, calmly-enraptured faces of those being entertained.
But here’s the trick: throughout the sequence, we can hear not one note of the song he’s singing. Instead, we get Anka speaking in voiceover about his having been given a gift to sing and entertain. On one level, this particular commentary is appropriate since the visual images are of Anka performing to a pleased audience. But there’s something eerie about hearing Anka proclaim he has a gift, and then seeing him sing with no voice, move his arms to a rhythm that those in the Copacabana were privy to but is entirely absent to the viewer of the film. It is as though the filmmakers are commenting on the fragility and incomprehensibility of stardom, on the question of what it is, exactly, that audiences are attracted to; they add a great sense of irony by inserting a voiceover discussing Anka’s musical gift and simultaneously stripping him of the very element that gives him this gift, emphasizing persona over performance. But the enthralment of the audience does emanate through the close-ups, culminating in a wave of applause that starts off in silence (again an eerie phenomenon) and reaching a thunderous sound that is also the only synchronized sound in the sequence. The entire film, which never really delves into Anka’s personal life, is about the construction of stardom (45 years before Bieber!). Here, Anka is literally constructed in the editing room out of silent body parts, an off screen voice, and faces of the audience upon which his image depends.
The filmmakers’ vision of Anka here is at once satirical and slightly disturbing. They use the same sound technique in another scene, however, to create a more sympathetic picture of Anka. This scene occurs near the end of the film, as Anka sits at a piano and tries to play a new song for Irvin Feld with some of the crew hanging out nearby. The cutaways to the others in the room enforce, by sheer observation on the part of the camera, an overall atmosphere of melancholy which would have been abundantly clear by presenting the scene exactly as recorded with with sync-sound. The filmmakers go one step further, however, by fading down the piano-playing/singing and bringing in a voiceover of manager Feld speaking in his fast-talk, glibly confident way about Anka’s talent. The film seems to be telling us that Anka’s entourage surrounds him not out of respect for his talent, but for the money. The filmmakers have used editing to literally fade down, or drown out, Anka’s music and his voice.
The girls, however, are always listening. In a time when sync-sound was still a new innovation, the possibilities of which were still being explored in film, it seems paradoxical and ingenious that Koenig and Kroitor used manipulated sound/image pairings to achieve an immediate viewing experience in which we feel we’ve plunged right into the already canned life of Anka, aged 19. Performances shown earlier in the film took advantage of sync-sound to simultaneously present a performer and the sound of his fans – a performer so successful his music was being overpowered by all of the cheering and screaming. The editing of the last performance of Lonely Boy, however, combines long shots of close-ups on girls’ faces with a muting of their screaming mouths to comment not only on Anka’s looming presence but on the girls’ lives, which are portrayed as having become completely devoted to the worship of a star. Tears stream down their cheeks, hands clutch their faces and mouths silently (to the viewer) contort their faces into claims of “I love you Paul!” Nothing can be heard but the song “Put Your Head on my Shoulders”, although the crowd must have been deafening. The final impact of Anka’s godly musical presence hovering over such riveted, lively yet silent faces transcends any discussion of message, intent and underlying philosophy of this film or any other, heading right into the terrain of the ineffable, even the mystical, reminding us why life is such a grand mystery.
And in this case, the sublime has been achieved with sound, and its equally towering other half, silence. When I think of Lonely Boy, how brilliant it is now as then and how affected I can be watching it over and over again, I remember how possible it is to create our own worlds into the fantasies of our making while remaining truthful to our experiences and to life.
See Lonely Boy here!
When you sit down to learn stone carving from some of the world’s most practiced craftsmen, in Mamallupuram, Tamil Nadu, India, people are going to be curious.
A few days ago, we decided it would be fun to try this art form. All across town there are men chiseling away, with gorgeous finished products displayed outside the shops. Ganesh and Buddha predominate.
I initially thought this trip, our third to India in as many years, was going to be about opening my heart by way of spending time in ashrams, doing seva (work with no expectation of compensation) and meeting with spiritual gurus. I felt I needed this, the Hugging Mother’s hugs we’d experienced the year before, to awaken to my own heart through meditation and slow, deliberate contemplation.
Maybe this is still the case, and maybe it will come. But so far we’ve become fascinated by how much of a living-art India is in almost all its aspects. The aliveness of the place, the colours.
I have a piece of cloth I’ve been embroidering for over a year that I couldn’t bring myself to work on during our trip to India last year, and I’ve been at it daily here.
And now stone carving. We sat outside the shop with the two foreigner wranglers and stone polishers, and a few masters of the trade. We chiseled, hammered, watched in awe as the masters designed our pieces and images – of a Buddha and a hand – started coming to life.
Many people passed by since we were on the main road of the tourist area, which Lonely Planet refers to as Backpackistan. Most looked at what we were doing, some with keen interest. Maybe 10 per cent came by to watch, and about half of those people smiled, exclaimed, or sat down to talk and watch.
Just sitting there, we were attracting kindness, the attention of new people, and conversation. The sun was beaming on us.
One of the people to stop and sit down was a young Japanese woman who just arrived in India the day before, for a four month trip culminating in Sri Lanka. She was quiet, curious and had a very strong presence about her. She left about an hour later, and returned in the evening. We were still chiseling away, a few chais and a lot of laughter later.
She probably had it in her mind to have dinner with us, but this was our last day with the carving masters, and we both started new, smaller pieces to practice, and couldn’t stop. Hesitating, she sat, worked on a tiny elephant one of the guys surprised her with, and took out a ukelele.
Exclaiming, I asked her to play, and started working again. It’s not often someone appears with such a beautiful and unusual instrument, nor was there anything usual about sitting on the concrete in a town we’d never heard of until about two weeks earlier, carving outstretched hands and Buddhas.
Soon I could hear the softest, most melodic voice singing Aloha; she was turning the Hawaiian tune into a magical folk song. The waves lapped audibly nearby.
The World of Away
Walking to yoga class yesterday, we noticed that the horizon had disappeared. There was water and there was sky and no line between, like there had been the day before.
A boat hovered in the distance and the sun was bright but invisible. Both sky and sea were a shade of phosphorescent blue reminding me of four old prints of Old Quebec hanging in my parents’ basement in the home of my adolescence, the one with the large brown circular bar, snooker table and hot tub we never used so that it became filled with stuff, and eventually, my stuff, the remnants of seven years of apartment-living in Toronto.
My parents agreed to take the stuff. They didn’t expect me to leave and not come back (yet). How do I explain to them that one horizon-less day (and quirky, magical things like this happen almost every day – makes years of travel make sense?
Not that I was looking for sense, or magic, even.
I just started by coming away, and I fell in love, and I continued. I always liked being away, though.
Even when I lived in Toronto, I would love to go to new cafes in unknown (to me) neighbourhoods and more or less pretend I was living another life somewhere else. Everything felt better with this filter – I wasn’t trying to get away from myself, I don’t think, anyway. I loved being with myself, in my body, just experiencing the world of Away. I didn’t want to be someone else. I think this is why my wishes came true. Wishes can’t come true for you if you don’t want to, or resist being you, because then who’s left to receive the wishes fulfilled?
I wanted to continue, as me, but I wanted the backdrop to change. I wanted, without knowing it, to be in the position of seeing a horizon-less sky in a Southern island of a country grown so dear from me, so far from my origins.
And to take a ferry to the island that was donated from or sold to Thailand by Japan, who used it in the 80s, with pink and purple round Formica tables, which made me feel I was on the Love Boat – this reminded me about the show; I YouTubed the theme song later and got swept away, again someplace else.
Again as myself.
And when the horizon-less sky disappears it’s only a matter of time before the clouds gather and the rains come, because it’s the season.
I love rain. It brings the world together. So now I’m tucked away on my balcony, writing on a wooden table looking at bamboo trees, and our new cat for the month has squeezed between me and the back of the chair, and suddenly I could be back in Toronto on a rainy day in some new cafe, sipping tea, imagining all the lives yet to come.
In the meantime, I have tomorrow, when the horizon, after the haze, will probably be back.
E. T. and Me
I was eight years old when the film E.T. the Extraterrestrial was released. I’d never heard of its director, Steven Spielberg, who’d only made a small handful of movies by then, including one about a deadly shark. You know the one. To be honest, I’m not sure I had the slightest idea that movies were made by people, let alone famous would-be-auteurs and masters of cinematic imagination. Without question, I didn’t have a clue that pieces of spliced celluloid could be put together, mounted on a reel and shown through a projector to produce the spell we fall under when the lights go down and the curtains part (I’m not getting into the whole digital thing here – it’s still cool and ephemeral, watching movies). I was blissfully unaware of the hard work that goes into just about everything. It was 1982. Drew Barrymore was an adorable tot with famous, handsome ancestors whose tumultuous, triumph-over-adversity narrative arc had yet to unfold. Henry Thomas, who plays Elliot, the protagonist of E.T. was, and would remain a virtual unknown, though I’ve since seen him more times than is probably necessary in the Brad Pitt epic, Legends of the Fall. But none of this matters. The big draw here was the inordinately cute alien with the enormous eyes yearning to make a phone call to his loved ones in outer space. And we weren’t disappointed. To this day, its images are fixed in my memory: E.T. dressed up as a doll hiding out in Elliot’s closet, not getting spotted by Mom, who fails to notice there’s an alien in her house; the trail of Reese’s Pieces (product placement? What’s that?) Elliot uses to lure E.T. into the house for the first time, and of course, E.T. powering Elliot’s bicycle as they surge up into the sky and glide in front of the moon. I saw the movie with my mother and sister and we all loved it. Did we eat popcorn? I don’t know. Were there any ads or trailers before the movie? No idea. But I do remember that when we came home, I went to my room and saw the most magnificent thing. I shouted to my mother and sister to come join me. We stood at my big window overlooking the street, staring out in wonder. There in front of us was the very first rainbow I’d seen in my life. My mother stood between my sister and I, holding each of us by the hand. For a few moments I forgot all about the movie and its kindhearted aliens and cool spacecrafts and bike rides into the sky. The rainbow – this impossibly beautiful sum of light rays hitting raindrops – was the most magical thing in the world. It still is, though I’m happy to watch many movies, and be utterly moved by the best of them, until the next rainbow comes.