A Beautiful Farewell to Albert Maysles, Pioneer Filmmaker.

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“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.

Information about Maysles and the films he made with his brother can be found here – I highly recommend these brilliant films!Some Maysles quotes that I love:

“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.”

“The natural disposition of the camera is to seek out reality.”

“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.”

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I focused on Canadian films being made at that time in a similar, observational style, so I’d like to share an article I wrote on the Paul Anka observational film “Lonely Boy” (Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor, 1961), which began as a longer essay but was published in this form in Dairy River last year. Hopefully my passion for this style of filmmaking, which captures such a fascination with the people and places of the world, will inspire you to check out the films! I’ll provide a link to “Lonely Boy” at the end of the article:

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 …
-Susan Sontag

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!

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A New Year to Let the Awe In. (There’s No War in World)

My favourite capture of the year.

My favourite capture of the year.

 

We’re 15 years into the millennium!

Wondrous. Wonder. Awe. Reminders of LIFE.

I rarely leave the house without my camera, even if I’m in a cranky mood, or just walking to the supermarket or taking stuff out for recycling (a fairly complicated process in Japan that requires a fair bit of walking – well worth it!)

You never know how the sky is going to turn, or whom will be suddenly be doing what, or how the sun might lighting a flower to look like a fairytale, or what visual feast might appear before you.

Life is full of momentous occasions, the kind you expect and prepare for, and also the kind you can’t possibly anticipate — and we’re doing ourselves a great service when we can make a point of being present for every last second of it.

This doesn’t mean having a camera strapped to us at all times, of course. Image-making just happens to be one form of expression that gives me a great deal of joy. I’m always infinitely happier, it should be said, when I manage to carve some time to sit and observe my breath, when the only universe I have access to exists behind closed eyes. There’s nothing “only” about this, in my modest experience!

But most of life is lived with open eyes, and this is no small opportunity to have them open with full attention to the moment at hand, so we can see that behind/underneath our desires for how the world should look/be/appear/treat us, there is a humming, thriving, perfect world just as it is.

And just as we are.

It exists whether we have the thickest cloud or happiest rainbow filtering our view on any given day, and it’s our privilege to be able to find it.

I took the photo above on a crisp, sunny winter day. I walked by, at first absorbed in one interior drama or another, and something about the scene caught my eye. I turned and saw this man sitting on a bench at the park closest to where I live. From my view, he was caught in the “frame” of this ancient, strange play structure, and instinctively, before I reached for my camera, I took a few steps backward to frame the man in the center ring.

I couldn’t help but think: how happy we would remain if we seized every opportunity to make any of the infinite, small adjustments that are fully in our power to make, to manifest moments of always-beautiful and always-changing perfection.  It could be as simple as remembering to take a long, deep breath; or opening our eyes just a little wider with a heart that is just a little more expansive; or expressing gratitude for the air that gives us life, and the people who give us the great honour of practicing love.

Happy New Year, dear everyone, and may 2015 bring you a world full of joy and passion, peace and magic.

Tammy x

 

The Girl with the Ukelele (There’s No War in World)

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

 

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.

This is the finished product, for better or worse.

This is the finished product, for better or worse.

 

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.

Working on a Buddha bust.

Working on a Buddha bust.

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.

Out of the Shadows of Doubt, Faith

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

 

“Faith consists in believing when it is beyond the power of reason to believe.” ~ Voltaire

 

Faith is on my mind.

I’m not an expert on faith, and my relationship with it has run the spectrum from skepticism and turbulence to curiosity and wonder. But here I am, with some thoughts I have to shake out onto the page.

I recently spent some time with my sister’s kids, and the experience was a sheer delight from start to finish. My six-year-old niece is a slice of magic.

Having never been to a massage parlour in her young life, she somehow found it perfectly sensible to set up a home-and-portable version of one, which she maintained with an adorable professionalism and absurdly endearing attention to detail. She never once thought she should research the art and technique of massage or develop business acumen to any degree. She just went for it, and wildly succeeded, in my opinion, especially in her willingness to accept rhinestone hearts as cash.
There is a beautiful logic in the way children move around in the world.

Childplay can look like mimicry of the “real” world (“playing house” or “playing doctor”), but it is also a whole world all its own, which works according to its own internal rhythms.

We all had access to this world at one time; it was more or less our birthright, and many of us lose this capacity to really play as a child would, as the years go by and we’re encouraged to “grow up” and be responsible, functioning citizens.

Children don’t know statistics.

They don’t put two and two together the way we do. They don’t reason things out when they suffer. They just suffer. And then they don’t. They also have an amazing capacity to bounce back after a fall, can laugh from the deepest part of their gut (or soul, depending on how you want to look at it), and are often more than happy to find answers to their own myriad questions, no matter how eccentric these answers might seem to us.

Children follow their own logic, and I want to suggest that one of the threads underpinning this logic is faith. Children question everything, but they are believe, or rather, have belief.

They don’t doubt, as we do, because having doubt is essential to not being considered naïve in the world. They don’t start to doubt until they are given reason to doubt: maybe someone has lied to them and they’ve caught on, or maybe friend have bullied or betrayed them. Until this happens, the M.O. of children is to believe. To have faith. To know without knowing that it’s not just okay, but awesome to be in this world, as it is. As they are.

We can’t remain children, and there’s also a lot to be gained with the kind of knowledge that comes from learning rational thought, developing analytical abilities, and learning how to discriminate between one thing and the other. This goes without saying. Yet, we find ourselves trapped, unhappy, having compromised too many times.

We remind ourselves that we need to play more, laugh harder, love more freely. And we find it extremely difficult to do so with any level of commitment, passion…or belief that it’s possible to sustain these kinds of things.

We do need to laugh, to nurture ourselves.

We also need to remember what it can be like to believe. We know that when we believe in our friends, our loved ones, in the life we have built and in life itself, we are happier. It’s perfectly reasonable and logical that we should do things that make us happy. When things happen to dampen our ability to believe in certain things, or people, it’s also important to adjust our way of being in the world so that we do not set ourselves up to be continually disappointed or hurt.
But let’s not burn the whole house down.

Let’s not infer a hurtful world from one hurtful action. Let’s not assume belief itself is suspect because some things can no longer believed. Faith is not intentional—it is not meant directed at one object, not matter how large that object or entity is said to be.

Faith, I think, is about stripping away our doubts (some founded, some perhaps not), and seeing what remains. What remains must be a positive, not a negative, and we would be doing ourselves a huge favour by embracing it. What do we have to lose? We might want to ask ourselves: what have cynicism and doubt brought to our lives?

Conversely, what has belief brought us, when we’ve allowed it in?

Faith is faith—it exists, like children do, according to its own logic and rhythms, and we can either join the party or not. We don’t have to forget all that we are, were, and have been to join the party, and we don’t have to do anything with eyes closed.

We just have to remember what it can feel like not to move wildly and freely in the world, because doubt has gotten in the way. All we have to do is step in, with an open heart and a genuine intention to meet the world with good intention and an attitude of reciprocity, and let the rest unfold.

“If patience is worth anything, it must endure to the end of time. And a living faith will last in the midst of the blackest storm.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

 

*This article was first published on elephant journal.