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Leacock's Greatest Hits Return to NYC

The Reeler finally got its chance Tuesday to check out the Stranger Than Fiction documentary series, which hit its stride over the last few weeks with screenings of the Iraq War-veteran chronicle When I Came Home and the Ralph Nader survey An Unreasonable Man. Last night, however, will be a tough one to beat, with programmer Thom Powers and his counterparts from the Full Frame Documentary Festival welcoming cinema verite icon Ricky Leacock for a mini-retrospective at IFC Center.


(L-R) Ricky Leacock explains it all Tuesday night in the Village; D.A. Pennebaker explains Leacock (Photos: STV)

Of course, when you invite Leacock, you're inviting D.A. Pennebaker. And Albert Maysles. And Robert Drew. And Michael Moore. And Chris Hegedus. All of them dropped in to check out the ultra-rare troika of Toby and the Tall Corn, Happy Mother's Day and Jazz Dance, which Full Frame executive director Nancy Buirski praised lavishly in her introduction. "I think that you do understand the impact that direct cinema -- a new way of filming the world-- had on all of us," she said. "It affected the way we saw the world, and Ricky and his colleagues were in the forefront and really created this way of filming the world. But I would submit that Ricky took that further. He also not only believed that one doesn't infringe on what one is seeing, one observes, one just shoots what one sees. But I think he also understood that one appreciates the nuance and the details of what one sees. One sees poetry in what is, and those of us who care so much about documentary and care that documentary is meant to change the world sometimes forget that we need to appreciate the world the way it is. And I think what Ricky has done so specially to documentary is to help us appreciate the poetry in the world as it is."

Pennebaker offered an introduction of his own to Toby and the Tall Corn, Leacock's 1954 short about one of America's last traveling variety shows. He said he had viewed the film's original television broadcast and was stunned to realize that such remarkable art could find its way to the tube. It was less than a year after Pennebaker's own short romp Daybreak Express had overlapped footage of the Third Avenue El with Duke Ellington music -- a style he had planned to repeat in future films before seeing Toby.

"There were lots of things on television where people talked to each other, and high dudgeon appeared from time to time," he said. "But the thing about that film was it was exactly the way I imagined it really happened. And I didn't know how it was filmed ... But it had dialogue. And I had thought maybe I could go on a lifetime making five-minute films because I had a lot of musical records to put on. I thought, 'I'll never be able to make another five-minute music film, because what I want is dialogue.' I want to have the sense of causation and fulfillment and humor that (Toby) had -- almost like it had found it there. It hadn't written it or inspired it, particularly. It just happened. And whoever made it had found a way to be there with a camera and film it. And I thought, 'Of course!' ... What we do today comes right out of that film. I've never wanted to make a film differently from Toby. ...

"Leacock himself didn't spare me from a few further lessons in filmmaking, because we were partners and best friends for many years," Pennebaker continued. "That was a fantastic period in my life, and for that, I can never quite forgive him. But it led to all sorts of wondrous filmmaking adventures. But that film -- it was a fucker."

Maybe so, but the best film of the program was the classic Happy Mother's Day, a withering 1963 glimpse at the cultural fever surrounding the birth of the Fischer Quintuplets in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Leacock admitted that as two of many filmmakers and press organizations that descended on the scene, he and co-director Joyce Chopra were just another part of the media surge dogging the Fischer family. But the result -- which spotlights the range of that exploitation's public and private consequences -- is about as absolving as the pair could probably get.

"I found myself broke with Pennebaker; all we had was a camera, a tape recorder and an editing (machine)," Leacock told the audience. "I got a call from a friend who was an editor at The Saturday Evening Post, and he said, 'How much would it cost you to make a film of the Fischer Quintuplets?' I said, 'What?' He said, 'Don't you read the newspapers?' I said, 'Not if I can help it.' So he told me who Mrs. Fischer was, who'd had quintuplets out west. Joyce Chopra and I took the only camera we had and went out and filmed these quintuplets. We thought it was the dumbest idea we'd ever heard of, but it put some money in our bank account, so we did it. We couldn't afford not to."

In capturing the frenzy, Leacock and Chopra sussed out the real story behind the quintuplet pomp. "The more we shot, the more interested we got," Leacock said. "Anyway, we made an hour-long film, and my friend from The Saturday Evening Post, the original sponsor, loved it. His boss at Hearst Publications said, 'This is not the film we had in mind.' So we had to give all the footage to ABC, and they made a totally different film out of it."

The program ended with Jazz Dance, Roget Tilton's 1954 exercise on which Leacock worked as a cameraman. Raw, streaky and barely synced, the film nevertheless captures the exuberance of a Lower Manhattan dance club in all of its hyperkinetic beauty. The mobile camerawork and aggressive editing anticipated contemporary music video aesthetics a generation ahead of their time.

"Everyone told him he had to do it with the big cameras and the big tape recorders because that's the only way it could be in sync," Leacock said. "Every shot should be set up and rehearsed and clapsticks and announced and all that stuff. Camera, sound, speed, blah blah blah, and now set up another shot. We didn't want to do that ... I was very used to handheld 35-millimeter camera -- Bell & Howell, 100-foot reels. That's one minute of film, and the longest shot we could take was 18 seconds before you have to take it down and wind it up like a clock. And he said, 'Let's do it that way.' And we did. It was crazy. And I had no idea they'd ever really get it sorted out. But they did.' "

Posted at October 18, 2006 1:09 PM

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