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Dan’s Papers November 25, 2011 Page 53

ART COMMENTARY by Marion W. Weiss

The Art Of Documentary: Cinema Verite, Part 1

It used to be, “back in the day,” that documentaries were synonymous with “boring and badly executed.” Who can forget those educational films shown in high school, where history definitely did not come alive? In fact, it was dead on arrival. (We’re happy to report that movies presently in the school curriculum are much, much better.) Let’s face, it, documentaries had a bad reputation, and no one paid them much mind. Things are different now, where non-fiction films enjoy theatrical release, and people actually go see them in theatres. But what’s really significant is the influence that documentary techniques have had on Hollywood. What high-budget fiction film today doesn’t have hand-held cameras (meaning shaky) and long takes where one image remains on the screen for an extended period without changing to another image? Of course, many independent (non-Hollywood) movies have often used a documentary style. (Consider Easy Rider as an early example.) Yet the 1960s movement known as cinema verite became a landmark in the documentary’s evolution with its fully portable 16mm synchronized camera and sound recording system. Such development meant that filmmakers like Richard Leacock and

D.A. Pennebaker could shoot in tight spots, follow the subjects around, get up close and personal. Leacock explained the effect of this new method as “the feeling of being there.” But it wasn’t just a “feeling” that was so apparent. We felt we actually were there. Another aspect of cinema verite is implied with the word “verite” (truthful), suggesting that the films are an authentic recording of events, with little, if any, subjective perspectives. While the Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival over the weekend of November 18 celebrated both cinema verite and Leacock/Pennebaker with a special showing of Happy Mother’s Day and Crisis at Guild Hall, it also gave this critic a chance to see the works again and test a theory. Are these films really objective in their presentation of events? The conclusion is “No.” While they will always be valuable contributions to the cinema verite tradition, the movies are also worthy because they are subjective when showing an important time and place in a family’s life (Happy Mother’s Day) or in our nation’s history (Crisis). Simply put, the films are taking a sociological/political position that remains relevant to this day. But how did the filmmakers do this? Obviously, decisions to leave certain images/scenes in or take certain images/scenes out can determine their subjective concerns. Consider the scene in Crisis where Robert Kennedy’s young daughter talks to the Deputy Attorney General (Nicholas Katzenbach) on the phone right in the middle of a tense situation over whether Governor George Wallace will allow two African-American students to enter the University of Alabama. The episode gives Kennedy a human touch; despite scenes with Wallace and his own child, Kennedy comes off as a caring father while Wallace does not. Moreover, uses of a worm’s eye view convey Wallace as powerful and distorted (misguided). The editing in Happy Mother’s Day proves


James Del Grosso

This week’s cover by James Del Grosso is especially appealing, particularly if we’re hungry. Who can resist taking a bite from the luscious fruit? Then again, we don’t want to spoil the beauty. Better to just leave the fruit alone and enjoy the shapes and colors. Although the artist works in a realistic style, the images he creates go beyond realism. The fruit looks as if each item has a personality all its own. Consider his other subjects besides fruit, including a Zippo lighter, a dollar bill and a group of five-cent pieces. Like the pears and apples in Del Grosso’s other paintings, for example, they are everyday objects that are given extraordinary aspects. Q: Were you always a realistic painter? A: No. I did Abstract Expressionism in the 1960s. It started when I was at Cooper Union. I was living in SoHo and doing huge abstract paintings. Q: Tell me about living in SoHo in the early days. Was it difficult since artists weren’t supposed to have residences there?

A: I was living on Thompson Street, and we had no garbage collection. I would put the trash on Sixth Avenue at around 2 a.m., since I would work in the studio at night; the machinery downstairs in the building made such loud noises it was hard to concentrate during the day. One night, I took some empty liquor boxes from the liquor store across the street and went to Sixth Avenue. A police car started to follow me. They must have thought I had stolen goods. But they let me go after they saw all I had was garbage. Q: Any other odd things about living in SoHo? A: We had to put a sign, AIR (Artist-in-Residence), out for the fire department in case there was a fire. And the neighborhood was deserted at night. I would walk down Mercer Street, and the buildings were all dark except for one light coming from a window. You knew there was an artist living there.

Photo by Cookie Kinkead


D.A. Pennebaker at the Richard Leacock Gala At Guild Hall

subjective as well, particularly when there is cutting between the Fischer Family, who are utterly bored, and people who are honoring them at a dinner. The local townspeople also seem exploitive of Mrs. Fischer, who has just had quintuplets, and equally insensitive about her feelings. While Happy Mother’s Day and Crisis deal with wildly different issues and places (motherhood vs. integration and South Dakota vs. Washington, D.C./Alabama ), the themes are similar: a turning point and rite of passage for a family and the Kennedy presidency. Pennebaker and Leacock certainly knew what would capture the hearts and minds of moviegoers and fellow Americans. Cinema verite techniques no doubt helped their mission considerably, but the bottom line is this: they are extraordinary filmmakers above all else. Q: How did the non-artists accept you all? A: We were tolerated. I lived at Spring and Thompson Streets where it was an Italian community. Some of the “boys” would hang out on Thompson Street. Everyone got along. Q: Do you mean by the “boys,” Mafia members? Never mind. Don’t answer that. How did you start painting more realistically? A: I went into VISTA (like the Peace Corps, only for domestic areas). I moved to Virginia and worked with troubled kids. When I came back to New York, I wanted to do something more realistic. I did small still-lifes, portraits. Q: Speaking of portraits, you also did paintings of two U.S. presidents. A: Yes, Nixon and Gerald Ford. I had the work in my home for many years. When I was invited to a party for Ford, I gave him the portrait. It’s in the Ford Library. Q: What was the next big turning point in the development of your art? A: After I moved out here, that was a turning point. I wanted to do bigger works because I could say what I wanted to say doing that. I wanted to celebrate my sobriety. That’s why I painted larger pieces. Q: How do you perceive what you paint? How would you describe what you do? A: I look at everything as an object that shows form, color, light. All art is transient. The object is the point of departure. Works by James Del Grosso can be seen at the Web site

Dan's Papers November 25, 2011  

Dan's Papers November 25, 2011 Issue

Dan's Papers November 25, 2011  

Dan's Papers November 25, 2011 Issue