Another Level of Being There

Settled in Paris, Gertrude Stein said of her hometown, Oakland, "when you get there, there is no there there." In his memoir, Ricky Leacock, a pioneer of direct cinema, declared that his goal was to give the viewer the feeling of being there. What did he mean?

I had an opportunity to get a bit closer to the answer when my wife and I were invited to have lunch at the Paris apartment shared by the legendary film-maker and his partner, Valerie Lelonde. Together they'd made a film about everyday French life called “Eggs Cooked by Ricky Leacock" (it sounds even more playful in the original: Les Ouefs a la Coque de Richard Leacock). The film had recently been shown on French TV when my wife and I found our way, in the 1990s, to their left-bank home.

As I recall there was some editing equipment in the main room, but we ate family-style in the kitchen. Enjoying a delicious dish, I thought of a comment made by Gertrude Stein's cook in Paris. Stein was unhappily contemplating an invitation to a guest she didn't like but had to include. "I will make scrambled eggs," advised her cook. "They have the same ingredients as a beautiful omelet. He is French. He will understand."

In contrast, Leacock treated us very well. With regard both to food and to conversation, the occasion was extraordinary, and led me to a deeper understanding of what he meant by presence.

In his documentary career, Leacock had soon risen to the top as cameraman for Robert Flaherty on “Louisiana Story" (1948). With a small group of co-conspirators, he made many films, including "Primary," about the campaign in West Virginia between Hubert Humphrey and John Kennedy (1960). Some of the other people about whom Leacock created films were Leonard Bernstein, Marcel Duchamp, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Igor Stravinsky. Probably the best-known documentary on which Leacock worked was Pennebaker's “Monterey Pop" about the music festival (1968).

Since most documentaries are not big money-makers, Leacock supported himself in part for two decades as a professor of film at MIT. After teaching, he retired to Paris and the relationship with Lelonde.

Throughout his career Leacock sought to use the least obtrusive camera he could find or invent, a camera with the synchronized sound separate to reduce the size of the camera. He sought not to hide the equipment, but to normalize its presence, so that the people he was filming would almost forget he was there and would act almost as if weren't.

Before the direct cinema movement, film had been used, for example, for drama (as in Hollywood), newsreels, advertising, training, and political propaganda (such as Leni Riefenstahl's “Triumph of the Will" about the Nazis, released in 1935), but not much to show how people actually behaved when they were not on a stage or platform.

One of the films on which Leacock worked, "Jazz Dance," shows not the scene most people would try to describe, but, in some of its visual images (as well as on the soundtrack), the tenor of the music.

In spite of his slogan about simulating presence, I do not think that Leacock would have been happy to hear an unobservant person say one of his films was almost like being there. As we talked over lunch, I intuited that "being there" is not the casual experience of simply gaining access to some scene. In eastern meditation, as in some other practices, students learn to "be here now." As a Tibetan teacher said in "Lord of the Dance," Rick Kohn's film about a Tibetan ritual (1986), "To the ordinary mind, everyone is ordinary; to the enlightened mind, everyone is a Buddha."

On one level, Leacock was taken as wanting to transport viewers to a scene where they couldn't be present in the flesh, a scene they could see only on film. But at another level, I felt that he wanted to help viewers see more than they might have seen even if they'd been present.

At lunch we were relaxed and alert, the way one may hear a distant bell rung in a room outside a meditation circle, signaling that the teacher is ready for a conference in which anything might come up.

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