Filmmaker Karen Thorsen gave us James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket, the award-winning documentary that is now considered a classic. First broadcast on PBS/American Masters in August, 1989—just days after what would have been Baldwin’s sixty-fifth birthday—the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1990. It was not the film Thorsen intended to make. Beginning in 1986, Baldwin and Thorsen had been collaborating on a very different film project: a “nonfiction feature” about the history, research, and writing of Baldwin’s next book, “Remember This House.” It was also going to be a film about progress: about how far we had come, how far we still have to go, before we learn to trust our common humanity. But that project ended abruptly. On 1 December 1987, James Baldwin died—and “Remember This House,” book and film died with him. Suddenly, Thorsen’s mission changed: the world needed to know what they had lost. Her alliance with Baldwin took on new meaning. The following memoir—the second of two serialized parts—explores how and why their collaboration began. The first installment appeared in the sixth volume of James Baldwin Review, in the fall of 2020; the next stage of their journey starts here.
As this essay notes, James Baldwin, his words and metaphors, pervade public space at
countless numbers of intersections. Lines from his plays, novels, and essays have always
been an easy and handy reference for writers and artists seeking ways to ground their
intentions with deeper meaning and magic. Even in a minority opinion on 22 June 2016
written by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, she cited several authors, including
Baldwin, to underscore her point on the Court’s abrogation of the Fourth Amendment.
which, in Rouch's view, defies translation in this more poetic sense. Rouch claimed that when he entered this state, he felt liberated from the weight of anthropological and cinematographic theory and became free to rediscover what he called ‘ la barbarie de l’invention ’ – a phrase that also defies a simple translation but which one might render as ‘raw creativity’.
There was also another, very different ingredient to Rouch's notion of the
‘feel’ by the authorial strategies that Sjöberg adopted in shooting and editing. Following Rouch's example, Sjöberg shot most of the film as if it were a cinéma-vérité documentary, using long unbroken takes whenever possible. However, in order to keep the fantasy elements firmly anchored in the real world of contemporary São Paulo, the ethnofictional story is discreetly punctuated at various points with brief snatches of contingent reality footage entirely unconnected with the central story – establishment shots of crowds on the streets, anonymous passing traffic
techniques showcased in JFK and Natural
Born Killers among others were eschewed for a more pared-down
palate, visible in the cinémavérité style of the Castro documentaries and the pedagogic techniques of presentation used in Untold
History. It added up to an auteurist instinct that was almost covering its artistic tracks.
Indeed, post-Sarris, post-structuralism and variants thereof, more
recent assessments of auteurism have given added emphasis to the
commercial aspects of a director’s brand. Undoubtedly, this has been
a strong dimension in Stone’s story too. By the
Flaherty, John Grierson and others in the early
1920s and 1930s, documentary filmmakers were regularly staging
re-enactments as part of the construction of their films. During
the same period, Soviet documentarian Dziga Vertov introduced
cinematic techniques such as slow motion as aids to observation.
In due course, a trend in polemical and carefully edited documentaries emerged from Leni Riefenstahl, Pare Lorentz, Frank
Capra and others which all highlighted the propaganda power of
documentary. Later decades saw the introduction and development of cinemavérité styles
-making, as represented by such diverse figures as Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage and Leni Riefenstahl, and the kind of truth that they could communicate. By the same token, he was not attracted to ‘the hard-edged cinéma-vérité style of truth every 24th of a second’. He concluded that there was probably no truth in the films produced by this approach and even if there was, he was more interested in the truths that lay beyond those delivered by ‘conventional storytelling or straight observational documentary’.
As a corollary of this self-identification as an
involved in the Ethnographic Film Program at UCLA and, along with Direct Cinema and various other interpretations of the cinéma-vérité approach contributed in a major way to the general zeitgeist in ethnographic film-making in the English-speaking world in the 1980s. Making a particularly important contribution to this general ferment of related approaches was
Celso and Cora
, a film released in 1983. This highly acclaimed account of the everyday lives of a young couple living in an impoverished barrio in Manila was
brief flashbacks to his life
playing professional tennis highlight that the loss of control in his
life began before he arrived in Superior. Bobby’s isolation, as manifested in his dealings with Darrell and Grace, invites us to see the
town not just as the passive recipient of his distain, but as a victim
in its own right that requires more careful analysis. Stone’s use of
brief cinemavérité-style shots of local inhabitants unconnected with
the rest of the story suggests a direction for this analysis, underlining the distance and lack of mutual understanding
affect an aspect of “liveness” (as in cinemaverité), they do not escape from this, nor do they really
pretend to be live in the way that television sitcoms, for example,
pretend to be live. While it used to be that most people would only
view a film once, that is no longer true and everyone can (and does)
see their favorite films over and over