The Father of Modern Documentary: Ricky on Leacock

08/08/2012 4:00 AM |

Ricky on Leacock
Directed by Jane Weiner

British filmmaker Richard Leacock, who passed away in 2011, had a hell of a life. As told in Jane Weiner’s informative, if frustratingly hopscotch, documentary Ricky on Leacock, his ingenuity, cool-headedness, and can-do spirit made him a natural film pioneer. Leacock made cinematic history: rubbing elbows with John F. Kennedy and India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and spending three months with the Ku Klux Klan, all after getting his start in the biz as cameraman for the legendary director Robert Flaherty.

It was on the set of Flaherty’s Louisiana Story, shot in 1946, that Leacock learned to discover images, letting go of the script in favor of reality. His mission would become to build a camera portable and affordable enough to wrestle filmmaking from the hands of the big studios, for which he felt profound contempt. Leacock finally said goodbye to the nightmare of few-hundred-pound equipment when he co-invented a Super 8 sync-sound camera. The rest, as they say, is history: using a handheld allowed him to shoot Primary in 1960, the first truly intimate portrait of an American president, of which Leacock said, “I sat in the corner, I never moved, I never talked, I was just looking.” The atmosphere was so cozy Jacqueline Kennedy broke into a whisper, shy of the Peeping Tom. The film did not find immediate admirers in America, but at the Cinémathèque Française it was hailed as the best thing since the brothers Lumière.

“Just looking” became Leacock’s motto, and his method would be known as “the living camera” or “direct cinema,” so new and intoxicating was the idea of showing reality with dialogue and spontaneous action, rather than via a painstakingly followed script, megawatt lighting and heavy-handed narration. At times, such as in 1961 with The Children Were Watching, which told the story of the only white woman who took her kids to a desegregated school in the South and whose house was besieged by a racist mob boycotting the school, the fly-on-the-wall approach conveyed claustrophobic tension perfectly; images and direct sound did all the work. At other times, the open-ended, no-commentary approach had undesired effects—Leacock’s anti-Ku Klux Klan film, Invisible Empire from 1965, was embraced by Klan members as useful propaganda.

Not all of Ricky on Leacock is as fascinating as the stories behind the original footage. Weiner seems star-struck, and treats viewers to too many chats over home-cooked dinners and film-award ceremonies. The latter might have been needed to bolster a lesser-known figure, but with Leacock, whose groundbreaking movies speak for themselves, are fillers. Nor is it clear why the film’s timeline must jump around so much, distorting any linear sense of Leacock’s artistic and technical development. Leacock sounds daintily Woody-Allenesque when he declares, “I just love Paris,” his adopted home in retirement, and radiates breezy charm in every shot. But his portrait feels a bit bloated, even for a life so genuinely charged with adventure—not to mention offering essential lessons in the history of documentary filmmaking.

Opens August 10 at IFC Center, part of DocuWeeks 2012