Sunday, 24 November 2013

Cinema-Verite And The Blues (and Jazz)

Documentaries are often considered the poor cousins of film-making. With low budgets and usually small audiences they require no actors, writers or special effects, however the first movies were documentaries were in fact of a sort. Early film makers simply pointed a camera at an event such as a city scape, a passing train etc. and let the film roll. The French called these films "Actualities". Once film-makers learned how to tell stories these "Actualities" fell out of style, however some directors expanded their films to full length to present a point of view. Some of the best known of these early documentary films included city portraits as the German Walter Ruttman's "Berlin; Symphony Of A Great City", the Russian Dziga Vertov's "Man With A Movie Camera" and the French Jean Epstien's "Nice". Equally important were films that explored less known ethnic cultures such as Robert Flaherty's "Nannook Of The North" (about Eskimos), "Moana" (Samoans) and "Man Of Aran" (rural Ireland) and FW Murnau's "Tabu" and (Tahiti). More overtly political were numerous films made in the Soviet Union to glorify the revolution. The success of these films would inspire film-makers in America, funded by the FDR's New Deal to fan out into the country and use film to explore the the lives of working people, whether in the cities, factories or countryside. These films tended to be less artsy and more straight forward with more explicit off screen narrations. In World War and the Cold War these films became ever more strident. By the 1960's this eagerness to use documentary film to explore differnt cultures in their own setting was to converge with the folk music movement.

The folk music movement of the late 1950's and early sixties was about more than music. Folklorists such as Alan Lomax and Moses Asch (founder of Folkways Records) and Chris Starchwitz (founder of Arhoolie Records), and musicians such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie insisted that through music such as early country, folk, blues and gospel could be found the real soul of the common man. Therefore it was important to show the roots of such music in it's original setting, usually the American South. Blues was especially important to the folk scene since it showed the people who were clearly on the lowest level of society, African Americans. The Blues were also important because by the early sixties they were had reached an influential audience in British rock musicians such as the early Rolling Stones, Yardbirds and Animals among others. Thus exploring the history of the blues could be used to explain the black experience to a young educated white audience.


By the 1960's a documentary style known as Cinema-Verite had developed. This actually was basically a reversion to the earlier films of Ruttman, Vertov and Epstein instead of the more overt politically mined docs of the 1930's with their intrusive narrations replaced by a more passive camera holding lingering closeups of mundane details to tell a story. Cinema-Verite was known for it's focus on highly personal subjects as opposed to larger issues. The Verite style developed as well from the cheaper, smaller cameras, lights and mics which allowed for a casual direct approach. This turned out to be perfect for filming rural musicians in their home environments in the way that folklorists Alan and John Lomax had been doing with their field recordings since the 1930's.

Alan Lomax teamed up with folk musician Pete Seeger to make the 1946 short film "Hear Your Banjo Play", which used the banjo to explore the history of and the links between Blues, Country and Gospel and it's roots in the American South. The film has some stilted passages where an off-screen narrator (Lomax) interviews Seeger who details the musical history in occasional flowery terms. These parts seem a little corny as in the; "Hello Pete." "Oh Hello; I didn't see you there." exchanges which seem out of a 1950's TV commercial. However the film also has some good location footage shot in Appalachia and The Delta which show the landscape the music came from and includes performances by Woody Guthrie with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee and singer Texas Gladden. The doc takes pains to show the poverty of the people but is oddly silent on the racial divide of the era which is odd since this film was shot during the heights of the Civil Rights battle. This may be partly by design since common amongst the urban folkies of the era it makes little distinction between the black and white music of the South and instead implies that they are all linked by the soil and a common experience of working the land. There is even a shot of blacks and whites picking cotton together. This theme is most vividly shown in the song that Woody Guthrie does with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee which is the strongest number.


Another short film that stepped away from the more stagey moments and focused instead on a more detached Verite was one featuring Delta Bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell and directed by Christian Garrison. McDowell was a veteran blues singer from the 1930's who had never scored a hit or signature song but had belatedly become a success when he was discovered in the early 1960's and joined the folk revival scene and found himself in demand recording and playing festivals. This film had a narrator only to set the scene and then it stepped back and allowed McDowell to speak for himself, first in a voice over and then through his music. The film alternates between footage of McDowell singing and playing guitar and footage of the Delta. These scenes show both rural images with cotton fields and run-down sharecropper shacks, along with small-town street scenes. Once again the focus is on the poverty, contrasting the sharecropper shacks with shots of a plantation mansion. The scenes of rustic poverty seem slightly out of place with McDowell's shiny electric guitar and folklorists like Lomax would have no doubt insisted he leave it behind and use a more "authentic" acoustic. Once again the subject of race is basically untouched. In fact in the street scenes there are shots of black and white men chatting amiably and going about their business. In fact pretty much everybody seems content. The fact that this film was done for the University of Mississippi may have something to do with this.

"Blues Maker";

A short film portraying the Delta Bluesman Blind Gary Davis and directed by Harold Becker was even more Verite in it's style. This film had no narrator at all except for a couple of passages from Davis himself. Davis was better known than Fred McDowell, particularly as a guitarist, and had scored a few minor hits in the 1920's before he retired and took to the pulpit. He was often billed as The Rev. Gary Davis and he thereafter usually played only gospel material or instrumentals albeit in a blues style. Like McDowell and many other older bluesmen (such as Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James and Big Joe Williams) Davis was lucky enough to have his work rediscovered in the early sixties and went on to the festival circuit, moving to New York City. The film has a few shots of Davis performing in his Harlem apartment but is more concerned with capturing the atmosphere. There are lingering shots of his tiny cramped apartment, focusing on mundane items such as the broken linoleum on the floor, an ancient stained sofa, a sepia toned family photo. There camera then moves outdoors to show the cold winter streets of Harlem with it's dingy tenements and graffiti strewn alleys. There are plenty of shots of people going about. This time they are all black and almost without exception they are all sullen, and distant, often glaring suspiciously at the camera from murky doorways and sometimes slinking inside. Since it is likely that the camera must have caught at least some shots of people smiling and waving as well, the choice not to use those shots and instead focus solely on the negative along with the choice of a gloomy, dingy winter day send a message. Namely; here is what has happened to the black community in it's journey North to the big city. The superiority of the old-time rural over the modern, corrupt big city was a common theme in the early sixties folk scene.


Don Franks & The Lenny Breau Trio
The Don Thompson Quintet
The Alf Johnson Quartet w/Michael Snow

In the 1960's Canada's National Film Board (NFB) was the acknowledged master of cinema verite. "Toronto Jazz" is an interesting snapshot of the Toronto Jazz scene in the early 60's. This film has some limitations; by 1963 Toronto had a thriving rock and R&B scene on Young street with Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks (later the band), Little Caeser & The Counsuls, David Clayton Thomas & The Shays as well as a folk scene in Yorkville with Ian & Sylvia Tyson and Gordon Lightfoot and Marilyn & Fred Berg (who were distant cousins of mine). This film gives none of this so much as a mention. Still it does has some good footage of the legendary guitarist Lenny Breau (Randy Bachman is a worshipful fan). There is also footage of pianist Micheal Snow who is perhaps better known as an artist. The Toronto skyline is unrecognizable with no CN Tower, Skydome, Nathan Phillips Square or Eaton Centre, although Rosedale and the Bloor Viaduct look the same. In fact the footage of Don Franks driving through Rosedale and admiring the large houses with their manicured lawns while discussing integrating Bach with the Blues shows just how far the Blues traveled compared to the bleak slums of Rev Gary Davis' world let alone the crude downhome cotton fields of Fred McDowell and Texas Gladden in the earlier films.


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