A hedonist and humanist, admired filmmaker Ricky Leacock was curious about everyone, including the rich and famous, especially if he could show them sans their celebrity masks.
By Gerald Peary
It took decades for filmmaker Richard Leacock, the pioneer of cinéma vérité, to recognize me when we met about Boston, and I don’t think he ever knew my name. I took it philosophically: I’m a guy. If I were a pretty gal, Leacock would have known me immediately. Our last conversation was a sad one, at the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina in 2008, for I saw first-hand this famous lover of women feeling his mortality. Standing together at a cocktail party, the then 87-year-old sighed, and confided in me, “I can no longer touch. I can only look.”
Leacock, who died in 2011, had female groupies everywhere, including otherwise-feminists, and a legion of them showed up at a memorial service afterward at MIT. They were good-naturedly acknowledged in a generous speech by his widow and filmmaking collaborator, Valerie Lalonde. And one of his distaff groupies (I would assume so; I have never met her), Jane Weiner, has rewarded her mentor of 30 years with a gift of pure, radiant love: a fabulous, definitive documentary feature on his work and life, Ricky on Leacock, playing at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA as part of the DocYard series on Monday, April 8, at 7 p.m., with the filmmaker present.
Weiner calls him “Ricky,” and so did everyone else. And though we were never intimate, and though I never once was invited to his legendary Somerville dinners, featuring his extraordinary, international cooking, I will call him “Ricky” also, out of affection and respect. No doubt, he was a charmer of a man, with his school-of-George Plimpton patrician voice, his Gregory Peck impeccable looks.
For those who don’t know, Ricky was the cameraman-cinematographer-director who, while using actual film for half a century, strived to accomplish what videomakers finally would do with such ease: shoot quickly and spontaneously, anywhere and everywhere, including up close and intimately, and without those who you were shooting noticing you were shooting or changing their behavior because you were shooting. None of this is possible with traditional, elephantine, 35 mm cameras, so Ricky experimented obsessively to utilize 16mm cameras in the most fluid, peripatetic ways, off the tripod and also with even lighter super-8mm. That’s all evident in the sublime documentaries made by Ricky and his talented students—Robb Moss, Ross McElwee, and many others—when he ran the MIT Film Unit (1969–1988).
In his final years, Ricky and Valerie moved to Paris, where, he felt, the French really understood his oeuvre. And he embraced video completely for his last works, proclaiming “I do more experimenting now than ever in my life.”
For her great documentary, Weiner is not only privy to prime footage from many, many of Ricky’s films, going back to Canary Island Bananas (1935), but she has interviews with Ricky over many decades. For example, when the subject is Robert Flaherty’s iconic Louisiana Story (1948), for which Ricky was cameraman, Weiner cuts revealingly between Ricky’s recollections over 30 years, in which he seems to increasingly appreciate Flaherty’s disorganized approach to shooting, not having any idea what he would do on any day. He often welcomed being distracted from the principal story.
Ultimately, that was Ricky’s way of seeing the filmic world. Though he made some hard-hitting documentaries about Louisiana segregation and the KKK, he was the least political of cinéma vérité filmmakers. A hedonist and humanist, he was curious about everyone, including the rich and famous, especially if he could show them sans their celebrity masks. Leonard Bernstein. Nehru. JFK and RFK. He liked to hang about with his camera, not knowing what the narrative was going to be. He agreed with what Flaherty did on Louisiana Story: seemingly squandering a whole day with a large crew filming up close a spider spinning its web.
“I like everything about searching for images” was Ricky’s credo. “I make films about things I love, and people I love.” All true. And if a gorgeous, young woman could be hired on for assistant camera, so much the better.