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Richard Leacock, 1921 - 2011

David Hudson

"Richard 'Ricky' Leacock, the London-born filmmaker whose work with Robert Drew and DA Pennebaker would revolutionize and come to define a generation's view of documentary film, has died in Paris at the age of 89." So begins AJ Schnack's excellent entry, drawing on Leacock's own recollections posted at his "exceptional" site and including a couple of clips. "Reports of Leacock's death began to circulate on Twitter several hours ago and the French film site Allocine.com confirmed Leacock's passing. The Paris-based documentary festival Cinéma du Réel, which opens today, is planning to dedicate a portion of the festival to Leacock."

"As cinematographer, producer, director, and editor, Richard Leacock has been an important contributor to the development of the documentary film, specifically in cinéma verité, now often called direct cinema," Lillian Schiff has written for Film Reference, noting that "the lightweight 16-millimeter camera, handheld and synced to a quiet recorder, allows the filmmaker to intrude as little as possible into the lives of those being filmed... Leacock stated that he learned from [Robert] Flaherty how to discover with a camera. But having realized how difficult Flaherty's ponderous un-synced equipment had made direct shooting, Leacock later joined a group, led by Robert Drew of Time-Life in 1960, committed to making direct cinema films for TV. An example of the Drew unit's work was Primary, an account of the campaign of Democratic senators John F Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey in the Wisconsin presidential primary that Leacock worked on with Donn Alan Pennebaker, Robert Drew and Terry Filgate. Critics called this film an excellent report on the inner workings of a political campaign as well as an appealing glimpse of the personal lives of candidates and their families. But Leacock was dissatisfied because the camera people could never get in to film such vital behind-the-scenes activities as public relations methods."

In the photo on the right, taken by Arnold Eagle, Peacock is flanked by Francesa and Robert Flaherty as they worked on Louisiana Story (1948). In 2008, Ray Pride attended a master class Leacock conducted at Hot Docs and snapped several photos. And he's updated that series of photos with new additions.

Updates: "Leacock and his business partner, the equally crucial documentary filmmaker DA Pennebaker, distributed Godard's La Chinoise in the US and did very well with it," blogs the New Yorker's Richard Brody. "But they also brought Godard here in 1968, under the aegis of their production company, to make a film that was to be televised on the public-broadcasting precursor to PBS, called One A.M. (One American Movie); the film was shot (including in New York, where Jefferson Airplane performed on the roof of the Schuyler Hotel on West 45th Street and Godard filmed them from the production company's window across the street — until a crowd gathered in the street and the police put a stop to the show). But, when the shoot was done, Godard then decided not to complete the film, and Leacock-Pennebaker were financially responsible for the non-delivery. (To salvage something, Pennebaker completed the film, as One P.M.One Parallel Movie.)"

Eugene Hernandez, now of the Film Society of Lincoln Center: "'What am I looking for?' Leacock wrote in a 1997 essay. 'I hope to be able to create sequences, that when run together will present aspects of my perception of what took place in the presence of my camera. To capture spontaneity it must exist and everything you do is liable to destroy it... beware!'"

Updates, 3/24: "A memoir, Richard Leacock: The Feeling of Being There, will be released this summer as a book and a digital video book," reports Tom McElroy for the AP.

Ronald Bergan's obit for the Guardian is chock full of stories, among them, one about the making of Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963). "The crisis came when Kennedy had to implement a federal court order to allow two African American students to enroll at the University of Alabama in the face of defiant governor George Wallace. 'I just put the sound recorder behind [Kennedy's] chair and put the little microphone in the ashtray — he kept tapping his cigar ashes on it,' Leacock said. 'And I sat down in a corner with my camera. I'd promised no interviews, no questions. And it turned out beautifully.'" Leacock and Pennebaker's "biggest success was Monterey Pop; ironically, Leacock was a classical music addict and cared little for pop. Despite Leacock having shot Hendrix setting fire to his guitar, he later remarked: 'I didn't appreciate that kind of bullshit.' … Leacock then had to put up with the egocentric excesses of Norman Mailer, who was directing the fictional feature Maidstone (1970), in which the author starred as a film director running for president. Shot over a hedonistic weekend in the Hamptons, New York, it had an unplanned denouement when Rip Torn struck Mailer with a hammer, and Mailer responded by trying to bite Torn's ear off, all of which Leacock captured on film… Leacock was able to make a few documentaries that were more in line with his interests, such as his fascinating interview with the actor Louise Brooks in Lulu in Berlin (1984) and A Musical Adventure in Siberia (2000)." Leacock "kept up with the latest technology: 'I've sold my movie camera. I'll never use film again. Digital technology is everything I ever dreamed of, and it gets better every day. We can make movies out of our own pockets.'"

For indieWIRE, Eric Kohn talks with Mira Nair, who studied under Leacock during his time at MIT. "In 1977, I crossed Cambridge, Massachusetts to take my first class in filmmaking with him, not knowing anything of his great antecedents, or the fact that he and Pennebaker had created the mobile camera. Ricky was enormously human, completely accessible, with a great curiosity about the world." Richard Peña, program director for the Film Society of Lincoln Center: "I've never met anyone who was better at discussing all the ramifications and possible approaches of a film project." And for Albert Maysles, Leacock was "right up there with the best."

Update, 3/25: For his obit in the New York Times, William Grimes calls up Robert Drew: "He had an eye for character and story. While doing unimaginably difficult things with the camera, he could think of character and story and the human factor; that was his great gift."

Update, 4/2: "The direct cinema style helped in the opening-up of America after 1960 as more and more different voices were heard, not only in documentary film, but in the media and in public life," writes Tom Stempel at the House Next Door. "Without Leacock's hotel room scene in Primary, we would not have had Alexandra Pelosi's 2002 film Journeys with George. Yes, the downside of this is all the reality shows on television, but also the more intimate, compelling documentaries like Spellbound (2002), Capturing the Friedmans (2003), and this past year's Catfish. Leacock's influence will live on not only in film, but in real life."

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