A friend of mine who loves movies refuses to watch documentaries. While I suggest this view limits his cinema experience, he responds that, if he wants to watch real people on screen, he can turn his television to the real housewives. After I speculate that reality shows may not be all that real, I urge him to consider how documentary films create magic on screen by using the lens to explore a person’s soul, a chapter in history or a moment in time we may never experience in real time.
This weekend, the Ridgefield Playhouse Film Society brings a special documentary — Eye On The 60s: The Iconic Photography of Rowland Scherman — that could change my friend’s view. With a keen sense of purpose, and a sincere respect for the subject, director Chris Szwedo beautifully describes a man’s journey as a photojournalist and the moments of time his camera captures. Without trying to tell too much story, or make too much of the story he tells, Szwedo uses his camera to go inside Scherman’s creative mind just as the photographer uses his lens to reach behind the eyes of his subjects. The result is a fascinating chance to revisit a momentous time in our nation’s history and to celebrate the art a camera can produce. This man’s view of his world challenges us to take a closer look at the paths we walk each day.
With Scherman’s commentary serving as the narration, Szwedo celebrates the photographer’s uncanny ability to find himself in the middle of many milestone moments of the 1960s, from the early days of the Peace Corps to the March on Washington to the music of Woodstock. Without taking himself too seriously, and always respecting the seriousness of his work, Scherman reveals the accidental journey his career followed as he discovered his passion for using a camera to capture the souls of people and the meaning of moments. He credits good fortune with much of his success, never suggesting that he became one of the nation’s leading photojournalists — and a favorite of Life Magazine — because he is good. Instead he refers to the places he visits and the people he observes as reasons for his accomplishments although he does acknowledge, with a smile, that he could move around with agility in his younger years. “I see the light shining out of people and I trip the shutter when I see that happen,” he comments about his work. “I see images that tell a story. If I can show how I feel about someone, maybe I should be photographing that person.”
With commentary from Scherman’s friend Tom Clark, and singer Judy Collins, director Szwedo paints a picture of a humble man who wonders if he “became a professional by accident.” Instead of building a case for the importance of Scherman’s accomplishments, Szwedo lets the work speak for itself, filling the film with incredible images the photographer captured during the decade, from celebrities (including The Beatles and Bob Dylan) to politicians (JFK, LBJ and RFK) to ordinary citizens experiencing incredible times. As the director explores the artist’s craft, he reveals a touching sentiment when Scherman observes that technology may make it too easy to take photographs, warmly recalling the dials and calculations that defined his routine.
By using so many of his photographs — and letting Scherman tell his story — Szwedo enhances our sense of discovery. We revisit a time that changed the world as we reach inside the creative mind of a man who preserved so many moments. As Scherman remarks, “my job is to document the movement of people. I am a fly on a wall.” For us, our memories of those moments are richer because this man chooses, as he describes, to “take snaps.”
Eye on the 60s: The Iconic Photography of Rowland Scherman will be shown at The Ridgefield Playhouse on Saturday, Nov. 22, at 7:30 p.m. For ticket information, go to ridgefieldplayhouse.org or call 203-438-5795. A question-and-answer session with producer/director Chris Szwedo will follow the screening.
5 Popcorn Buckets
Behind the Screen
Each week — exclusive to online readers of Arts and Leisure — Mark Schumann, The Reel Dad, looks “behind the screen” at the week’s featured film. This week, inspired by Eye On The 60s, he considers the evolution of the film documentary. Because, at the movies, it can be fun to look at what happens behind the screen.
Of the types of films we watch as we munch our popcorn, the documentary has changed from when it first appeared on screen. Today these reality-based films offer marvelous glimpses into people and places like we experience in Eye On The 60s. The merits of this film remind us how far the documentary has traveled in the past 50 years.
Back in the 1960s, movies followed conventional patterns. Big movies opened in big theaters with big casts and big expectations. The popularity of widescreen formats — and audience interest in watching longer films — inspired filmmakers to add minutes and characters to their narratives. Many of the epics of the day, from Lawrence of Arabia to How the West Was Won, were based on actual people and events. Reality was a hit at the movies.
Meanwhile, the documentary film followed a conventional approach. The winner of the Oscar as Best Documentary Feature in 1965, The Eleanor Roosevelt Story, looks today like a conventional news program. With its use of file news footage, and a glowing narration read by news reporter Eric Sevareid, the film offered a flattering look at the former first lady without exploring any potential controversy. It staged a reassuring view of history without asking many questions.
By the early 1970s, however, the world had changed enough for documentary filmmakers to consider how to use the camera to prompt meaningful discussion. Woodstock, the Oscar winner of 1970, captured the urgency of the moment as well as the belief that music could provide to a generation confused by institutions. Its freedom of film expression — in the hands of director Michael Wadleigh — taught a new generation of filmmakers how to capture real people and events. Without exaggerating reality, nor commenting on its potential impact, Wadleigh set a new mark for how a documentary could open our eyes without fabricating what we see. His impact was felt throughout the decade in such landmark documentaries as Marjoe — the look at a one-time child evangelist — and Hearts and Minds — the brilliant examination of the truth behind the decisions to fight the war in Vietnam.
As the 1980s began, the documentary continued to evolve with the first work from Ken Burns, Brooklyn Bridge. With an uncanny sense of the current moment, and a deep appreciation for the significance of history, Burns brought a fresh approach to the documentary that employed traditional devices. He made period photography and traditional narration feel fresh as he dared to simplify what the camera could inspire us to discover. A few years later, Robert Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk introduced new ways to combine archival footage and present-day interviews to place more recent historical events into perspective with this Oscar-winning look at the life and work of this brave gay politician in San Francisco.
A new force in the documentary, Michael Moore, jumped to the screen in 1989 with his devastating look at the CEO of General Motors in Roger and Me. By freely injecting himself into the documentary narrative, and expressing his opinions with abandon and without concern for reaction, Moore made himself as much the subject as the content his camera explored. And he transitioned the documentary to be hip, a tradition that continued with his follow-ups Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11. The details of a presidential campaign came to life in the 1993 documentary The War Room — about the 1992 election of Bill Clinton — as did the musical contributions of aging Cuban musicians in The Buena Vista Social Club and the lives of two Chicago boys who struggle to become college basketball players in Hoop Dreams, the 1994 film that ignited a public relations nightmare for the Oscars when it failed to be nominated for Best Documentary.
With the start of the new century, the documentary confirmed its position as an essential source for thought as well as a reliable form of screen entertainment. Over the past 14 years, in fact, the range of documentaries has been astounding, from the fearless look at the lessons of fighting in Vietnam in The Fog of War to the examination of corporate scandal in Enron, the Smartest Guys in the Room to the dangers of diet in Food, Inc. to the fun of crossword puzzles in Word Play. And, in the past couple of years, documentary filmmakers have taken us across the world to search for Sugar Man, placed us within 20 feet of stardom, introduced us to the private lives of such iconic performers as Joan Rivers and Elaine Stritch, and made sure we never look at Sea World the same way. Eye On the 60s gives us another way to look at the past with a fresh lens.
No matter what we may choose at the movies, the documentarian insists that we bring our minds to the theater. These creative filmmakers make sure that our popcorn is the least nutritious part of the experience.
And that’s what happens behind the screen.