Learning From the Masters
Written by Scott R. Caseley | Posted by: Anonymous
Despite growing up as an avid fan of Ingmar Bergman, Richard Kane never considered film a career pursuit. He was passionate about things as varied as theater, law, and politics, so he assumed those interests would lead him to law school. It wasn’t until his sister got a job with a documentary film company in New York that he saw film as a viable plan. Following a brief period as a journalist in San Diego, he began two years of graduate studies in film at Temple University.
He was working at an Indiana public access affiliate when he met two people that led him to the making of his first film, Tough, Pretty or Smart: Dillon Bustin, a folklorist and singer/songwriter, and Melody Lewis, who would later become Kane’s producer and wife. Bustin introduced Kane to six fellows from coal mining backgrounds, aged 18-80, who had formed a string band. Tough, Pretty or Smart documented their performances at the Kentucky Old Time Fiddle Festival. The film went on to win Best Documentary Short at the Cork International Film Festival, which made it an automatic contender for the 1981 Academy Award.
Kane learned a lot from the process, including the art of grant writing, what it was like to work with an academic, how to document different cultures, and notably — how to film with a 16mm Éclair ACL camera. But it was the personalities that resonated with him above all. “I have long focused on ordinary people, or lesser-known people doing extraordinary things. I might have a larger audience if I’d chose a subject like Bob Dylan, but I’m attracted to what is common and finding the beauty and truth in that,” he said in a recent interview with NewEnglandFilm.com.
Scott Caseley: Did Tough, Pretty or Smart receive the kind of response you were seeking?
Richard Kane: We just wanted to tell their story. It’s a real toe-tapper, and a very poignant portrait of hard-working men who played country music for the pure joy of it. I came to the conclusion that their art was a kind of salve for easing the pain of doing jobs like coal mining that they might have had some doubts about. The band’s leader, Tony Rothrock, a national award-winning Chet Atkins-style guitar picker, spoke of how as a coal miner he helped to rip up the earth and bemoaned the fact that nothing was left behind — just the memory of what once was. Some day we may go back and tell their story from the other end of life.
SC: Since the success of this first film, you’ve worked with a number of noteworthy cable outlets and companies including but not limited to: the US Department of Commerce, National Geographic Television, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and CBS News, what have been some of the greatest benefits for working with such institutions?
Kane: While in the Washington DC market for 18 years, I led a split personality life — as a producer/director/writer on the one hand, and as a freelance sound recordist on the other. These are vastly different jobs that require very different impulses. A producer/director needs to be out front probing, challenging, needling, cajoling, and negotiating. As a freelance sound recordist, I learned the value of listening and watching. I worked with the absolute best producers, directors, and directors of photography… and I worked with the worst. And the lessons from both are extraordinary.
Benefits? With National Geographic you get to travel to the four corners of the globe. Today that’s a HUGE carbon footprint we can’t afford. We need to be and work more locally, finding the universality of message so we can broadcast globally. With the Kennedy Center you get to affect the world of education through the arts, a way that touches the souls of so many more children. With CBS and the other networks I got to witness great moments in history — elections, inaugurations, hurricanes, impeachments. Actually it was the Monica Lewinsky story that was the straw that broke the camel’s back and convinced me to move to Maine — to get away from the sensationalism of the media and to do more meaningful work.
SC: What made you decide to develop a series of films on the artists of Maine, called aptly, the Maine Masters series?
Kane: The Maine Masters series was conceived by two principle players of the Union of Maine Visual Artists (UMVA) — Rob Shetterly, an extraordinary painter and dedicated political activist known for his series Americans Who Tell the Truth, and Deb Vendetti, a great arts educator and filmmaker, formerly with the Farnsworth Museum. They came to me with footage they had shot of a joyful artist full of wit by the name of Robert Hamilton. They said, “What can you do with this?” It’s still my favorite.
SC: How do you select each subject?
Kane: The Maine Masters Committee, comprised of several very knowledgeable and esteemed members of the UMVA, makes the selections. I offer suggestions and as I have become more and more involved and more expert at knowing the artists and what makes Maine a special and unique place for art, I have some influence. I also play the realist as I take a leading role in the raising of funds. But we are developing other ways of fundraising and involving more people in the process. The artists filmed first are the ones who are funded. We have several Maine artists in various stages of production — Stephen Pace, Cabot Lyford, Yvonne Jacquette, Ashley Bryan, Beverly Hallam, and William Irvine.
SC: What disciplines of the arts do your artists follow?
Kane: Painting, sculpture, photography, so far. However one of our upcoming portraits is of Ashley Bryan, who in addition to being a painter, is a brilliant poet and performing artist.
SC: Alan Magee, one of your subjects, talks about role-changing as time goes on, not because the present is better than the past, but because he doesn’t know if he wants to be known as a certain kind of artist now. How do you feel your role as an artist has changed over time, how have your ideals and visions for your own work evolved?
Kane: I am hopeful that I will soon find a way to help move the world closer to a sustainable model. (I just received start-up funds for a film on Winds and Tides – [about] renewable energy in Maine and throughout the world.) And like the fellows in my first film Tough, Pretty or Smart, while doing the work that needs to be done (social, political and environmental films), I too need the salve of making films of beauty and awe and wonder to soothe the pain of everyday life and the sadness that can grip me when grappling with seemingly insurmountable global problems such as war, poverty, sickness, climate change.
I don’t think about how I want to be known. I do my work and I am grateful to be alive and to be given the gift of following my passions.
SC: Magee has a number of controversial works, some that grew out of responses to the Gulf War, and a number of other political and psychological mindsets. Do you feel your own feelings on issues of today and of the mind really factor into your work?
Kane: Sometimes I think films about art won’t quickly enough change the society we live in to one in tune with nature. We’ve got to get the message out there on YouTube et al that we all can’t continue consuming and soiling the earth we live on and the atmosphere we breathe. I’m now making a 50th anniversary film for the Natural Resources Council of Maine to help get that message across. But perhaps my most successful film, M.C. Richards: The Fire Within, about this philosopher of creativity and a deep spiritualist, has had the most impact on my life and work. I learned from M.C. about gratitude, about listening, and being receptive. [Kane’s essay on gratitude is forthcoming.]
SC: Magee does photorealistic drawings of rocks on the shoreline, with careful attention given to the surrounding nature, and he has figure drawings which represent more of a symbol than actuality, which way do you feel your own work would best be described?
Kane: Given a choice, I would lean towards reality before symbolism. It’s less about me than it is about the subject. I learned that from a director by the name of Clark Santee who directed musical performances at Wolf Trap. He said, “Give the performance to the performer.” It’s less about camera moves than it is about allowing the performer to reveal their art within the borders of the frame. Not to say I don’t use close-ups and get real details and manipulate the medium to make the experience of viewing seamless.
SC: Olive Pierce described a pivotal moment in her adolescence, when she was on a family vacation during the depression in Wyoming. Her father picked up a drifter who had lost his farm and was trying to make his way to California, but didn’t know if he would make it that far. She made a mental note of the way the drifter’s neck was weather worn and had criss-cross patterns on it from the sun, however her father’s was completely smooth. What is it about these artists that you feel represent a difference between their lives and those of other people you encounter?
Kane: Part of an artist’s job is to be an acute observer and then to point that out to all of us. Those who don’t observe like an artist have other attributes — deep thinkers, hard workers, free spirits. I think it’s important to recognize the similarities among us more than to emphasize the differences. We live in a world of multiple intelligences and one is no better than another. We all have something to contribute to making this a better, more beautiful world.
SC: About living in Maine Lois Dodd said, “there is the convenience of that you can go out that door and that there is something right there that you can paint.” With your work, do you feel that the best stuff is right there within your boundaries, or do you push yourself outside of your surroundings and find new places to explore with your films?
Kane: I moved to Maine in part to be in a place of beauty, so I wouldn’t have to travel to find it. I spent perhaps 20 years traveling the four corners of the earth working on all kinds of films. Although traveling can be very exciting, meeting exotic cultures, eating exotic foods, learning about customs (my favorite shoot was in New Guinea with a tribe called the Korowai), it no longer fits the model of a sustainable way of life. Maine can be a great incubator for solutions to world problems and it has some of the most beautiful landscapes and seascapes imaginable. And art flourishes here. Where else do I need to go?
SC: According to your documentary, the late Robert Hamilton’s work can “seem to tell stories but if there are narratives, you the viewer will have to provide them.” Do you have an all-encompassing goal with each of these pieces, or do you feel that it’s up to your viewers?
Kane: It’s best not to force feed a message to your audience but to leave enough room for them to come to their own conclusions. Then the message will truly be held by each of them. That’s why I use little narration.
SC: Hamilton believed that “Impressionism was the biggest revolution you can think of in painting,” what do you feel is the era we’re living in now with filmmaking, and do you see yourself as a part of that, or someone who transcends the modern era?
Kane: The majority of what is on TV is gross sensationalism. The reality TV genre is as big a sham as the excuses used for getting into the War in Iraq. “Clear Skies” was a Bush Administration program that allows more pollution. Something is warped. I don’t transcend this trend. I just reject the baser models.
SC: Coming up next in this series is Stephen Pace. What was the most engaging thing you learned about him that your viewers might be tantalized by?
Kane: He discovered abstract expressionism for himself while on the GI Bill in San Miguel de Allende, in Mexico in 1946, along with so many other American artists affected by the horrors of WWII, the Holocaust, and the dropping of the atomic bombs.
Pace was one of the greats. It wasn’t unusual for him to be in a Whitney Museum Biennial in between paintings by Franz Kline and Hans Hofmann. Between 1952-1961 he was in seven of those events. Heady days. But he was always a boy from the country, having been born in Missouri and raised in Indiana, where he has recently returned to live out his life.
SC: What kind of audience do you want to reach with this series?
Kane: We are currently reaching a primarily adult audience through screening series at art centers, museums, and universities. But we have yet to make a dent on a student population who would so benefit from seeing the contributions that these older artists are making to their communities. It gives younger art students a model, “Yes, I can make it as an artist in Maine.” They don’t have to leave to make it in their field.
Stephen Pace screens twice on August 24th: at the Farnsworth Museum at 2 pm and at the Stonington Opera House at 7 pm . It also screens at the Grand Auditorium in Ellsworth on September 12th. For more information about Kane-Lewis Productions, visit www.kanelewis.com/.