The Olive Trees Of Justice (1962)

Recoiling from the approaching death of his father, the reduced economic circumstances of his family, and the chaos of a city at war, Jean, the son of a French colonialist, retreats to memories of the years he spent growing up on the family farm on the Mitidja plain outside Algiers. One childhood friend, Said, is now a revolutionary. Another, Boralfa, is his mother’s kitchen servant. At his father’s funeral, Jean argues with Boralfa over the future of Algeria, but refuses to relinquish his childhood bonds, or his identity as an Algerian.

James Blue made The Olive Trees Of Justice as a collaboration. Jean Pélégri, the author of the semi autobiographical novel on which the film was based, co-wrote the screenplay and plays the dying French colonialist, a character based on his own father. The closest thing to a professional actor in Blue’s cast, Pélégri had recently played the role of the Inspector in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket.

The rest of the actors were non professionals. All Algerian. James Blue cast shrewdly, choosing the son of a colonialist to play the son of a colonialist, the mother of a friend to play a mother, and three young Algerian boys to play, basically, themselves. Shot entirely on location, the war torn urban landscape of Algiers is another important character in the film.

Maurice Jarre shoehorned the score for The Olive Trees Of Justice into a year which saw him composing five (5) film scores, including Lawrence Of Arabia.

Shot under pretext it was about the wine industry, smuggled out of Algeria and edited in France, James Blue showed The Olive Trees Of Justice out of competition at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Critics Prize. It was his first feature.

Here’s the young artist in New York, just before his triumph:

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And a confession: I like Olive Trees because it does not have James Blue voiceover.

The narrator is not omniscient. He is guilty, nostalgic, self loathing, resentful, respectful, and open to personal transformation. He is an adult child, wandering the streets looking for – what? For Said? For some idea of how to resolve the conflict between what he knows he should do and what he fears he will do? Throughout the film, he wears the mournful expression of someone who has been asked to stand in a corner.

His movements through Algiers are shot newsreel style, allowing us to see, in real time, on the real sidewalks and streets, the volatile mix of European and Arab culture constantly ready to explode. By contrast, the scenes of his remembered childhood on his father’s farm are shot as classic Hollywood cinema. Lyrical, orderly, concise. The dilemma is not just that Jean wants to live in the past. He wants to live in a movie.

But Jean’s memories, however nostalgic, also contain the seeds of war. The holy man who tends the graves of departed saints curses Jean’s father for not respecting Muslim religious tradition. The same holy man, when Jean’s father is threatened by a group of hungry Arab men, appears and disperses the crowd. He defies categorization, and cannot be reconciled into European worldview. Jean grew up learning both cultures. He watches the holy man celebrate Muslim holy days, and he watches his father set off fireworks to celebrate Bastille Day. He speaks Arabic and he speaks French. There is no space in Algiers which is off limits to him. Yet all he wants is to flee.

James Blue, in interview:

Pélégri and I wanted to show the complexity of any such situation; that it can’t be reduced to villainous people and good people – the good guys and the bad guys. These people were in the grasp of a colonial system which was bad. How can a past, which seems so happy, produce this present which is in such chaotic form?

The Olive Trees Of Justice, James Blue’s first narrative feature, was also his last. From this point on, all his work would be in documentary. Yet a theme he returned to throughout his career – that of working with a community to express itself on film – is in full display in this, his least characteristic work.

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One of the few surviving 16mm prints of The Olive Trees Of Justice was screened on February 12, 2014 at the Schnitzer Museum of Art as part of the University of Oregon’s James Blue Tribute.

That same fragile print was screened at the Hollywood Theatre on Oct. 11, 2014 as part of the Mid Century Oregon Genius screening series. Richard Blue, James Blue’s brother, and James Dormeyer, Blue’s classmate at IDHEC, introduced the film. Blue’s former student and longtime colleague Gill Dennis joined them afterwards for a panel discussion.

In the audience was Sheldon Renan, who served with James Blue on the NEA’s first media funding panel in 1970, and Brooke Jacobson, who worked with Blue on an NEA survey of regional film resources in the mid 1970s.

Larry Bissett and James Ivory, two of Blue’s University of Oregon classmates, traveled to the screening from Seattle and New York, respectively.

James Ivory rose from his seat during the discussion which followed the film to describe his wonder at Olive Trees‘ visual elegance and unsentimental approach to story. This film, he said, is so French.

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Notes On James Blue is supported by The James and Richard Blue Foundation,  a 501 c3 non profit organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of filmmaker and film educator James Blue. All thoughts, opinions, and errors, however, belong to Anne Richardson, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Are All Oregonians Secretly French?

How French is Oregon?

I addressed this question in 2009, during the Oregon Sesquicentennial Film Festival. Here is the abbreviated version of my argument.

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James Blue (1930-1980) won the Critics Prize at Cannes in 1962 for his French language feature, The Olive Trees Of Justice. He was a graduate of Jefferson High School ’49 in Portland, University of Oregon ’53  in Eugene and L’Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC) ’59 in Paris.

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Currently, four Oregon directors are beloved by French audiences.

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James Ivory (Klamath Falls), 6 nominations for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Winner of Cannes 45th Anniversary Special Award for Howard’s End (1992).

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Gus Van Sant (Portland), 3 nominations for the Palme D’Or at Cannes. Winner for Elephant (2003). Winner of the Cannes 60th Anniversary Special Award for Paranoid Park (2007).

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Bill Plympton (Oregon City), 2 nominations for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. His Idiots and Angels (2009), received theatrical release in France, and was seen all across that country. His Cheatin’ (2014) just won the Jury Award at Annecy

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Penny Allen’s (Portland) latest film, En Retard Pour L’Enterrement De Ma Mere (Late For My Mother’s Funeral), is a French language feature length documentary-narrative film hybrid. Like The Olive Trees Of Justice, it was shot entirely on location in Algeria, and features a cast of non-professional actors.

How French is Oregon?

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Oregon is so French, Bill Plympton says that everyone in France accepts without question the immediate assumption that Pink Martini is a French band.

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This post first appeared on Anne Richardson’s Oregon Movies, A to Z, during the Oregon Sesquicentennial Film Festival at Maryhurst University in 2009. It has been amended to include James Blue. I learned of James Blue from James Ivory during his appearance at that festival.

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James Blue‘s French language feature, The Olive Trees Of Justice, will be presented at the upcoming Mid Century Oregon Genius screening series at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Oregon. Non French language films in the series are by Harry Smith, James Ivory, and Homer Groening, the senior member of the two generation Groening dynasty.

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Notes On James Blue is a blog kept by Anne Richardson, of Oregon Movies, A to Z, to cover the 2014 James Blue Tribute. The six month long Tribute celebrates the bequest of James Blue’s films to the University of Oregon by The James and Richard Blue Foundation, a 501 c3 non profit organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of filmmaker and film educator James Blue.

Notes On James Blue is supported by The James and Richard Blue Foundation. All thoughts, opinions, and errors, however, belong to Anne Richardson, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

The Importance Of Being Famous: Joaquin Miller, Gary Snyder, James Ivory, James Blue, Bill Plympton & Gus Van Sant As Oregon Artists

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Joaquin Miller (1837-1913) Oregon poet/liar/literary sensation. 

Writing about Oregon film history, I have encountered a strong headwind of resistance to the idea that Oregon’s film history is in any way exceptional. Presenting the case quantitatively does nothing to soften the resistance.

How can you appraise a film history with no standard of comparison? What about, Richard Blue asked me, Minnesota? All American filmmakers have to come from someplace. Minnesota, for example, produced the Coen Brothers.

I have learned from experience that people are not impressed by the length of a list of names. They want to understand the situation qualitatively, and here we come to the heart of the matter. We don’t claim Oregon artists because qualitatively we do not know what that means.

What’s “Oregon” about them? Their subject matter? Their street addresses? Their birth certificates? Their historical moment?

We are comfortable calling Gary Snyder a Pacific Rim poet because he translates Chinese poetry and practices Zen Buddhism. We know what Pacific Rim means, and he fits. We don’t know what to call Snyder’s mixture of Wobbly/Reedie, anthropologist/poet, logger/social visionary which pre-existed his first trip to Japan. There is no word for this extremely regional set of characteristics, so it goes by the wayside, as if it doesn’t exist, or is important only insofar as it helped prepare Snyder to be a Pacific Rim poet.

Similarly, we don’t know what to call a Portland raised Dust Bowl refugee/filmmaker/actor/journalist/educator who could not make heads or tails of Madison Avenue or Hollywood. James Blue’s French film school education and his awards, the accomplishments for which he is most well known, give no sign of the intensity of his commitment to the classroom or to regional film. They leave out any accurate sense of his background. In fact it would be easy to mistake Blue for an international playboy or blueblood, based on the most skeletal reading of his life. Until the NARA restoration of The March triggered national reevaluation of his career, James Blue was most famous for having achieved fame.

Creating film artists who are independent, internationally known, writer-director-producers is Oregon’s regional specialty.

James Blue and James Ivory marked this trail. Bill Plympton and Gus Van Sant followed it. Each of these film artists placed such an emphasis on maintaining control of his work that it shaped his entire career. Are we supposed to ignore their independence, and the international scope of their careers, because to acknowledge those traits is to invite charges of exceptionalism?

I have come to believe that we do this to make real the image we want to have of the West. The West of our imagination is a frontier. It has no history. By refusing to write about, think about, and understand our history we actively keep alive for ourselves the wide open pristine emptiness of the “second chance” Western landscape we want to believe is our home.

Joaquin Miller, Oregon’s first internationally acclaimed author (and a man who knew a thing or two about second chances, having survived multiple scandals of assorted size), knew that the empty, pristine West was a fantasy.

His first book, Unwritten History: Life Among The Modocs, addresses the issue right in the title. If Joaquin Miller, who experienced the wide open frontier, could relinquish the idea of Oregon as a history free zone, why can’t we?

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I dedicate this post to Walt Curtis, Oregon poet and literary historian, who insisted I read Joaquin Miller. Thank you, Walt!

Stay tuned for films of Harry Smith, James Ivory, James Blue, and Homer Groening which will be screened at the Hollywood Theatre during the upcoming Mid Century Oregon Genius screening series.

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Notes On James Blue is a blog kept by Anne Richardson, of Oregon Movies, A to Z, to cover the 2014 James Blue Tribute, a six month retrospective at the University of Oregon.

Notes On James Blue is supported by The James and Richard Blue Foundation, a 501 c3 non profit organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of filmmaker and film educator James Blue. All thoughts, opinions, and errors, however, belong to Anne Richardson, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

What Do Pictures Want: Oregon Artists In Diaspora, 1972

“Analysis shows that a relation (always social) determines its terms, and not the reverse, and that each individual is a locus in which an incoherent (and often contradictory) plurality of such relational determinations interact.” Michel de Certeau

Analysis of Oregon film history shows that the incoherent plurality of relational determinations occasionally recedes to reveal unexpected unity.

For example, the collective decision far-flung Oregon filmmakers made in 1972 to undertake and/or interrogate and/or horse around with anthropology.

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Kenya Boran (shot in 1972/completed 1974), dir. by James Blue & David MacDougall in Kenya. (Blue in headphones.)

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Adventures Of A Brown Man In Search Of Civilization (1972) dir. by James Ivory in London. (Ivory in headphones.)

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Savages (1972), dir. by James Ivory in Tarrytown. (Actors in mudface.)

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Mahagonny (shot 1970-1972, completed 1980), dir. by Harry Smith in Manhattan. (Image as ritual.)

Bonus 1972 Oregon film:

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Drugs: Killers Or Dillers (1972), dir. by Tim Smith & Matt Groening in Portland. (Groening in ferns.)

If I was on Twitter, I would tag this post #crosscultural #transnational #transcultural #transmodernity #postmodernity #altermodernity #postcolonial #neocolonial #decolonial #pluriversal #borderstudies #migratoryaesthetics #whatdoimageswant

We need to reckon with, not just the meaning of images, but with their silence, their reticence, their wildness and nonsensical obduracy. We need to account for not just the powerfulness of images, but their powerlessness, their impotence, their abjection. We need, in other words, to grasp both sides of the paradox of the image: that it is alive – but also dead; powerful – but also weak; meaningful – but also meaningless.

W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images

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Films of Harry Smith, James Ivory, James Blue and Homer Groening, the senior member of the two generation Groening dynasty, will be screened at the Hollywood Theatre during the upcoming Mid Century Oregon Genius screening series.

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Notes On James Blue is a blog kept by Anne Richardson, of Oregon Movies, A to Z, to document her own learning curve as she attends the 2014 James Blue Tribute.

Notes On James Blue is supported by The James and Richard Blue Foundation, a 501 c3 non profit organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of filmmaker and film educator James Blue. All thoughts, opinions, and errors belong to Anne Richardson, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Kenya Boran (1974)

When James Fox, the head of University of Oregon’s Special Collections, first looked over James Blue’s filmography, he immediately had a question. “What is up with the Texas docs, Anne?!” Why did Blue choose to work in public television at the peak of his reknown?

Nearly everything about James Blue’s career is unpredictable.

If you had to pick one film to typify the contradictions in his career, Kenya Boran, the hour long ethnographic film he co-directed with David MacDougall might be a leading contender. Commissioned by American Universities Field Staff, Kenya Boran was funded by the National Science Foundation. For an Oscar nominated filmmaker, this is as far outside Hollywood as you can get and still stay on this planet.

My favorite moment in Kenya Boran is when young Peter Boru responds to a question about the meaning behind a male tribal ritual. Why do they do that? Why do they dress in ceremonial costume, paint their faces, dance themselves into ecstatic trances, and segregate themselves from the group? Peter is incredulous that the filmmakers need to ask. They are friends, he explains. They love each other. Like you do, he adds.

Who decides who knows what about who?

We watch Peter in the classroom, being told he should aspire to become a lion instead of a frog. We see him being taught to throw a spear. His attention wanders. He is as unimpressed with his father’s spear throwing as he is by the filmmakers’ clueless questions of “why?” Peter’s existential dilemma becomes clear. He can’t acquire the skills needed for the traditional life of herding cattle and at the same time attend school. His family sends him to school. Is he being ruined by the classroom, or saved?

James Blue is in familiar territory here, as four of his USIA films focused on Third World development. But Kenya Boran was not made by the USIA. It is not an act of public diplomacy. Although similarly preoccupied with asymmetries of ignorance/knowledge, it comes at the question from a slightly different angle.

It asks “whose knowledge? whose ignorance?”

Blue’s gift as an artist was the ability to find the story which reveals the community’s heart. Will the village at Rincon Santo get a school? (Yes,they will.) Will the blind child receive his sight? (Yes, he does.) Will 200,000 Americans march to the Lincoln Memorial from the Washington Monument without incident? (Yes, they will.) But in Kenya Boran, the question “what does the future hold for Peter Boru?” is not matched with an answer. Children in Blue’s previous films illustrate the theme of preparing for the future but Peter Boru, with his cool, skeptical, self possession, cannot be deployed for that purpose. The very idea of preparing for the future explodes in our face, when, at the end, the three college educated Kenyans who worked on the film as translators explain to the camera that they cannot find jobs.

The theme of knowledge vs. false knowledge dominates the very first discussion we overhear, as the men of the community systematically dismantle the logic behind the Kenyan government’s decision to encourage smaller families. We follow the flow of ideas in subtitles while we hear the conversation unfold in Swahili. David and Judith MacDougall pioneered the practice of subtitling ethnographic films, and I witnessed its benefit: In the discussion following the James Blue Tribute screening at the Schnitzer Cinema, an audience member commented that the Boran men observed a cultural practice of repeating the last phrase of the last sentence spoken by their conversational partner before offering their own response. (Someone commented “Active listening!” No one said “Wisdom!”, although we probably were all thinking it.) The audience member who noticed the conversational repetition did not understand or speak Swahili. Her observation was only possible because the soundtrack did not bury the original conversation under a filmmaker’s voice over narration.

The story within the story of Kenya Boran is that it documents both life among the Boran, and James Blue’s release from story driven documentary filmmaking. David MacDougall had made two ethnographic films before he traveled with James Blue to spend two months shooting the daily life of a pastorialist tribe adjusting to change in Kenya. He uses Kenya Boran to teach Blue, his one time teacher, a form of filmmaking which actively avoids control of all the elements which confer narrative power.

The fiction film creates a multileveled web in which its characters are contained and seen to struggle. The documentary film attempts to contain the historical person through a parallel set of strategies, but importantly also by allowing us to glimpse the failure of those strategies – by creating, as Nichols puts it, “the subjective experience of excess, the discovery… of a magnitude of existence beyond containment”. It thus perversely denies what it offers. David MacDougall

Trying on the ethnographer’s hat, for James Blue, meant foregoing use of his greatest strengths. Kenya Boran is a haiku. It achieves its quality of spaciousness (the glimpse of failure of strategies created to contain) by observing strict formal conventions which, by limiting choices, enforce simplicity. Refined, sophisticated, and spare, the architecture of a haiku/ethnographic film is visible to fellow practitioners, while the work itself is accessible to anyone and everyone. Its minimalism does not dilute, but rather accentuates, its impact.

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In Kenya Boran, we see Blue learning how to use the camera, not as a paintbrush creating beauty, as he has in the past, or an x ray machine exposing social injustice, as he will in the future, but as a seismograph, registering shifts in perception. Blue liked collaboration. He worked closely with Jean Pélégri on The Olive Trees Of Justice, and with George Stevens, Jr. at USIA. He co-directed A Few Notes On Our Food Problem with Stevan Larner, and The Invisible City with Adele Santos. I see his creative partnership with David MacDougall on Kenya Boran as one of the most influential of all his duets.

After this, no turning back. After he and MacDougall finished Kenya Boran in Houston, Blue began Who Killed The Fourth Ward?, a multi episode participatory documentary designed for public television. Without the interlude in ethnographic film, I very much doubt he would have made the transition to experimental doc. It is fitting that Richard Herskowitz programmed Kenya Boran as the last film in James Blue Tribute screening series, since it was the last project James Blue made entirely on film.

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Kenya Boran is available for purchase here.

I saw Kenya Boran on April 23, 2014 at the Schnitzer Museum of Art, as part of the James Blue Tribute organized by the University of Oregon. David MacDougall, the co-director of Kenya Boran, introduced the film.

More information about David MacDougall can be found here.

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Notes On James Blue is a blog kept by Anne Richardson, of Oregon Movies, A to Z, to document her own learning curve as she attends the 2014 James Blue Tribute.

Notes On James Blue is supported by The James and Richard Blue Foundation, a 501 c3 non profit organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of filmmaker and film educator James Blue. All thoughts, opinions, and errors belong to Anne Richardson, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Four On Blue: Brian Lindstrom, Michael Palmieri, Donal Mosher & Penny Allen Discuss James Blue

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Four On Blue took place on Saturday, April 26, 2014.

Brian Lindstrom was called away unexpectedly – his son collided with a baseball – so he was at the ER instead of the panel. (Things turned out well at the ER.)

Here’s Brian’s thoughts, by email:

I really hated to miss the panel. The March had a profound impact on me. I think the first time I saw it was in the early 90’s. I was struck by Blue’s moral clarity and his narrative chops. He was able to build a palpable sense of tension as the buses headed toward the march. I loved the way his cameras lingered on faces, creating patient and loving portraits. I was also deeply impressed that none of him images ever feel like “b-roll”–never feel like visual afterthoughts limping along to support narration. Instead, his is a muscular film language with each image pulling its weight. I swear you could watch the filmsilently and it would make perfect sense.

As I understand it, he was given the assignment to make the film just a few weeks before the march. Many filmmakers facing that tight of a timeline would have just followed A. Phillip Randolph and/or MLK, Jr. and told the story from a leadership perspective. But Blue showed real vision in following “the people”. I love the shots of people in the mall presumably after the march, with litter all around them, the implication being: “Now what?”

Amazing that he was able to make such a challenging film (i.e., challenging the audience: “Will we realize the promise of our constitution?”) under the auspices of USIA. I can only imagine what hell he and Rowan had to endure to maintain their artistic vision and integrity. Bless them for doing that.

As it turned out, Carl Rowan’s appearance at the beginning of The March was added after objections were raised about sending a film overseas about citizens rallying for civil rights. The decision to shoot the March On Washington, according to Chris Kovac, was made by George Stevens, Jr., James Blue’s boss at USIA.

But Brian is correct that the decision to focus on the anonymous marchers was made by Blue, no one else.

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Notes On James Blue is a blog kept by Anne Richardson, of Oregon Movies, A to Z, to document her own learning curve as she attends the 2014 James Blue Tribute.

Notes On James Blue is supported by The James and Richard Blue Foundation, a 501 c3 non profit organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of filmmaker and film educator James Blue. All thoughts, opinions, and errors belong to Anne Richardson, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

How To Read James Blue

Where did James Blue come from? Here are some way stations I visited on my own journey to understand his work.

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John Winthrop’s City On A Hill

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“for we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world…”

Winthrop’s concerns prefigure those of public diplomacy, the arm of filmmaking which gave James Blue his professional start, first in Algeria and then in the US.

1789

William Blake’s Little Black Boy

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My mother bore me in the southern wild/And I am black, but O! my soul is white. The ironies and double meanings of this poem, which, tellingly, Blake vacillated between placing among his Songs Of Innocence or among his Songs Of Experience, are essential to the understanding of Kenya Boran, the ethnographic film which documents the learning curve of James Blue and David MacDougall as they discover how little they understand about the impact of the 20th century on the Boran people in Kenya.

1854

Henry David Thoreau’s Walden

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“Thoreau’s Walden is a capital reading, but very wicked and heathenish… After all, for me, I prefer walking on two legs”. John Greenleaf Whittier

Thoreau retreated to Walden Pond in 1844, doubling down on locavore everything, just as the Oregon Trail was getting underway.

1874

Joaquin Miller’s Unwritten History: Life Among The Modocs

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Joaquin Miller arrived in Oregon in a covered wagon. He dedicated his most famous book, Unwritten History: Life Among the Modocs, “To the Red Men of America”. Like Blue, Miller went to college in Eugene. Like Blue, his career began overseas.

1930

Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail 

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“We can’t turn back. We’re blazing a trail which started in England!” Raoul Walsh made his 70mm Oregon Trail epic in 1930, the year James Blue was born.

1935

H. L. Davis’ The Honey and the Horn

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Two orphaned lovers keep secrets from each other in the barren anti-Eden of Oregon’s sagebrush interior, in H. L. Davis’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

1945

Roberto Rossellini’s Open City

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Non-professional actors + war ravaged city + illegal production, all elements which reemerge in James Blue’s The Olive Trees Of Justice.  Blue might have seen Rossellini’s masterpiece at the Guild Theater in Portland.

James Ivory told me he remembered traveling to Portland from Eugene to see films at the Guild. That’s a two hour drive, four hours round trip!

1947

Carl Barks’ Only A Poor Old Man

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Richard Blue told me James Blue and his mother fought a running battle over James’ love of comic books. Carl Barks, who wrote and drew all the comic books in which his irascible miser duck appeared, was born and raised in Oregon.

1952

Anthony Mann’s Bend Of The River

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Arthur Kennedy plays the role of the snake in Anthony Mann’s despoiled Eden. The long list of 1950s Oregon Westerns includes Bend Of The River, shot on Mt. Hood, and James Blues’ 16mm Silver Spur, shot in his parents’ NE Portland backyard.

1955

Thomas Vaughan’s The Last Salmon Ceremony

The vitality of this Native American community testifies to the Pacific Northwest pluriverse in 1955.

1962

Tom McCall’s Pollution In Paradise

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Oregon elected Tom McCall governor five years later.

1962

Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

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“They’re out there. Black boys in white suits….”

Kesey’s first novel begins with these words. Chief Bromden, the mute mental patient whose interior monologue narrates Cuckoo’s Nest, is half Native American and half European American.

1962

James Blue’s The Olive Trees Of Justice

James Blue dedicated The Olive Trees Of Justice to the people of Algiers.

1963

The Kingsmen’s Louie Louie & Paul Revere and the Raiders’ Louie Louie

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Lead singer Mark Lindsay remembered Paul Revere and the Raiders as a “bunch of white-bread kids doing their best to sound black”. The Raiders and The Kingsmen covered Richard Berry’s faux Jamaican ballad within a week of each other at a recording studio in downtown Portland.

1963

James Blue’s The March

On the opposite side of the social justice universe, James Blue documented Marian Anderson commanding the hushed attention of 200,000 demonstrators with the spiritual “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” just before Martin Luther King Jr preached the sermon of his lifetime “I have a dream.”

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Notes On James Blue is a blog kept by Anne Richardson, of Oregon Movies, A to Z, to cover the 2014 James Blue Tribute. The six month long Tribute celebrates the bequest of James Blue’s films to the University of Oregon by The James and Richard Blue Foundation, a 501 c3 non profit organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of filmmaker and film educator James Blue.

Notes On James Blue is supported by The James and Richard Blue Foundation. All thoughts, opinions, and errors, however, belong to Anne Richardson, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

A Few Notes On Our Food Problem (1968)

A Few Notes On Our Food Problem is the final film James Blue made for the United States Information Agency (USIA). Shot all over the globe, it was Oscar nominated for Best Documentary in 1969.

James Blue’s USIA period (1962-1968) followed after his breakthrough first feature, The Olive Trees Of Justice (1962), his only non-documentary film. While at USIA, he made The March (1963), considered to be the definitive film document of the historic March On Washington. After USIA, he continued working within the documentary format, but began pushing against the boundaries of genre, and experimenting with using documentary to democratize media.

From Buffalo Heads: Media Study, Media Practice, Media Pioneers: 1973 – 1990.

His last documentary, A Few Notes On Our Food Problem (1968), on the improvement of world wide agricultural production, was Blue’s first color film. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Documentary Feature in 1969, was awarded the CINE (Council on International Non-Theatrical Events) “Golden Eagle” and the prize for Best Documentary, Best Color Cinematography at the 11th International Film Festival Vancouver.

A Few Notes On Our Food Problem was made for international distribution only, as were all USIA films. It was not seen by American audiences. This was true for The March, and all the films James Blue made while working for USIA.

This provides partial explanation of why James Blue’s filmography has been unusually inaccessible. His first films, made in Algeria, were in French. His public diplomacy USIA films were not intended for, and in fact were expressly forbidden to, American audiences. The third stage of his career, when he was based in Texas while teaching at Rice Media Center and in Buffalo while teaching at SUNY Buffalo, was the first period of his artistic life during which he focused on making films to be seen within his own country. By this time, he had chosen the goal of using film as a tool for community organizing. He was interested making regional films for regional impact. So once again, his audience was circumscribed.

Through all three periods of his filmmaking, his artistic vision remained consistent. The opening credits for his first feature, The Olive Trees Of Justice (1962), state that it was made with the help of “the men and women of Algeria”. For his last two films, made for Houston television, he solicited input from the men and women of Houston. In A Few Notes On Our Food Problem, created during a midpoint in his career, the voices and viewpoints James Blue collects are of scientists, farmers and citizens around the world.

Credits for A New Notes On Our Food Problem:

Directed by James Blue and Stevan Larner.

Written by James Blue and Gill Dennis.

Narrated by James Blue.

Cinematography by Stevan Larner.

Edited by Lee Alexander and Meyer Odze.

Produced by United States Information Agency.

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You can see A Few Notes On Our Food Problem as part of the James Blue Tribute:

At 8:00 PM on April 25, 2014 at the Whitsell Auditorium in Portland, Richard Blue, Gerald O’Grady, Dennis Gill, Christina Kovac will introduce The March and A Few Notes On Our Food Problem.

Tickets can be purchased here.

More information about other James Blue Tribute events can be found here.

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Notes On James Blue is a blog kept by Anne Richardson, of Oregon Movies, A to Z, to cover the 2014 James Blue Tribute. The six month long Tribute celebrates the bequest of James Blue’s films to the University of Oregon by The James and Richard Blue Foundation, a 501 c3 non profit organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of filmmaker and film educator James Blue.

Notes On James Blue is supported by The James and Richard Blue Foundation. All thoughts, opinions, and errors, however, belong to Anne Richardson, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Understanding Blue: Politics, Pluraversality, and the Muse of Form

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks never met James Blue, but she is a member of the pluriverse he loved.

She lives in Utopia (true!). I saw her on the internet, where I also saw this:

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Both videos are examples of regional film.

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks addressed her remarks to a live audience in Australia. Toni and Candace first deployed their withering lack of respect for logic in a no-budget web series, Thunder Ant, shot in Portland, not far from the house where James Blue grew up.

Blue believed that regional film = democratized media = increased diversity of voices being heard. As a member of the NEA’s first media funding panel, he voted to fund a network of regional film centers, all four of which still exist today. One of them is the Northwest Film Center, where The  March and A Few Notes On Our Food Problem screened on April 25, 2014 as part of the James Blue Tribute.

Blue believed stories could change things. He was fascinated by the exercise of power which came with access to a camera, and never resolved his ambivalence about his privilege as a gifted filmmaker. His awareness of privilege fueled his activism as an educator. It drove him to leave Hollywood. It inspired him to place cameras in the hands of his subjects. He incorporated it into his work.

Was James Blue a political filmmaker?

In the discussion which followed the screening, Brooke Jacobson, an NEA colleague of James Blue, was startled to hear the audience conclude he was not.

There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say, ‘It is yet more difficult than you thought.’ This is the muse of form. Wendell Berry

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Blue shot Who Killed The Fourth Ward?  on 8mm with a two person crew for community television. By contrast, he shot The March, fourteen years earlier, on 35mm with seven two person Hearst Metrotone newsreel crews and the mandate of the President.

The March and A Few Notes On Our Food Problem, made by Blue for USIA and USIAD respectively, deliver a sense of the world as troubled but benign. In Who Killed The Fourth Ward? and The Invisible City, made for KUHT community television, that surety is gone. In them, Blue, following a new muse of form, relinquishes his duties as omniscient, unseen narrator, and enters the film as a participant. He is asking questions, and bringing along a camera to make sure he gets answers. It is easy to imagine if the same Northwest Film Center audience had seen those two later documentaries, they would have had no trouble labeling Blue a political filmmaker.

But was Blue, in Houston, a newly political filmmaker?

The full title of the March On Washington was March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom. Employment, voting rights, the elimination of Jim Crow – these are not minor demands. The organizers had been preparing for this event for decades. In Blue’s voice over narration, he speaks about the potential for violence, and shows the steps the organizers were taking to keep control of the crowd. Feed people, use walkie talkies, maintain a chain of command.

Blue understood what could happen if thousands of citizens squared off against police. He knew what it was like to live in a world where violence had overtaken the civic order. He had directly experienced the war behind the recent Paris Massacre. Disaster, for Blue, was within the realm of the possible.

The narrative Blue chose for his coverage of the March focused on the arriving marchers. It focused on the leadership, including young black men, who, at that time, were never seen in media as being calm, purposeful and in charge, but in Blue’s film are shown to be just that. They were entrusted with keeping safe the 200,000 Americans who had arrived to exercise their constitutional right to assembly. Blue leaves out guest speakers Burt Lancaster, Charlton Heston, Bob Dylan and Harry Belafonte and shows us the politically engaged nobodies who came to walk, talk, listen, sing, and cool their feet in the reflecting pool. He photographs them as if they are a miracle, because to him, perhaps, they are.

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They are the pluriverse he has come to recognize as valuable.

The March is about them.

Is that political?

For perspective, James Ivory, James Blue’s near exact contemporary, when asked which of his own films he thought was most political, retorted that they all were, or at least he hoped they are all were.

The March and A Few Notes On Our Food Problem were screened at the Northwest Film Center on April 25, 2014 as part of the James Blue Tribute. Brooke Jacobson, co-founder of the Northwest Film Center, was in the audience.

So was Sheldon Renan, the author of the proposal that the NEA fund a network of four regional film centers, of which the Northwest Film Center was one. Sheldon Renan, Brooke Jacobson and James Blue all share two distinctions. They all came from Portland, and each one served as an advocate for regional film at the NEA.

Richard Blue, who advised James Blue on A Few Notes On Our Food Problem, and Gill Dennis, who wrote the voiceover narration for A Few Notes, participated in an onstage panel discussion following the screening as did Christina Kovac, who led the NARA restoration of The March, and Gerald O’Grady, a long time Blue colleague and friend, who is an historian of films of the Civil Rights Movement.

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Notes On James Blue is a blog kept by Anne Richardson, of Oregon Movies, A to Z, to cover the 2014 James Blue Tribute, organized by the University of Oregon.

Notes On James Blue is supported by The James and Richard Blue Foundation, a 501 c3 non profit organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of filmmaker and film educator James Blue. All thoughts, opinions, and errors, however, belong to Anne Richardson, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Song Of Ourselves: Who Made The March


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Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, the twin architects of the 1963 March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom, were both artists. Bayard Rustin was a singer.

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Before devoting his life to organizing labor and to the Civil Rights movement, A. Philip Randolph was an Shakespearean actor.

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The background these two leaders had in the performing arts matches up well with the background of the man who documented the March they created and led. James Blue was an actor. His undergraduate degree was in theater.

All three men were prepared to see the events on the Washington Mall on August 28, 1963 as theater. James Blue makes sure we understand that the 200,000 Americans there that day did not just passively watch, but instead actively co-created the “spectacle”, as Life magazine called it. They shouted, clapped, held hands and, most of all, sang. The March looks like a newsreel, but it sounds like a musical.

Just as Robert Altman’s Nashville would do twenty years later, The March presents American political life as a contest fought on the stage of pop culture as much as in the voting booth.

Is there a line between these two spheres?

Is it a “black thing” to collapse pop culture and politics?

You tell me.

Here’s James Blue’s boss at USIA:

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George Stevens, Jr, (above left) was fourth generation show business. His father, Oscar winning director George Stevens (above right), was active in the founding of the NEA. George Stevens, Jr. recruited James Blue for USIA at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival, after seeing The Olive Trees Of Justice.

Here’s George Stevens, Jr.’s boss at USIA:

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Edward R. Murrow (like Blue, from the Pacific Northwest) became famous during WWII for his ability to deliver the news under crisis conditions. James Blue likely heard his popular Hear It Now radio program, a spin off of one of the best selling Columbia records in 1948, the historically themed You Can Hear It Now. Hard to believe that we once had best selling history records!

Here’s Edward R. Murrow’s boss at USIA:

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President John F. Kennedy’s tie to America pop culture was very straight forward. His father, Joseph Kennedy (above left) had a brief, intensely lucrative tour of duty in the movie business in the late 1920’s. The money he made putting together, and then selling, RKO Pictures helped send his son to the White House. While there, John F. Kennedy tapped newsman Edward R. Murrow to head USIA. Murrow hired George Stevens, Jr., and Stevens hired James Blue.

James Blue was given the assignment to make a film about race in America. He chose instead to make a film about the March. (Ed. note: Since writing this I learned from Christina Kovac it was George Stevens, Jr. who made the decision to film the March. Nevertheless, James Blue’s USIA memo, in which he argues that racial tension in America was caused by white racism, not black poverty, reveals that Stevens’ decision matches up with his own interests.).

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I saw The March on November 13, 2013 at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene as part of the James Blue Tribute. It was introduced by Gerald O’Grady, longtime colleague of James Blue. Sheldon Renan, who served on the same NEA media funding panel in the early 1970s as James Blue, was in the audience.

You can see The March in Portland.

At 8:00 PM on April 25, 2014 at the Whitsell Auditorium in Portland, Richard Blue, Gerald O’Grady, Gill Dennis, Christina Kovac will introduce The March and A Few Notes On Our Food Problem.

Tickets can be purchased here.

More information about other James Blue Tribute events can be found here.

================================================================

Notes On James Blue is a blog kept by Anne Richardson, of Oregon Movies, A to Z, to cover the 2014 James Blue Tribute. The six month long Tribute celebrates the bequest of James Blue’s films to the University of Oregon by The James and Richard Blue Foundation, a 501 c3 non profit organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of filmmaker and film educator James Blue.

Notes On James Blue is supported by The James and Richard Blue Foundation. All thoughts, opinions, and errors, however, belong to Anne Richardson, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.