Category Archives: films

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:

1555547_10201516822664861_856338813_n

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

1859_Nov_Dec_James_Blue_5

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.

—————————————————————————————————————

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.

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

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.

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.

———————————————————————————————————

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.

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

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 March (1963)

All the past we leave behind;
We debouch upon a newer, mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march, Pioneers! O pioneers!

Walt Whitman

I don’t care how many times I see The March. Every time I see it, I am in it.

I am there, getting on the bus, getting off the train, stapling signs, following directions, listening to Ossie Davis, Joan Baez, Odetta, Marian Anderson, and A. Philip Randolph. When Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have A Dream speech enters public domain in 2038 (fingers crossed), and is returned to the soundtrack, I will hear him as well. I know all the songs. I know them by heart.

It is impossible to watch The March, and not go on the March.

James Blue brings us into the mix, and we find ourselves at home in the crowd, walking, talking, laughing, singing. Waving to our friends. We have found each other! We are together. This is Woodstock without the mud. James Blue, who, in 1963, had never heard of a rock concert, much less attended a rock concert, shoots and edits The March as if it was one. Swap out Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech for Jimi Hendrix’s electrified national anthem. Swap out the Lincoln Memorial for a cow pasture, and a short haired crowd for a long haired one. “We shall not, we shall not be moved” they sing, “Like a tree planted by the water, we shall not be moved.”  Who are these people, who traveled long distances to stand in the sun and sing together? They are us. James Blue makes sure we understand this. The swell of joined voices we hear on the soundtrack is counterpointed by closeups of individual participants.

“We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome someday.”

When James Blue began working for USIA in 1962, he was asked to create a film about race in America which would address international criticism of our very evident hypocrisy. The argument Blue made, in an extraordinary memo which is now part of the James Blue Collection at the University of Oregon, was that the best way to disarm the critics would be to honestly confess the problem. He advised against concentrating on the problem of integrating black Americans into the social fabric of their own country. Instead he articulates the real problem: the difficulty of reeducating white racists.

That’s one half of the origin story behind The March.

The other half of the story began when A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin announced plans, in 1941, for a massive grass roots demonstration in Washington calling for the desegregation of both the military and the war industry. Roosevelt said no on desegregating the military, but yes to desegregating the war industry. The full origin story behind The March is that A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin were prepared to create a multi racial mass demonstration on the Washington Mall a full 20 years before they actually did it.

Their successful push for desegregation of the war industry resulted in Portland’s first black population which did not work as janitors, maids, waiters or red caps. African American workers  arrived to work in the shipyards during the same wartime boom year as Harry Blue, James Blue’s father, arrived in Portland to work as a housing inspector for the Federal Housing Authority. The city, accustomed to decades of institutionalized racism, did not adjust quickly to forced change. In the movie theaters James Blue attended, black ticket buyers were directed to the balcony. He likely sang the state song, which enshrines the vision of white supremacy, and all but name checks the deified missionaries, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, whose deaths at the hands of Native Americans finalized statehood.

Land of the Empire Builders,
Land of the Golden West;
Conquered and held by free men,
Fairest and the best.
Onward and upward ever,
Forward and on, and on;
Hail to thee, Land of Heroes,
My Oregon.

Land of the rose and sunshine
Land of the summer’s breeze;
Laden with health and vigor,
Fresh from the Western seas.
Blest by the blood of martyrs,
Land of the setting sun;
Hail to thee, Land of Promise,
My Oregon.

The yearbooks for James Blue’s four years at University of Oregon contain hundreds of pictures of white students. But black skin? The only black skin I saw in UO’s yearbooks, for the years James Blue attended, was from black makeup applied to white skin for a student minstrel show. Later, Ken Kesey himself wore blackface for a student skit at the university. Blackness in Oregon was something which we performed. Blackness was a white thing in Oregon. We did black. We owned black. In other words, black didn’t exist.

By 1963, the year of the March On Washington, Portland’s Albina neighborhood, where James Blue had attended Jefferson High School, was redlined. We all knew the boundaries. I grew up eight blocks away from the street which divided black from white. At high school dances, we had two bands, one white and one black. We would take turns dancing. White and black students sat separately in the lunch room. All of this was unofficial, and enforced by custom. The one black grade school classmate I had lived directly across the street from the front door of the school. It was as if his parents, determined not to have a line redrawn to exclude them, moved as close as humanly possible. We all knew their house was rented, not owned.  No black family could own in a white neighborhood. When I ventured into Albina, as a teenager, on a bike, rocks were thrown at me.

 THE MISSION OF A UNIVERSITY

The university process +++ is a social process that does not stop short of transforming men +++ to achieve such profound results it must utilize the principle of all for each and each for all directed to the highest ends of life +++ its organization must evoke the most intimate interplay of thought and purpose it must amount to a life process fully socialized ++ from now on it must be a climb if our nation is to hold its position among the nations of the earth ++ it means conservation and betterment + not merely of our national resources but also of our racial heritage and of +++ opportunity to the lowliest +++ this must be our passion +++ and the universities must be its prophets +++

Frederick George Young BA LLD, 1858-1929

Professor of Social Science and Dean of Sociology, 1895-1928

I include the full text of this message, permanently engraved onto the walls of the very beautiful 1937 University of Oregon building now known as the Knight Library, because it conveys the exact tone of our regional racism. “We” are white. The nature of “our” racial heritage is assumed. Non-white Oregonians are forgiven for their shortcomings, and generously extended honorary whiteness. This is how we keep Oregon white. If a non-white person has, due to circumstances beyond their control, failed to be white, we, the mighty majority, will extend to that person the privileges of citizenship anyway. In spite of their skin color. Because we are kind. Because we see beyond skin color to a non-white person’s essential, inner, whiteness.

James Blue calls out this racism in his USIA memo about the film he wishes to make. 

The March On Washington For Jobs and Freedom was always conceived as a media event. The organizers, a tense coalition of labor, civil rights and church leadership, knew they were orchestrating an enormous photo op, so primary credit for the images which are so powerful – the peaceful assembly of 200,000 freedom loving, politically empowered, human beings – belongs to them.

But what does it take to create the filmmaker who can cover that event with Zen like simplicity? One who conveys, in every image, his high regard for the nameless marchers?

“Keep your eyes upon the prize, hold on.”

I will write again about The March. Too much to say in one post!

Coming up in the James Blue Tribute:

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

Prologue to George Roy Hill’s Hawaii (1966)

I have never seen Hawaii.

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, George Roy Hill’s big screen adaptation of James Michener’s best seller brought in top box office.

grh1

Hill (above) hired James Blue to direct Hawaii’s gorgeous five minute Panavision prologue. It was Blue’s first film after The March (1963).

What else was Blue doing in Los Angeles? He began teaching at UCLA in 1964. One of his students, Jim Morrison, was in his final year of study. James B. and Jim M. must have become friends, since later Jim Morrison later brought The Doors to James Blue’s 40th birthday party.

Jim Morrison

Dan Blue told me he can’t imagine his church loving grandmother and the Lizard King (above) at the same party. But family legend says they were both there.

Coming up next in the James Blue Tribute:

At 7:00 PM on April 23, 2014 in Eugene, at the Schnitzer Museum of Art, reknowned ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall will introduce Kenya Boran, which he co-directed with James Blue in 1972. The screening is free.

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.

The Invisible City (1979)

blue:santos 2

Jean-Pierre Gorin, Jean-Luc Godard’s collaborator on his most political films, came to teach in San Diego around the same time James Blue arrived in Houston. In an interview about his “live and let live” attitude towards doctrinaire Marxists, Gorin said “They don’t bother anybody. They are just over there teaching, but where is life?”

Where is life? could be the motto James Blue used to guide his life and career. He was following that compass when he went to Hollywood, and he was following it when he left. What he wanted wasn’t something the studios could help him with. He wanted to explore not just the power of storytelling, but the power of community created by the bond between storyteller and audience. He was interested in the implications of that power, who should wield it, who should be taught how to wield it. He was more interested, in 1979, in passing the talking stick around the circle than with holding his place as head man.

The Invisible City is the most difficult of James Blue’s films to write about. His most ambitious film, it is arguably the one made for the smallest audience. It has no script, or rather, he shares scriptwriting duties with the audience, eliciting feedback from each episode which he then incorporates as he goes along to the next. E pluribus unum. We, the viewers, can make television. We, the citizens, can change our city. James Blue brings everything he has: his skills as an artist, his belief in democracy, his formative brush with want as a child of the Depression, his curiosity about a new medium, video. He does this not as a pitch man or performer, but as a scientist who has set up an experiment, and is intently observing the results. Will this work?

In the resulting five hour/five episode interactive public television documentary, James Blue and Adele Santos take us on a tour of a bifurcated city growing like a weed. Petroleum politics had raised oil prices, and Houston was an oil town. Skyscrapers going up, unemployment going down. One thousand new residents were arriving per week. But the filmmakers see two cities. Visible Houston, which boasted that it had no income tax and no state tax, was inhabited by high wage earning, well educated citizens. Invisible Houston, which complained that the most basic city services did not exist, was inhabited by low wage earning, poorly educated citizens. Both categories of citizenry had jobs, thanks to the boom, but a hard working resident of the invisible Houston could be living in a car, or a tin shed, or a house better suited to a wrecking ball.

Blue shows us images of deteriorating housing, but, as before, the images which interest him most are the faces of the people. He shows us the bureaucrats behind their desks, the experts with their statistics, and he shows us the people living in sheds or in cars. The mother with four children who was told an apartment flooded with water was the only one within her price range. The social worker, fighting to contain her anger, who was witness to the mother’s distress and helplessness. In Who Killed The Fourth Ward?, Blue presented himself as an isolated guerrilla media maker. This time he armors up and presents himself as an academic working with NEH money and in concert with a team of social scientists and grad students. Yes, the poor are always with us, but shouldn’t they have someplace to live? In The Invisible City, James Blue continues to stitch together a vision of television as town hall.

Ed Hugetz remembers the first time he heard Blue speak at Rice University. First, we are going to build an audience, he told a handful of students, scattered throughout an otherwise empty auditorium. Then, we are going to become filmmakers. I am struck that James Blue prioritized building an audience so highly. It confirms what we see throughout The Invisible City. He is not trying to make a film. He is trying to make a community. To do this, he reverse engineered  the entire filmmaking process. He includes his subjects as collaborators. He includes himself/reveals himself on camera. He chooses public television over theatrical release. He chooses video over film. He tells us what his plan is, and asks the KUHT television audience, after each one hour episode, to contact the station with feedback about where the story should next go. He shares his power as writer-director-producer as elaborately, flamboyantly and comprehensively as possible.

The Invisible City was produced at the Southwest Alternate Media Project (SWAMP), founded by James Blue in 1977.  SWAMP still exists today.  Its mission statement incorporates the lens of plurality which Blue and Santos used in The Invisible City. “The Southwest Alternate Media Project (SWAMP) promotes the creation and appreciation of film, video, and new media as art forms of a multicultural community.”

James Blue did not know The Invisible City would be his last film. While he was making it, he was recruited by the Center For Media Study at SUNY Buffalo to start a documentary program there. He was planning to make a film about Buffalo using the same approach as The Invisible City when he died of a swiftly moving stomach cancer on June 14, 1980.

Adele Santos, the co-creator of The Invisible City, was teaching at Rice University when she approached James Blue with the idea to examine Houston’s housing crisis in a film. Recently retired from her position as dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT, Santos continues to teach. Her firm, Santos Prescott and Associates, is based in San Francisco.

I saw the fifth, culminating, episode of The Invisible City on March 13, 2014 in the Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene, as part of the James Blue Tribute. Brian Huberman and  Ed Hugetz, colleagues of James Blue during his Houston years, opened the evening with an introduction via Skype.

Coming up next:

At 7:00 PM on April 23, 2014 in Eugene, at the Schnitzer Museum of Art, reknowned ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall will introduce Kenya Boran, which he co-directed with James Blue in 1972. The screening is free.

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.

Who Killed the Fourth Ward? (1977)

4th ward

Who Killed the Fourth Ward?: A Non Fiction Mystery In Three Parts begins with James Blue interrogating himself, in voiceover narration, as he drives into a low income inner city neighborhood threatened by the rapid expansion of Houston’s skyscraper filled downtown. What am I doing, he asks, and why am I doing it. His self doubt stands in contrast to his appearance of authority: his grey hair, worry lines, and faint air of constant, quiet concern. Blue hadn’t appeared in his previous films, but you always felt his restless, questing presence from behind the camera. In Who Killed the Fourth Ward?, we see him both as a cinema verite filmmaker revealing himself to the audience as part of his narrative strategy, and as an experienced teacher and mentor, secure enough in his methods to allow the young cubs, Brian Huberman and Ed Hugetz, his crew, climb all over him and worry him with their baby teeth.

blue:4th ward

As the title reveals, the film is framed as an interrogation. Blue, Huberman, and Hugetz take turns posing questions to Houston residents, and to each other. Blue says he wants to answer the question “who is responsible for the death of this inner city neighborhood?”, but we see he is as interested in the answer to the question “what will happen if we approach a total stranger with a microphone?” What will happen if we bring an African American journalist into the office of a white city bureaucrat? What will happen if we let all members of the community tell their story? His goal is not to find answers. His goal is to see what happens when you let the questions out.

Hugetz remembered Blue saying, “This is going to be an ugly film.” Shot on 8mm, with fuzzy images and terrible sound, he was right. This is not the film you expect as a teaching vehicle.  In the discussion following the screening, an audience member questioned Blue’s studied innocence, expressing doubt that anyone would expect to get honest answers from the city fathers about the remorseless erosion of a vulnerable neighborhood. Richard Herskowitz, the curator of the James Blue Tribute, reminded us that James Blue was a trained actor. This is not journalism, this is theater.  Blue is enacting community. He is revealing politics as theater.

Does Blue believe the bureaucrat sitting behind a desk? Does he believe the Fourth Ward resident who describes his neighborhood as a checkerboard of churches and bars? He either believes all of them, or none of them. The third possibility is that he is not interested in serving as judge.

The consensus within the audience was that whatever else James Blue might be doing in Who Killed the Fourth Ward?, he was not engaged in polemic.  I disagree. I believe he adopted a posture of helplessness as a polemic against the dominant discourse, which is that holding a camera confers power. He assumed the position of powerlessness deliberately, not only to examine the self justifying illusions which comfort the city fathers, but to confront our own. This could be done only at this point in his career, after earning his awards and his worry lines. In this public television documentary, shot on equipment designed for home movies, James Blue picked up a camera not to create beauty, or to find truth, but to create community.

“There used to be just one way. There was one way you could do things. There were people who protected it like a copyright, a secret cult only for the initiated. That’s why I don’t regret making BREATHLESS and blowing that all apart.” Jean Luc Godard, in interview

We meet Blue in the driver’s seat, asking questions and showing vulnerability. He remains there, metaphorically, throughout the film. He pointedly maintains his status as citizen, that is, as a person plagued with doubts and uncertainties, throughout, in order to model his belief in the citizen filmmaker.  He was subverting cinema as escapism, as all documentarians do, but he was going a step further and also subverting our expectation that documentary filmmaking is an expression of power. Does using a camera confer insight? He challenges this expectation. He defies it. What if,  instead of using the camera as some kind of sheriff’s badge, or search warrant, to exercise or impose narrative power, we use it as a searchlight. To see things.

“There is a point beyond which training and practice cannot take you.  Neami, the superlative fourteenth century Noh drama playwright and director who was also a Zen priest, spoke of this moment as “surprise”. This is the surprise of discovering oneself needing no self, one with the work, moving in disciplined ease and grace…At this point one can be free, with the workand from the work.” Gary Snyder, in On The Path, Off The Trail

This moment of surprise and freedom is what I see in the blurry 8mm images of Who Killed the Fourth Ward?  James Blue is too wily and astute an artist to be confined to his own mission statement, or to his own onscreen persona.  He is exercising more power than he is letting on. He was choosing to be non-authoritative and low budget for the same reasons as Bill Viola chooses to use slow motion, and Nam June Paik chooses to use more than one television.  It was perfect for what he wanted to do.

James Blue appears to be interrogating Houston’s power structure, but what he is really doing is interrogating our understanding of cinema. He is critiquing the perception that movies are all about the director, and instead is reframing them as the glue which binds together the audience. Why are you sitting on your butt out there in the dark?, he says. You could do this. I could be you. I am you. He is using his access to power, the whole structure of grant supported filmmaking, the authority of his achievements, the entry his white skin and professional identity confer upon him, to critique his access to power. He departed Hollywood, and is returning to the tribe with a gift, but part of his gift to the tribe is to refuse to be locked into what the tribe thinks he should be doing. 

I doubt the true purpose of the world’s first three hour television documentary shot on 8mm film is to answer the question it purportedly raises. It’s more: how do I do this? How do I use what I know about filmmaking to engage this community in dialogue and self awareness?

In his next film, The Invisible City,  James Blue reassumes directorial authority. He begins relying on video, and takes a more purposeful direction. But Who Killed the Fourth Ward?, made in 1977, the same year he founded the Southwest Alternate Media Project, is an authentically open ended exploration of the potential of regional filmmaking.

Brian Huberman and Ed Hugetz, the crew members who joined James Blue on his journey into the Fourth Ward, introduced the screening in Eugene via Skype.  They were sitting in Huberman’s office at the Rice University, where Huberman is associate professor of film in the Visual and Dramatic Arts department. Both Brian Huberman, and Ed Hugetz, who is now the Associate Vice President for Planning for the University of Houston, have had long and active careers as regional filmmakers.

Coming up next:

The next film in the James Blue Tribute retrospective will be screened on April 23, 2014, at the Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene. David MacDougall, who partnered with James Blue to direct Kenya Boran (1974), will be present to introduce that film. Admission is free! 7:00 PM.

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

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.