Category Archives: Who Killed Fourth Ward

The Invisible City (1979)

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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, with no income tax and no state tax, was inhabited by well educated citizens earning high wages. Invisible Houston, for whom the most basic city services did not exist, was inhabited by poorly educated citizens earning low wages. 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 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 Blue Alliance, 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 Blue Alliance. All thoughts, opinions and errors, however, belong to Anne Richardson, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Alliance.

Who Killed Fourth Ward?: A Non-fiction Mystery in Three Parts (1977)

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Who Killed 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 Fourth Ward?, we see him both as a cinema verite filmmaker revealing himself to the audience as part of his narrative strategy, and we see him 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.

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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 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 work and 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 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 Fourth Ward?: A Non-fiction Mystery in Three Parts, 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 Blue Alliance, 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 Blue Alliance. All thoughts, opinions and errors, however, belong to Anne Richardson, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Alliance.