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Ricky's Renaissance: Leacock's Memoir Enlivens a Documentary Master

By Betsy McLane

The Feeling of Being There: A Filmmaker's Memoir
By Richard Leacock
Edited by Valerie LaLonde
Semeion Editions, 2011: 357 pages with black and white and color photographs and accompanying DVB.
Hardcover Version: 199 euros ($263)
Paperback version: 89 euros ($118)

Interpreting history and marking the passage of time are two main tasks of documentary. The Feeling of Being There: A Filmmaker's Memoir, by Richard Leacock, does both of these things in this arresting and unique autobiography. Leacock, known throughout his long career as a technical innovator as well as a superb cinematographer, inventive filmmaker and rambunctious character, has here assembled a new way of looking at both documentary and personal history that comes directly from the heart, as well from the films. Readers should expect nothing less from the man who began documenting the world in 1935 at age 15; served as a combat cameraman in World War II, filmed Robert Flaherty's penultimate work, Louisiana Story (1948); participated fully in the founding of cinema vérité/direct cinema; embraced video technology early on; and continued to be a vital documentary maker and teacher to the end of his life in 2011. If one has never explored Leacock's contributions to the field, or even if one has heard his stories before, this book is a revelation and necessary reading for every filmmaker.

Packaging a DVD with a book, as A Feeling of Being There does, is not a new concept, but what Leacock and his collaborators do with this material is a groundbreaking combination of the moving image with the printed word and still photographs. As the editors of Semion Editions write in the forward, "You are about to enter into a double experience." The package holds a DVB (digital video book) that contains all of the printed writing and still photographs. One can read the DVB directly on a screen and watch the film excerpts as they pop up throughout the text. Or one can read the printed book and watch film excerpts on the DVB at the appropriate places, as indicated in the printed text. These are conveniently noted by symbols that appear with a reference number under a still from the film cited. There are also stills that are not screen grabs, so attention is demanded. Another more traditional option is to read through the printed text and then watch the clips as a group. This last approach inevitably leads to curiosity that demands cross-referencing back to the printed matter. If this process seems complicated, consider that the concept springs from the mind of a man who spent a good part of the 1970s developing a practicable Super-8 sync-sound rig. As the reader becomes familiar with the format, it becomes intuitive-a flow of information that is an organic whole, no mish-mash of ideas and images.

Immersing oneself in The Feeling of Being There is an absorbing experience. Leacock, or "Ricky," as he quickly becomes to the reader, delivers his stories in a personal voice. It is impossible not to experience "being there." If one was fortunate enough to meet and talk with him, Ricky's distinctive, seductive, rather English-accented voice rings from every page. This intimacy is especially true with the private letters, such as the ones he wrote from combat zones in Burma and China to his then-wife, Happy. There is a special bonus: throughout the margins of this thoughtfully laid-out book are occasional recipes from Ricky, who was also known throughout his life for zestful cooking. These are scrumptious-sounding dishes that reflect Ricky's sophisticated world travels, combined with a communistic (upper- and lower-case "c") approach to living and sharing. The recipes invite one to partake, to prepare risotto with wild dried mushrooms in celebration of Ricky and as a treat to self and friends.

Ricky's friends were many and included family (or families), lovers (all beautiful), famous public figures and artists like Leonard Bernstein and Pete Seeger, students such as Ross McElwee and Joel DeMott, most of the key figures of cinema vérité/direct cinema from Albert Maysles to DA Pennebaker to Jean Rouch, the great philosopher Bertrand Russell, and dozens of people who came under the Leacock spell. Some who were once estranged ultimately became friends. An especially moving laudatory chapter is devoted to work with Drew Associates and Robert Drew, who once called Leacock the bravest man he ever knew. Ricky's legendary exploits--with travel, adventures, women, drinking and most especially filmmaking--are unabashedly detailed. Importantly, Ricky's life and work with "the love of my life," Valerie Lalonde, comprises the autobiography's final chapter. They met in France in 1988, after Ricky was "retired" from MIT, and they remained together until he died. As a team they created films, embracing every camera development through to mini-digital formats, and spent many years compiling The Feeling of Being There. This project, and the joy of having Ricky among us for so long, would never have come to be if not for Valerie, and the documentary world owes her much.

Along with the brilliance of this publication, there are some small flaws. The index is spotty, but there is a fascinating list of names that notes each individual's place in Ricky's life. The book's binding encourages perusing the pages flat open, but may not stand up to the repeated referencing the book will invariably cause. Disappointingly, the quality of some of the DBD clips is less than good.  And although the text rightfully acknowledges the contributions of collaborators and gracefully puts historical misunderstandings and twisted facts to rest, the package raises minor questions about copyright. Ricky neither owned the rights to, nor earned possible attendant income from, most of his work. This fact never seemed to bother him; he often screened the films at will and did not complain about lack of property or income. No one using the package should concern themselves either. Its very existence is beyond squabbles about much-abused concepts of Fair Use, and rights-holders have given their blessings to the project. The publisher states, "While every effort has been made to trace and credit the owners...we'll be pleased to incorporate missing acknowledgements in any future edition."

It would be unfair to reveal many more of the fascinating facts and stories contained in The Feeling of Being There. Growing up among the progressive and artistic elite of the 1930s; witnessing Hitler speak; learning from Flaherty; being a major pioneer and instigator of  20th- and early 21st-century filmmaking's technological changes; shooting from the Canary Islands to the Galapagos, the jungles in the Pacific to the Sahara Desert, Missouri to Yekaterinburg, while candidly capturing personalities from an unknown death-row prisoner to Jackie and John Kennedy: If these accounts are not tantalizing enough, there are plenty of others to be discovered in this timeless presentation. Expensive? Yes, but worth every penny. To know about and learn from Ricky, the beautiful, round-cheeked boy on page 15 and the beautiful old man on page 329, is a treasure that no one should be denied.

For more information on The Feeling of Being There: A Filmmaker's Memoir, visit


Betsy A. McLane is the author of A New History of Documentary Film, Second Edition, which comes out in May through Bloomsbury/Continuum.