Quick Edit: A Revealing Portrait of a Photographer

Viewed May 6, 2015

The Salt of the EarthI’m not really one for documentaries, and I almost never run out to see them in the theater. However, this week I made a rare exception for The Salt of the Earth (2014), winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard selection and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. In it, German director Wim Wenders explores the life and work of social documentary and environmental photographer Sebastião Salgado, whose haunting black-and-white images have bridged cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic barriers for over four decades. Trained as an economist, Salgado first made the switch to photography after commandeering his wife’s camera. He started as a photojournalist, but The Salt of the Earth focuses on the self-assigned projects Salgado undertakes for years at a time. He’s been a witness to the human condition everywhere: photographing the Rwandan genocide, the end of the Persian Gulf War, Sudan, and all around South America.

The subject’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (who shares the director’s credit with Wenders), shot the scenes of the photographer and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in the field—in the Russian Arctic capturing polar bears and walruses with his camera or in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, getting to know the isolated native people and their way of life. In voiceover, Juliano narrates that journeying with him to the Arctic was the first time that Juliano had ever gone on assignment with his father. Although the color landscape photography is starkly beautiful, the more plentiful sections of Salgado the Elder reflecting on individual photographs from his oeuvre were more engrossing. (It’s also curious that beyond seeing Salgado at work or discussing it in hindsight, we don’t ever learn much about his process, aesthetic choices, or the nature of his collaboration with his wife Lélia. Why does he shoot in B&W? Who are his artistic influences?)

The Salt of the Earth is captivating in the same way that Salgado’s images are similarly evocative, painful, and compassionate. They demand your attention, but they also picture deeply private and traumatic events in the lives of Salgado’s multifaceted subjects. At just under two hours long, the film documents a good chunk of Salgado’s portfolio. His Portuguese-accented French makes it easy to get swept up in the photographer’s stories, which animate a film that is largely a slideshow of the pictures he has made over the years. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then he poetically fills his images with details about the people he met, the horrors he saw, the work of humanitarian aid workers he observed. He confesses that what he witnessed in Rwanda and in the neighboring Congo (where thousands of survivors fled before being forced to return home) affected him so deeply that he began exploring nature and wildlife photography as a way to move on from the trauma.

The photographer Sebastião Salgado.
The photographer Sebastião Salgado.

The documentary, like Salgado’s work, is both very subtle and deeply profound. I had no idea that his greatest achievement may be what he and his family have created in their corner of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest. Having grown up on his father’s farm, set in a lush subtropical paradise, Salgado was devastated in the 1990s that his childhood home had turned into a dry wasteland, unable to maintain life due to advanced natural degradation, rampant deforestation, and unchecked exploitation of natural resources such as iron ore. Lélia innocently suggested that they simply plant trees to rejuvenate the land. Seventeen years after establishing the Instituto Terra, the land is green again, populated with millions of trees, numerous animal species once threatened with extinction, and vibrant, free-flowing natural springs. It is remarkable what they accomplished in just fifteen years, and it is extremely touching that the Salgado family gifted the land to Brazil’s national parks service so that everyone may enjoy the family’s Private Natural Heritage Reserve.

I broke out in tears when, at the end of the film, Salgado reminisces about the transformation that his father’s Fazenda Bulcão (or Bulcão Farm) underwent, at peace with the notion that the land has returned to its robust natural state and should remain that way long after he is gone. What a beautiful way to accept the transiency of our existence. And what a legacy.

Lélia and Sebastião Salgado at the Instituto Terra.
Lélia and Sebastião Salgado at the Instituto Terra.

Considering that Salgado has seen—and shown us—the best and worst that people have to offer, The Salt of the Earth ends on a hard-won, optimistic note. The coda is also poignant because it was virtually the only scene in which Salgado speaks his native language. In the beginning, it had puzzled me as to why he was always speaking French. (He and Lélia moved to Paris in the late 60s or early 70s, and they are still based in the city where they raised their sons.) Eventually, it dawned on me that he likely spoke French so that his interviewer, Wim Wenders, could understand him. This delighted me to no end, for I have a tremendous soft spot for scenes and/or whole relationships played out between two or more people who are speaking a language that isn’t the mother tongue to either one of them. So, it was startling but oh-so poetic that Salgado should speak in Portuguese at the end, signaling a homecoming after decades abroad, circumnavigating the globe in search of humanity.

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Reading Role Models by My Role Model, John Waters

I’ve loved reading for as long as I can remember, and I have a huge personal library to prove it. However, the shelves are mostly filled with books I’ve yet to read, for the rate at which I purchase books far outpaces the speed at which I read them. To make matters—well, not worse but different—I’ve also gotten back into the habit of borrowing books from the library. Newly transplanted to Kansas City and without being able to run through the breadth and depth of my own book collection, I have used the splendid public library here to both acquaint me with my new city and to keep my reading eyes and imagination busy.

Role ModelsNow add my ears to the list, too. Recently, I listened to an audiobook for the first time. Ironically, it was a recording of a paperback that sits in my room back home: Role Models by cult filmmaker and artist John Waters. My siblings and I have been fans of the Baltimore-based director since we were kids, having grown up watching Hairspray (1988), Serial Mom (1994), and Pecker (1998) repeatedly. Although my extremely permissive parents probably would have had no problem with our watching his infamous classic Pink Flamingos (1972), I waited until I was ready, in college, to partake in the mondo-trashiness of Divine’s diegetic exploits to secure her place as the world’s “filthiest person alive.” Around the same time, about ten years ago, my sister and I were the first in line to attend a comedic performance by John Waters on campus. I can’t remember everything that he covered that night, but I do remember that that is how I learned of his interest in attending local court trials. And that he is not a fan of blossoms. I still like to quote him, mimicking his cadence and emphasizing the pauses and “S” sounds that he makes: “Limits. We all have our limits.” My beloved button pin, which cheekily states, “Reading is sexy,” inexplicably confounds a lot of people, but I paraphrase something that Waters said that night to explain what I mean by wearing it: “You should never go to bed with someone who doesn’t read.”

John Waters has been an idol of mine for decades now, and I am so glad that I listened to Role Models, his memoir about the multiple individuals, in and out of the spotlight (however big), who have inspired him. I’m certain that I would have heard his distinctive voice in my head while reading it myself, but there is nothing like listening to him actually tell these hilarious and often heart-warming stories about perversion and subversion. The experience, which I shared with my sister in the car, largely as we drove the three hours to Omaha and back, was the closest I will probably ever come to feeling as if John and I really are best friends.

Role Models is divided into ten chapters, each tackling a different subject or topic. He touches on everyone from Johnny Mathis and Little Richard to Leslie Van Houten and Tennessee Williams. In researching the book, he even met the first three aforementioned people, among others. The seventh chapter, “Little Richard, Happy at Last,” recounts John’s early fascination with the influential R&B singer and the disappointing experience he had while interviewing his idol for Playboy magazine in 1987. The “screaming, flamboyant black man” whose voice had so shocked John’s parents in 1957 when he stole, blasted, and danced along to Little Richard’s latest record in the living room unfortunately turned out to be a royal pain in the ass (183). Since Little Richard was the inspiration behind John’s signature pencil moustache, I was surprised that he waited to introduce this idol so late in the book. But his experience having a candid conversation with Little Richard, who wanted approval over whatever John was going to write about him, posed a hard lesson.

John wonders, “But are there some role models you should never meet?” (184). Expressing that sentiment, so early in a book called Role Models, would have been such a bummer in the first chapter—even if Little Richard was instrumental in helping John define his identity. As a child growing up, John had always wanted to be Little Richard, to “somehow climb into [his] body, hook up his heart and vocal cords to [John’s] own, and switch identities with him” (183-4). John’s cautionary tale is exactly why I don’t follow my favorite celebrities on Twitter or other social media networks. I would rather remain blissfully unaware of the stupid or offensive things that they tweet or post to Instagram. However—and this is what I love about John, he’s so forgiving of people’s faults—he still idolizes Little Richard, “the undisputed king in my book” (197).

John Waters, my hero.
John Waters, my hero.

Role Models is also about the fashion, art, books, and pornography that have inspired John and brought joy into his life. In my favorite chapter, “Outsider Porn,” John meets one of his favorite pornographers, a man who literally lives in a pigpen, with rats, dogs, and chickens, to boot. Bobby has fallen on hard times; after selling the rights to his videotapes a long time ago, he doesn’t know how his porn videos, featuring heterosexual Marines masturbating and/or receiving fellatio from Bobby himself, are distributed today. Listening to John describe his discomfort in Bobby’s indoor/outdoor house is a riot, but he is also sympathetic to Bobby’s plight, desiring to take him out to dinner to a nice restaurant. John says that Bobby “is a great artist but doesn’t know it,” and that his video work and hundreds of artfully composed Polaroids of his Marine conquests belong in contemporary art galleries (201). That’s probably the only way I would ever see them. “Outsider Porn” isn’t just hilarious and somewhat upsetting (I wish Bobby’s situation wasn’t so dire); it’s also pretty hot. Listening to John describe several characteristic scenes from Bobby’s porn, without being able to actually see it, certainly invites you to use your imagination in the most fantastic sense. It’s no different than reading really graphic erotic literature.

John Waters hasn’t made a movie in over ten years. Since writing and directing A Dirty Shame in 2004, he’s been busy with a number of other projects: touring with his one-man comedy show (which was later turned into a documentary, This Filthy World, in 2006); putting on a comprehensive multimedia art show (I caught Change of Life at the Orange County Museum of Art in December 2005); watching Hairspray, his most commercial film, transform into a Broadway musical and later a film starring John Travolta as Edna Turnblad; hosting a tongue-in-cheek legal drama ’Til Death Do Us Part on Court TV from 2006 to 2007; and writing two memoirs, 2010’s Role Models and last year’s Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America.

Given John’s background, it should come as no surprise that Role Models isn’t a conventional memoir. While he does mention some of his collaborators throughout (chiefly Divine and Pat Moran, his longtime casting director and associate producer), he holds off on telling any salacious stories about Johnny Depp, who starred in 1990’s Cry-Baby. Role Models isn’t so much about John’s working life—or his personal one, for that matter. Although you do learn that he has “roommates”: pieces of his extraordinary contemporary art collection that are strewn across his Baltimore home and his New York apartment. I don’t care that John didn’t elucidate his filmmaking practices. I would rather hear him recount a particularly perverted airline passenger’s horrifying antics on an international flight that John wasn’t aboard himself. Just to hear him say “turd” over and over is a dream.

Cinecurator Alexandra Frank as John Waters. Photo of Waters's mouth by Greg Gorman.
Cinecurator Alexandra Frank as John Waters. Photo of Waters’s mouth by Greg Gorman.

Opening the final chapter, “Cult Leader,” John laments, “I’m so tired of writing ‘Cult Filmmaker’ on my income tax forms. If only I could write ‘Cult Leader,’ I’d finally be happy” (273). It’s true: “cult filmmaker” isn’t enough to identify him, and this is what makes John so special to me. Unlike other auteurs like Quentin Tarantino or Steven Spielberg, John isn’t just known for his films. He expresses his personality and sensibility in other art forms, and as a diehard fan, Role Models delivers, because it perfectly encapsulates the Pope of Trash’s worldview. Also in “Cult Leader,” John preaches about “a filth movement for the next century,” imagining that readers can choose to join his crusade against those who decry bad taste as the end of civilization (274). What an empowering message, because, once you get past his faux-insistence that you change your name or go topless in public, all he is really saying is that you should let your freak flag fly. Don’t let anyone else define who you are or dictate what you can and cannot do. Growing up with a fixed diet of John Waters movies and still wanting nothing more than to be best friends with the man, I have really taken this advice to heart.

Listening to Role Models, though, inspired me to reflect on other people whom I idolize. It’s been a long time since I was so obsessed with a celebrity that I purchased every magazine he or she appeared in. At ten, I was obsessed with the rock band Bush, and I recall lifting hundreds of issues of Tower Records’ free in-store magazine in order to mail copies to other fans dispersed around the world (this was before the Internet was readily available). I can still sing along to songs on Sixteen Stone, but I no longer think of Gavin Rossdale as my future husband. I was also a card-carrying member of the Christian Bale fan-club as a child, but now I waver in my enthusiasm for his acting. (I can’t wait to rent Exodus: Gods and Kings on DVD and laugh at it.) However, in almost twenty years, my passion for all things Trainspotting has never dissipated. Sure, I donated my copy of Ewan McGregor’s unauthorized biography a long time ago (it wasn’t well written), but I’m never getting rid of my rare Trainspotting movie poster, the one where Begbie has his hand in his pants. John would approve.

I’m not so sure that listening to audiobooks will ever replace my reading of tangible hard copies. I don’t spend much time commuting in the car or on the bus, where reading is nauseatingly impossible. My sister and I started listening to a piece of historical fiction, which spans thirteen compact discs and over sixteen hours of audio. It wouldn’t take me that long to read it, and my mind too easily wanders while listening to the actress read the story. But I know that listening to John Waters’s Carsick while on the road with my sister would be ideal.

To Each Her Own Cinephilia; Or How I Failed to Connect to Silver Screen Fiend

Cover Image of Silver Screen FiendI finished reading Patton Oswalt’s second memoir, Silver Screen Fiend, days ago but I’ve been struggling to find something to say about it ever since. That’s when it hit me: my not having much to say is indicative of how I feel about this book. It’s neither good nor bad. It’s mostly just underwhelming. As a film fanatic myself, I was very excited to read the newly released Fiend, whose subtitle is Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film. I thought it would offer me insights into how I might balance my career ambitions (whatever those are) with my chronic hunger to watch and analyze films and TV shows. Instead, Oswalt leaves it until the last chapter to bestow wisdom on this topic: “Movies—the truly great ones (and sometimes the truly bad)—should be a drop in the overall fuel formula for your life. A fuel that should include sex and love and food and movement and friendships and your own work. All of it, feeding the engine. But the engine of your life should be your life” (161, emphasis in original). I already knew all that. Thanks, Patton. What’s worse, he comes to the realization that the Movies have taken over his life only once The Phantom Menace profoundly disappoints him, and you know how I feel about Star Wars and George Lucas. At least I have never seen a film so terrible that it shook the very foundation upon which my cinephilia is built: I will never stop consuming films, because I want to better understand what effects they have on our lives, on our cultures.

Silver Screen Fiend briefly recounts the four years between 1995 and 1999 when he obsessively attended film screenings at the New Beverly Cinema and other repertory theaters playing classic films, in the hopes that feeding his addiction as much as possible would make him a (great) film director someday. At the same time, he also became a member of the alternative comedy scene in Los Angeles, and he wrote for MADtv for a short spell before the producers finally realized that his lackluster skits just weren’t cutting it. I’m not being harsh. Here is Oswalt himself on the subject of his being fired: “It also didn’t help that my writing at the time was so fashionably half-assed. I hadn’t even developed my distaste for typos, which made all the sketches I turned in look like I’d written them while being chased by Turkish assassins on a drifting steamboat” (133-4). There are amusing if not exactly laugh-out-loud funny scenes sprinkled throughout, such as his experience shooting Down Periscope (his debut film role, which also earned him a SAG card) and the legal trouble he and his friends faced when they tried to stage a table reading of Jerry Lewis’s controversial, never-publicly-shown Holocaust drama The Day the Clown Cried. What they wound up performing turned out to be a creative collaborative success: a series of sketches about their not being able to perform the screenplay itself due to a producer’s issuance of a cease-and-desist letter.

Although I could relate to his experience as a cinephile—and in particular, a desire to see films in the theater as part of an audience—I couldn’t connect with him in the way that I wanted to (that is, to learn about life through an addiction to film). The book itself starts in an off-putting way: he writes as if he is in conversation with the reader, who is either a friend or an acquaintance, outside the New Beverly, someone he “bulldoze[s] right over… and keep[s] gabbing” away about Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole. I get it; his mind runs sixty miles an hour when you get him started on a film about which he feels really passionate. The problem is that throughout most of the book, he mainly just mentions film titles, ones that appear in the handwritten and poorly duplicated calendar that begins most chapters. Occasionally, he reminds the reader that he uses five film encyclopedias to keep track of what classics he should see, and he marks each entry with a note in the margin describing how and when he saw a particular film. An appendix at the back of the book lists all of the films he saw between May 20, 1995 and May 20, 1999. It’s 33 pages long and quite impressive, but ultimately not very useful. What am I supposed to get out of it? In addition to a decades-old film stub collection, I’ve kept a film journal for almost ten years as well as an alphabetical index of its contents. I can’t imagine that anyone else would ever want to look at such a document or the information it contains. (I started journaling and indexing as a way to keep tabs on what I’ve not only seen but written about as well.) So scanning the wide assortment of titles listed in his appendix, all I could think was, for example, “Ooh! I wonder what he thought of Trainspotting.”

Actor, stand up comic, and author Patton Oswalt.
Actor, stand up comic, and author Patton Oswalt.

Oswalt’s film addiction and comedy scene shenanigans are probably given equal “screen time” in the slim volume, but his stories about the latter were more exuberant, filled with more personalities. I think I know why this is, and it’s not because he’s a lazy writer. (If anything, he may be too energetic, especially when it comes to philosophizing about Vincent van Gogh’s creative genius, from which Oswalt draws great and sometimes confusing inspiration.) It is because, as he implies throughout, it is sometimes difficult for a rabid film fanatic to translate her enthusiasm for a film in a way that someone not as interested in it will understand and appreciate. In the chapter “You Can, Unfortunately, Go Home Again,” he writes about meeting a high school friend for a movie while they were both home for Thanksgiving in 1996. Sitting down to the Bruce Willis western Last Man Standing, he geeks out about how the “movie is based on [Dashiell Hammett’s] Red Harvest, but it got there by way of [A] Fistful of Dollars and Yojimbo” (120). This fun fact lodges itself in his companion’s brain so deeply that Oswalt ruins the experience of watching Last Man Standing for the man, because he thinks he’s seen a version of a samurai film. Although I don’t condone binge drinking, this may be the best description Oswalt offers to illuminate the divide between people like us and people like his friend:

Movies, to him [meaning his old high school buddy] and the majority of the planet, are an enhancement to a life. The way a glass of wine complements a dinner. I’m the other way around. I’m the kind of person who eats a few bites of food so that my stomach can handle the full bottle of wine I’m about to drink. (122)

Owing to my gigantic sweet tooth, allow me to paraphrase this treatise using a dessert analogy instead. Some people I know don’t eat dessert or only do so on rare occasions, whereas I always eat dinner in order to have dessert. Since I’m in a confessional mood, I will also admit that sometimes I forgo dinner altogether and dash straight to dessert.

Early on in Silver Screen Fiend, Oswalt defines the film subculture he belongs to as one consisting of “sprocket fiends,” those who dwell in the “subterranean dimension” of repertory theaters, who travel through space and time at the will of a director and his/her vision (7-8). I learned on my first or second day in the Cinema Studies department at NYU that the rest of the Tisch School of the Arts referred to us as moles, because once we burrowed in the ground we were content to stay in the dark. Like Oswalt, I love the sound of celluloid passing through a projector. It makes me feel alive. That’s why the “First Epilogue,” written as a tribute to the owner and manager of the New Beverly Cinema, Sherman Torgan (to whom the book is also dedicated), is the best part. In it, Oswalt shows off his classic film knowledge in a highly imaginative and dexterous manner: he curates a 30-day festival of films that were never made but will hopefully entertain Sherman in the great beyond. If only Hal Ashby could have wrangled John Belushi and Richard Pryor for an adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. I especially love the quick mention that a young Frances McDormand, one of my favorites, costars as Myrna Minkoff and is, in a word, “Sublime” (172).