A New Wrinkle in Non-Fiction Film by Vincent Brook
From the first movies shown to theater audiences in 1895, such as the Lumiere brothers’ mundanely titled but no less thrilling (at the time) Workers Leaving the Factory and The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, documentary film has had discovery on its mind. Though not commonly termed documentaries until the 1920s, most movies through the budding industry’s first decade were snippets of unvarnished reality that brought the everyday world, or exotic foreign lands, to startling, unprecedented life.
The first feature-length documentary, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), for all its Eurocentric ideology and cinematic sleight of hand, was concerned with rediscovering, through creative re-enactment, the traditional Inuit way of life. Training the ethnographic lens on their own “tribe,” Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, in the cinema verite classic Chronicle of a Summer (1960), sought to penetrate the political unconscious of contemporary Parisians at a pivotal historical moment.
Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March (1986) and Michael Moore’s Roger and Me (1989) combined the personal and the political to illuminate hidden pockets of the New South and the Rust Belt, respectively. Most spectacularly, Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988) not only revealed but altered reality in its expose of a miscarriage of justice that led (twelve years after his conviction) to the release of a man falsely accused of murdering a police officer.
In the last few years, a number of high-profile films have emphasized the discovery element of their real-life investigations to such an extent as to warrant a new subset of documentary altogether. Rather than rewriting history or chronicling well-known figures, topics, or events, these “discovery docs,” as I call them, are works in which the filmmaker searches out, stumbles upon or reclaims forgotten, lesser known or marginalized figures, generally in the arts.
Jessica Yu’s In the Realms of the Unreal (2004) forecast the trend in its portrayal of the life and work of an obscure Chicago janitor, Henry Darger, whose posthumously discovered, self-illustrated magnum opus, Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, has become one of the most celebrated examples of outsider art. Darger’s manuscript was found shortly after his death in 1973, however, leaving a three-decade gap between its revelation and the film’s recounting, thereby attenuating the filmmaker’s role in the discovery process.
Not so with Arnon Goldfinger’s The Flat (2011), about the Israeli filmmaker’s on-camera probe, triggered by a letter he finds among his recently deceased grandmother’s possessions, into his Jewish grandfather’s contact with an SS officer during the Nazi period. Since then, discovery docs have achieved critical mass, and cultural cachet, thanks to the past two Oscar-winning documentary features: Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugarman (2012), about the rediscovery and subsequent comeback of singer-songwriter Rodriguez; and Morgan Neville’s Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013), about the spotlighting of a group of previously unheralded backup singers to pop music headliners.
In continuing the trend—Clint Burkett’s Steve White: Painting the World with Music and John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s Finding Vivian Maier (both 2014)—have also harked back to In the Realms of the Unreal by emphasizing not only their subjects’ extraordinary and comparatively (in Maier’s case, completely) unknown talent but their extraordinary lives and personalities as well.
Steve White, a pre-release currently making the festival rounds, is an ode to a recently deceased Southern California singer-songwriter-painter who, while a late-blooming one-man-band sensation in Europe and Asia, remained a relative cipher in the U.S. until his trailer-court neighbor, filmmaker Burkett, bumped into him at a party. In lifting the veil on White’s musical genius, Burkett also uncovered a gifted artist and quicksilver character whose kaleidoscopic back story had taken him from a childhood in Southeast Asia to a “white boy’s” variant on the blues that was as much Mekong as Mississippi delta.
The double-barreled discovery of artistry and idiosyncrasy in Finding Vivian Maier is arguably the most astonishing of all the discovery docs. White’s accomplishments, like those of Rodriguez, the backup singers, even the disreputable ones in The Flat, while undervalued or under-prosecuted, had not been kept totally under wraps in the subjects’ lifetimes. Maier’s thousands of photographs hadn’t seen the light of day, much less public exposure, while the reclusive artist was alive. And though a similar fate befell Darger’s work, while his manuscript has been marginalized as “outsider art,” many of Maier’s photographs are viewed as unqualified masterworks. How her photos were unearthed—in a box at an auction, with no notion by the recipient of what was inside—also trumps Darger’s manuscript’s discovery by his landlord. Most incredible of all the incredible “findings” in Vivian Maier—again trumping those in Darger’s film because of the greater wealth of material—is the riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped inside an enigma of her hermetically sealed personae.
Enough said, however, about these and the other discovery docs broached here, as one of the greatest joys of this new twist on the hoary art of non-fiction film is the journey of discovery audiences get to take, along with the filmmaker-explorers but on their own as well.
Vincent Brook teaches documentary history at UCLA and is the author or editor of five books, most recently Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles and Woody on Rye: Jewishness in the Films and Plays of Woody Allen (both 2013). He served as a documentary consultant on Steve White: Painting the World with Music.
Festival honors legacy of Leucadia musician
The music and art of Steve White, who died in 2011, will be celebrated Sunday in Encinitas
Leucadian Steve White was known as a one-man blues band because he could sing and play four instruments at once. A festival in his honor will be held March 16 in Encinitas.
ENCINITAS — For 20 years until his death in April 2011, Leucadia’s one-man blues band Steve White made music at the Seaside Bazaar. On Sunday, the Encinitas open-air market will host the inaugural Steve White Music and Art Festival.
The free, all-day event on March 16 will include continuous live music by White’s musical friends, performances of White’s songs, readings of his lyrics and displays of his oil pastels and sketches. The festival will conclude with a 7 p.m. screening of the new documentary “Steve White: Painting the World with Music” at the La Paloma Theatre.
White was a well-known and much-loved San Diego musician, but his music was so popular in Europe, he toured there six to seven months of each year. Besides his rootsy, deeply personal blues songs, he was known for his unique playing style. He sang, played harmonica and guitar and created percussion with shakers on his ankles and an amplified footboard.
“Steve created his own sound playing four instruments at once,” said friend and neighbor Clint Burkett, who produced and directed the White documentary. “His lyrics painted pictures that every common man could relate to.”
Diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2009, White’s nearly two-year battle cost him his vocal cords, but he kept writing and playing until just a few days before his death at age 61.
The event is being organized by Alda Leal, White’s life partner and business manager. She said her grief was so deep for two years after his death, it was too painful to be around his music and art. But now she’s ready.
“Life goes on and it’s time to celebrate the life of this man who didn’t leave too much of a footprint. We have to honor his legacy,” she said.
The late Steve White, seen performing at the 2009 Julian Blues Bash. White, who died in 2011, was a one-man band who sang and played four instruments at once. CREDIT: Jerry Manning
From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., musicians who knew and loved White will perform at Seaside Bazaar, 459 S. Coast Highway 101. Organized by musician Steven Mendoza, the lineup includes colleagues from White’s early days in the folk scene on up to his later blues period. Eighteen of White’s songs will be performed along with original music by Gregory Page, Candye Kane, Rick Kaestner, Dan Menendez, Jeffrey Joe Morin, Barry and Matthew Hill, Vlad & Yael, Kent Brisby, the Sinclairs and many more.
Leal said that many of these musicians were a great source of support and comfort to White in his final year. Several gave fundraising concerts because he had no health insurance, and when he was too weak to leave their home, many stopped by for jam sessions. She said that when White lost his voice, he became an even better musician.
“After his first hospitalization, he was playing a lot and it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard,” she said. “There at that moment, all the love, all the pain, everything right there was coming out of his guitar.”
Sunday’s festival will have an open mike for readings of White’s lyrics as well as other poetry. Booths will be available for local artists to sell their work, and there will be a sales table for White’s CDs and prints of his artwork (he had a painting degree from Philadelphia College of Art and Design). Donations will be accepted, with all proceeds benefiting the Steve White Foundation, which Leal established to promote music education (White volunteered in school music programs).
Burkett’s film has been in development for nearly four years. In 2009, he met White and was fascinated by his music, so he began shooting footage of his concerts around town. But when White got sick, the project gradually morphed, with help from producer Tom Zizzi, from a concert film into a biographical documentary.
“It became this beautiful story of a regular, humble guy with a genius for creativity,” Burkett said.
More than 70 of White’s several hundred songs can be heard in the film (the soundtrack was mixed with the help of engineers at Studio West), and dozens of his paintings are also featured. Because White couldn’t speak after his surgery, Burkett tracked down old interviews and concert footage from around the world. He also conducted new interviews with musicians including John Sebastian, Tommy Emmanuel and Jack Tempchin, engineer Alan Sanderson, guitar craftsman Dick Boak and German amplifier-maker Udo Roësner, who introduced White to European audiences in 2002 and described him as “a human groove machine.”
Admission to the film is free, but advance reservations are required. A link to the reservation form and more details about the festival can be found on the Steve White website.
Portugal native Leal said she still misses everything about her partner of 14 years — his musical abilities, his peaceful nature, his beautiful hands and his “famous” eggs and coffee — but she knows he will be there in spirit this weekend.
“Steve was so in the moment. He lived for today,” she said. “I was blown away when I heard him play and was always amazed that I was living with someone so creative.”
By Pam Kragen1:05 p.m.March 14, 2014
FM 94.9 Tim Pyles Radio Show
Filmmakers Tom Zizzi and Clint Burkett being interviewed on
Tim Pyles "Locals" radio show about the upcoming free screening and the First Steve White Festival.
KFMB TV Reporter Sean Styles interviewing Clint before
Seaside Bazaar Encinitas
Reporter Dave Scott of KUSI News
feature story about Clint Burkett's
new documentary on Steve White.
Award winning producer James Brown interviews Clint Burkett about his documentary on Steve White. Video produced by Tom Zizzi.