Wednesday 14 April 2021

Craft ideas: "Henry Glassie: Field Work"

Irish filmmaker Pat Collins last breached mainland cinemas with 2012's 
Silence, an oddly memorable drama about a solitary sound recordist roaming the highways and byways to see what his trusty boom mic might pick up. The figure enshrined in the title of Collins' stimulating new doc Henry Glassie: Field Work is far less solitary, being someone who's literally gone out of their way to seek out fellow humans, hear their stories and observe their passions. Yet he's engaged in a not entirely dissimilar quest: to chronicle what might otherwise go unnoticed amid the modern world's bustle and noise. A professor in folklore operating out of Bloomington, Indiana, Glassie has spent his life touring the globe collecting evidence of native, localised traditions. (Think of him as a latter-day equivalent to Alan Lomax, who toured America's cotton fields in the Jim Crow era, taping the foundational songs of the blues/R'n'B tradition; Glassie started out doing something similar with Appalachian banjo faves, but subsequently broadened his field of interest to encompass the full range of creative expression.) What's striking about Collins' film is that it isn't strictly centred on Glassie - for a long while, the most we see of him is a cursory glimpse in the opening credits - so much as a film that operates in Glassie's footsteps, to Glassie's MO. We find ourselves in the workshops, garages and garrets of Brazil, Turkey, the US and Ireland - sometimes with Glassie and wife Pravina Shukla in attendance - watching an array of sculptors, potters, carpenters and printmakers going about their daily business. The film becomes Glassie, in effect, looking, listening, learning, taking in these variably arcane processes. And so we become Glassie, doing all of the above ourselves, suddenly becoming cognisant of elements we might previously have taken for granted.

You soon see why Glassie goes where he goes and does what he does: it's fascinating. Field Work owes something to the slow cinema movement, allowing us to watch the creation central to Glassie's studies taking place in more or less silence, and in something akin to real time. Collins has understood that a big part of the appeal of this artisanal craft lies in its one-of-a-kind detail. That's why he shoots extended close-ups of sculptor Rosalvo Santanna's hands as he makes indentations that represent fingernails on a tiny clay hand; we get so immersed in this activity that the eventual pullback, showing the exquisite figurine to which these hands will be attached, qualifies as one of the best reveals I've witnessed in a long while. (If Field Work plays in cinemas in the months ahead, I guarantee it will prompt gasps, and possibly a smattering of applause.) Elsewhere, we watch a man pulling off a conjuring trick with a welding torch and a pile of metal fragments; another using woodworking tools to fashion a block of cedar into expressive human features; and his wife applying gold leaf to the finished work's base, another sequence that draws you in with the precision involved. (Her tweezers are as the bomb squad's wirecutters in The Hurt Locker: they demand the steadiest of hands.) There is a rare alchemy to be observed here: in all these cases, we're watching everyday or otherwise unpromising materials being transformed into artefacts that, even if not specifically demarcated as holy (and many of the Brazilian artworks are made for exhibition in churches), invite worship, or at least wonder. Glassie insists the requirements for his work are "reverence and patience"; the work he's watching would appear to require similar qualities, along with a spark or two of creative imagination. These are man-made miracles.

As with most miracles, some will ask "why?". Long stretches of Field Work are deliberately stripped of the context we've become used to in our arts docs. No clues are offered as to whether all this whittling and gilding forms part of a tradition passed down from one generation to the next, or merely something Collins' subjects tinker around with at the weekend, between property deals; indeed, we're not given any indication this painstaking, time-intensive labour generates any return whatsoever. (The craft scenes are only sparingly subtitled.) I suspect Glassie and Collins would retort with an understandably aggrieved "why not?". What they're interested in, I think, is creation embarked upon purely for the sake of creation, an ever-useful reminder that art - or intellectual inquiry such as Glassie has been engaged in all these years - shouldn't have to turn a profit to be considered valuable. It can just make the world a dash more beautiful. Rudimentary though it appears, this kind of craftsmanship retains an enigmatic air, as something practised, understood and appreciated by a small few - Collins notes this via a slow push into the pattern of a ceramic plate that, like the coffee cup in Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her, seems to contain all the mysteries of the universe. Presenting it without immediate commentary just means we're free to make our own studies, to puzzle over it as surely and freely as Glassie himself does. It's where that patience comes in.

Field Work does start to fill in some of that context in the course of its midsection. Here, Collins turns his camera on Glassie himself - who, with his fulsome white moustache and shock of hair, resembles Bruce Dern as restyled by David Lynch - in the understanding his handiwork may urgently need chronicling itself. (He turned 80 earlier this year, and all that travel is surely a young folklorist's game.) The screen now floods with his notebooks and hand-drawn maps; these artefacts are interspersed with videoclips of the young Glassie in the field (facial hair restored to its earlier trim blackness) and contemporary interviews in which Collins draws out his subject's philosophy. It's a rare doc you may want to watch all over again the moment it ends, to bring the knowledge gleaned in these segments to bear on the observational stretches of the first - to spot exactly what Glassie went to Brazil to see. But Field Work has one last assignment to send us out on. The final third carries us to a small, out-of-the-way community of potters in North Carolina, where beardy types with clay-spattered faces bake their earthenware with long-necked blowtorches that are, at once, very cool and utterly terrifying. (The abundance of wild facial hair surely invites disaster.) Once again, Collins sets us down in Glassie's shoes, inviting us to feel our way into a place and its rhythms, grasp the initially ungraspable, discern what is specific to this location, and then marvel at the best of it. Glassie emerges as an extraordinary figure, somehow more 19th century than 21st, serious yet humane and perennially open-minded. History speaks through him - and through Collins' engrossing film: it would be impossible not to be engaged, challenged and awed by much of it.

Henry Glassie: Field Work will be available to stream via the BFI Player from Friday.

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