Web Only / Culture » November 28, 2011
Gordon Quinn: Man With a Movie Camera
The veteran documentarian looks back over 45 years of filmmaking, and finds change to be the crucial constant.
'One of the most important hallmarks of Kartemquin is that we don't keep making the same film. You look at Ken Burn's work, and stylistically it is the same narrator, it's the same music, more or less...it's the same.'
In this, its 45th year, Kartemquin Films released two feature documentaries: A Good Man, about choreographer Bill T. Jones creating a dance/theater piece about Abraham Lincoln, and The Interrupters, which follows a group by that name as it tries to interrupt cycles of violence in poor Chicago neighborhoods. They’re both unlike the more simple, raw films of the group’s early years, when cinema verité met the New Left and found they liked each other.
But there’s a direct, if “interrupted,” lineage, politically and esthetically, connecting this year’s more polished storytelling with its youthful commitment and energy. I recently met with one of the group’s founders, Gordon Quinn—who has conceived, produced and directed countless films with various collaborators over the last five decades—to talk about that history.
DM: You’ve told the story a million times, but tell me a bit about how Kartemquin started at the University of Chicago.
It began with three guys who were students: [Stan] Karter, Jerry Temaner, and [Gordon] Quinn. Thus the name, which we thought sounded like “Potemkin” [a reference to Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 classic about a ship mutiny with revolutionary aspirations]. You know, Potemkin, Kartemquin–a terrible idea that has been a handicap for 45 years. No one can pronounce it.
Karter left early on, and we were soon joined by Jerry Blumenthal, who has been with Kartemquin up until a few years ago. We did a lot of films together through the collective period and the different transitions of Kartemquin. But we started off as a little company that had this vision–we were very taken with Cinema Verité –recording reality as it unfolded before the camera. We really had this feeling that if you just reflected reality back to society that would be a force for social change.
It was the 60s, and we were becoming more politicized. We had a seminar at Kartemquin with Howard Becker, a well-known sociologist, called “Cinematic Social Inquiry.” Out of that came Home for Life, and our first series of films.
But we began to see the limitation of just having society reflected back on itself. One of the things we hadn’t quite thought through were the power relationships. You had to understand who had the power and who didn’t, and if you reflected back on society to see how things could be better, you also had to figure out where you going to get the power to make that happen.
I learned my technical skills through apprenticeship to Mike Shea, an old Life photographer who was getting into the Cinema Verité approach to things. He brought the first verité camera to Chicago from New York, from the same people who were making cameras for Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker. He came back with this $20,000 camera that was crystal controlled and silent, would work with no wire between the camera man and the sound man, and left you free to move around as just the two of you make the movie.
DM: Tell me about Camera 1.
The kind of camera we wanted was what Mike Shay had, but that was way out of our price range. There was no way we could have afforded that. But we could afford a General Camera 2 version, which we got for about $2,000. And a friend of mine who was a physics major at the University of Chicago built a modification that was so far ahead of its time, similar to what Shay had, and it worked for years. So we had the second crystal camera in Chicago, and no one else had anything like that. So that was cool and very exciting.
DM: How much do you think that technology affected the style that you developed?
What that meant was you had a two-person crew that could move around, spend time with people, go where they were going. You could put down the camera and just be a human being, talking to another person, to establish a relationship.
DM: What did you learn about telling stories, about getting people to trust you?
What I was passionate about, what we were all passionate about, was how do you understand the consequences of social policies on people’s lives? So what is it that makes a good story, what is it that makes a story emotional? Those were things I learned studying the liberal arts, studying technology.
One of the most important hallmarks of Kartemquin is that we don’t keep making the same film. You look at Ken Burn’s work, and stylistically it is the same narrator, it’s the same music, more or less…it’s the same. The talking heads are interwoven, extremely well, the craftsmanship is brilliant, but every presentation is the same. But Kartemquin ranges over everything from pure Verité, no narration, and if we do anything to stimulate or change the situation, we go so far as to let the audience know that.
But we evolved: history changes, the times change, the political context that you’re living in changes, so Kartemquin projects change. A lot of people were coming to Kartemquin from film, but some were union organizers, teachers and other kinds of activists, many working with organizations such as Rising Up Angry and the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. So we started to make films that were part of their struggles, useful to people in these organizations. So, some of our films became more like agitprop, advocacy pieces.
Other films start off in a verité mode, such as The Chicago Maternity Center and The Last Pullman Car. Both started with people waging a struggle to save an institution, but as we saw that these struggles were going to fail, we realized that we really need an analysis, that people waging these struggles in the future need to know what they’re up against. So the films have a lot of narration. There are long sections of materials to tell a much larger analytical story.
Some of these began to get on public television. They were much different from our earlier work. Then we evolved into a collective. At most there were 16 people here. We had many other things we were doing besides making films. For instance, we were very committed to skill-sharing, to breaking women into more skilled fields. And we were reading Mao and Marx. You know, it was the 60s. And you can see that in our films, you see it being a reflection of that.
DM: Does anything besides The Last Pullman Car exemplify that?
Trickbag, from that period, is a short film that was made for people who were organizing with gang kids. It’s interesting if you think about it in relationship to The Interrupters [a new Kartemquin film in theaters now, scheduled for PBS’s Frontline next year]. The Interrupters is about what the “interrupters” do [in an organization called Ceasefire], and we follow them around. It’s very emotional, and it’s talking to an national audience.
Trickbag is a short film, made for an organization that was trying to get gang kids to stop fighting with each other and to do more socially positive things. It’s a film to be used by the people in that line of work: they show it to the kids to trigger discussion. So it had a lot of popular music in it. It was made in a style that’s much more raggedy and has a street feel to it. And it’s a very different kind of film than The Interrupters because its purpose was different.
There have been three periods of Kartemquin, and this is the second period, from 1968 or 1969 to near the end of the ’70s.
DM: During this period, how would you have contrasted yourself with Newsreel?
Chicago Newsreel and what was called California Newsreel – all three of us were in contact with each other. We once had a meeting here with all three of us getting together and having a kind of national meeting of these kind of progressive [documentary filmmakers]. We saw Newsreel as a sister organization. And there were similarities in terms of how we were organized. We called ourselves a collective, but we actually weren’t a financial collective.
DM: So, might it be fair to sort of make a twist on Marx and say that in your first period, you were trying to reflect the world, and in your second, you were trying to change it?
Yeah. We felt that you had to do more than just hold a mirror up to it. You had to get engaged with people who were trying to make social change on the ground. And that was our strategy for the second period of Kartemquin. Most of our major films were done either in conjunction with the women’s movement, activists who were working around poor people issues or street gang issues, or unions – we were very into labor. …
DM: That in a way sets you apart from a lot of the New Left that, at that point, was still very suspicious of the unions. How did you connect with the unions?
In two ways. One: we were working with some of these New Left groups, who were within unions as rank-and-file caucuses, and that kind of thing, challenging the old, established unions. Some of those people were our initial contacts that resulted in the first Taylor Chain film. And if you look at that film, you see that the staff guy from the United Steelworkers of America, who we see as a stuffed shirt and as a union bureaucrat.
When he saw the film, he said to us, “I know what you think of me. You think I’m a stuffed shirt. You have a lot to learn. But your movie is honest. You’re always concerned about portraying people honestly. Your movie is honest, and I’m gonna help you get it to the Steelworkers and get it seen.”
This is a great story, really, this guy was John Bierman. And ten years later, when we made Taylor Chain II, we had a very different view of him. We had learned a lot. But he took us to Pittsburgh, we showed the movie to Lynn Williams, who later became the president of the Steelworkers.
You know, I’m a kid, I’m like 24 years old or something, but our pitch was: Look, this is a pro-labor movie. There’s more democracy going on in this film than you can ever see going on in America. And you have a problem in the union movement. Everyone thinks that there are all these deals being made in the back room, that you’re a bunch of bureaucrats and sell-outs, and here’s the rank and file rising up, shouting down the staff man, shouting down even their own elected leadership, and, you know, a vote being taken, and arguments about whether it should have been an open vote or a closed vote.
And, I said, this is the stuff of democracy. What I want is your endorsement. I want your endorsement of this movie because that will make it be seen as a pro-labor movie. If you come out against this movie, that will be the lead of every review – that this is the film that reveals the dirty linen of the labor movement. Embrace it and be proud of it, and the reviews will be pro-labor. And, amazingly enough, they bought it, they got behind the movie. Bierman was an enormous help. He said, you know, I want people to know what my life is like. And you guys showed what my life is like. I think it’s important.
We weren’t ultra-leftists who say, “We’ll have nothing to do with the mainstream labor movement.” We think labor’s important. And we worked with, in a sense, both sides. We’re not going to grind political axes. We’re going to tell the story as it unfolds.
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David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at email@example.com.