Photographer Helen Levitt is the focus of this week’s Melbourne Cinematheque with two feature films and two shorts she worked on screening. Levitt, a staple of the New York arts scene from the 1940s to her death at 95 in 2009, has been noted for her ability to capture the everyday life and moments of joy and heartache in the working class lives of those in New York. She also transferred to colour prints quite early, experimenting with overexposure, saturation, and dyeing the image. After being introduced to Luis Bunuel she took an interest in film and worked for many years as a consultant and cinematographer on various low-budget and collective films.
The Quiet One (1948) is a semi-documentary directed by Sidney Meyers which follows the life of a ten-year-old African-America boy growing up in Harlem. Having never been shown kindness or compassion in his home or school life Donald Peters lashes out against society. Eventually he is sent to the Wiltwyck School for Boys which focuses on rehabilitation and reform where psychiatrists try to find out what is ‘wrong’ with him, never realising that it was societies neglect that meant that Donald never had a chance.
Following this feature is the short In the Street (1948) which Levitt worked on, showing life in Spanish Harlem.
The Savage Eye (1959) is an essayistic documentary, the product of a four-year long collaborative between various directors (Sidney Meyers, Ben Maddow, Joseph Strick) and cinematographers (Helen Levitt, Jack Couffer, Haskell Wexler). Barbara Baxley is recently divorced and looking for a fresh start in Los Angeles. The film takes the viewer to various instances in Barbara’s new life from car accidents, to religious fanatics, to burlesque shows- all beautifully shot.
Following is Emotions of Everyday Living: The Steps of Age (1950), a short directed by Ben Maddow and produced by Levitt that focuses on the retirement of a crane driver and the effect this has on the relationship he has with his wife.