MORRIS AT 100 CELEBRATION
by Richard Brody – March 26, 2018
Excerpt from article about Steven Soderbergh
Soderbergh’s technical innovation and his vigorously imaginative deployment of it are at the core of the tradition of independent filmmaking. On April 8th, the centenary of the director and photographer Morris Engel, Metrograph will show his three features, including the first, “Little Fugitive,” which François Truffaut credited as a key inspiration of the French New Wave. The movie, which Engel made in 1952, with Ruth Orkin (they married in the course of production) and Ray Ashley, is the story of a young boy in Brooklyn who, tricked into thinking that he has killed his brother, flees home and reaches Coney Island. For the purpose of this film, Engel, who did his own cinematography, designed a 35-mm. movie camera to what he considered the requirements of the project—a camera that was both lightweight and didn’t need to be held up to his eye for framing. It hung from a strap and he looked down at its viewfinder, allowing him to film inconspicuously in public and to move both freely and unobtrusively. (Jean-Luc Godard later wrote to Engel in the hope of borrowing the camera, and, in the nineteen-seventies, he sought to produce, to his specifications, a similarly lightweight and portable 35-mm. camera.)
The techniques and styles of American independent filmmaking owe much to the work of Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, which gets a one-day retrospective at Metrograph on April 8, the centenary of Engel’s birth (he died in 2005). In 1952, Engel and Orkin, who worked as photographers, co-directed, with their friend Ray Ashley, the vastly influential independent film “Little Fugitive”; they married during the course of its production. Despite its acclaim (the filmmakers received an Oscar nomination for the story, and the film was later cited by François Truffaut as an inspiration for the French New Wave), the couple had trouble finding money for their second film, “Lovers and Lollipops.” Engel also struggled to finance the 1958 feature “Weddings and Babies,” which he made without Orkin’s participation (she had returned to still photography), and which dramatizes the difficulties faced by a couple planning to marry and make independent films. It’s a seminal entry in the now-familiar genre of an aspiring filmmaker’s first-person story.
For “Weddings and Babies,” Engel did his own cinematography using a handheld camera, made to his specifications, that was outfitted to record synchronous sound—a major innovation that he deployed to substantial dramatic ends and that also plays an onscreen role in the story. The title refers to the storefront studio of a commercial photographer named Al (John Myhers), who runs it with his girlfriend, Bea (Viveca Lindfors). They’ve been together for three years, and Bea, who’s about to turn thirty, is impatient to get married. But the thirty-four-year-old Al, who dreams of making films, sinks his bankroll—on which he and Bea could have started a household—into a new movie camera that, he says, will both help his business and launch his career in filmmaking.
Engel’s technical and dramatic imagination rises to a frenzied pitch in a wrenching discussion between Bea and Al, in which she voices her frustrations with him and with her own life, and he responds with petulant and juvenile indignation. Lacerating domestic battles such as this one, filmed with the kind of confrontational intimacy that Engel’s equipment enabled, would soon be a defining trait of independent filmmaking. Moreover, a pair of tragicomic scenes centered on the fragility of Al’s equipment set a template for generations of self-dramatizing filmmakers. ♦
This article appears in other versions of the April 9, 2018, issue, with the headline “Work-Life Balance.
AIPAD Show – April 5 – 8
Annual photography show at Pier 94. Several galleries will have Morris Engel’s photographs at their booths. Stephen Daiter Gallery from Chicago will display three of Morris’ photos as part of a Photo League show. His work is also included in a new catalog “NOTED PHOTOS: A Selection of Vintage Photographs from The Photo League.” In addition, Howard Greenberg Gallery, Richard Moore and PDNB Gallery will have some of his photos available.
The Screening Room at AIPAD
I curated a film program for AIPAD, and Morris Engel: The Independent and Ruth Orkin: Frames of Life will be playing throughout the show in The Screening Room.
MORRIS ENGEL RUTH ORKIN – OUTSIDE From Street Photography to Filmmaking published by Carlotta Films (2014) will be available at Distributed Art Publishers at AIPAD, or online at www.artbook.com or
The Films of Morris Engel box set is available from Kino Lorber. Look for a new Blu-ray box set that will be released soon. www.kinolorber.com
Morris Engel will have a vintage photograph in the Bonhams auction on April 6, and Paddle 8 will feature two of his photographs in their online sale that begins on April 12. www.bonhams.com, www.paddle8.com
Museum of Modern Art, MoMA
Morris Engel’s unreleased feature film from 1968, “I Need a Ride to California” has been restored by MoMA and will be shown next year at MoMA. www.moma.com