Rep Diary: Films of John Korty
Carroll Ballard, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Philip Kaufman, and Michael Ritchie all are, or were, San Francisco–based filmmakers. Yet none of these people seem to be Bay Area filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Abel Ferrara, or Spike Lee are New York filmmakers. Avant-garde cinema, on the other hand, has a rich history with the West Coast in general, and San Francisco in particular. Falling somewhere in between is John Korty, a narrative filmmaker who sets his films in the Bay Area and beyond. The city never overwhelms his work, but comfortably appears in the margins. His social and domestic dramas work with small budgets and modest stories.
The Language of Faces
That characterization, however, does not untangle the Kortian knot. The 78-year-old filmmaker has made shorts and features in a range of forms: animation, commercials, documentary, telefilm, and Web short. Similar to avant-garde colleagues, especially Bruce Conner or Craig Baldwin in their collage-based work, John Korty is a montage artist, slicing and dicing his narratives, bringing out the gestures, rhythms, and textures in them. Even in his debut, The Language of Faces (61), a short about a Quaker vigil in Washington D.C. reminiscent of The Savage Eye, Korty’s rhythmic editing is already on display. The cautionary, preaching yet poetic voiceover narrates an all-American assemblage of images featuring planes, flags, advertisements, and particularly faces: large, small, young, and old faces, faces looking and faces reading.
Born in Lafayette, Indiana, Korty went to high school in Kirkwood, Missouri where an 11th-grade art teacher showed his class Norman McLaren’s films. “I had interests in music and art and writing and everything, and they were all separate things in my mind,” Korty says in a video interview on The Crazy-Quilt DVD (which he produced). “When I saw McLaren’s films, I thought, ‘Wait a minute. Film is the one thing you can do that combines all these different elements.’ From that moment on, I was hooked on the idea of becoming a filmmaker.”
Korty’s first feature-length film, and his first Bay Area film, The Crazy-Quilt (66), shares a glancing resemblance with McLaren’s Neighbours, not so much in terms of subject matter, but in formal affinities, a preoccupation with diametric oppositions and unions of social behavior. The story—really a pair of contrasting character sketches—is simple enough: a fable-like tale of an exterminator, Henry, his wife, Lorabella, and their relationship over a lifetime. He is a take-no-prisoners realist, who doesn’t suffer fools, and holds no illusions. She is a romantic believing in “timeless art,” in “elegant mirages,” as the authoritative narrator informs us. They are doodles, not flesh-and-blood characters, but figures epitomizing different worldviews and temperaments.
With great economy, Korty takes us through the couple’s life from their tentative beginnings, the ebb and flow of their relationship in middle age, and their stability in later years, all in a matter of 70-odd minutes. Shirking analytical editing, The Crazy-Quilt is a roundelay of images narrated by Burgess Meredith’s coarse voice, moments of the couple together or apart, and fragmentary scenes in which they speak and interact. It’s a prismatic film of lives lived that inspired Terrence Malick to become a filmmaker. One of The Tree of Life’s seeds starts here.
As with his debut and his third film, Riverrun (70), Funnyman (67) was independently produced. Peter Bonerz plays the eponymous figure—a funnyman tired of being funny. Instead of performing skits with the San Francisco improv group, The Committee, he wants to do high art. He recites Faust. He creates a performance art piece called The Actor. It tanks. For a short spell, he works in the ad industry, coming up with ideas for animated commercials (designed by Korty) on bug spray, spinning lines like “Blast kills everything that bugs you.” Acting on stage and in his everyday life, he does not know who he is amid the palimpsest of performances.
At the time of its release, writing in Film Quarterly, Ernest Callenbach opened his review with this corker of a line: “The film that Funnyman calls most to mind is Godard’s Masculin/Feminin; it is Korty’s Funny/Sad.” Korty shoots extended montage sequences mixed in with two-shots of Bonerz in conversations that have the intuitive, instinctually spot-on quality of improvisation. One point of reference for early Godard and early Korty: both use the mere skeletons of scripts. And like Godard, Korty uses color filters. From scene to scene, Korty shuffles through filters that mirror the shifting hues of Bonerz’s many performances.
After 1970, Korty went into TV, creating animation for Electric Company and Sesame Street and directing telefilms, not only to pay the rent, but also because they suit the rapid rate of his working method. With a few departures, including his Academy Award-winning documentary, Who Are the DeBolts? (And Where Did They Get 19 Kids?) (77), TV movies dominate his filmography from the Seventies to the Nineties. As with the careers of Lamont Johnson, Daniel Petrie, John Badham, William A. Graham, and others, Korty’s output as a TV filmmaker is an untapped area for exploration.
To this date, Korty’s last theatrically released film, and co-directed with Charles Swenson, was Twice Upon a Time, back in 1983. In it, Ralph “the all-purpose animal,” and “his flaky friend,” Mum, save the Rushers of Din—humans in a black-and-white world, always in a hurry, always looking at their watches—from Synonamess Botch (you know he’s bad because he has “Nixon-Agnew ’68” tattooed on his chest) who plans to drop nightmares on the Rushers with the help of vultures. Twice is Korty’s only animated feature, and he shows no interest in making another. His decision is reasonable given the film’s rocky production and distribution history.
Twice deserves recognition in the history of animation for its use of Korty’s “Lumage” technique. Lumage is a type of 2-D stop-motion animation in which characters are made out of numerous cutout plastic and felt parts. The pieces are placed over a translucent background setting, which in turn, lies on a light table, creating a warm glowing light. Although now easily simulated with computers, Lumage is an extremely tedious and intensive process. That’s one of the reasons why the film took three years to make, with Korty’s crew (which included a 19-year-old David Fincher operating a motion control camera and Henry Selick directing sequences) working in his Mill Valley home.
Twice Upon a Time
When it came time for Twice’s theatrical release, practically no one saw it. The Ladd Company distributed the film at a time when the company was in its death throes. After tepid test screenings in Oregon, they dumped the film in a single Westwood, California theater that played it for a mere two weeks in August 1983. The following year in June, Twice aired 12 times on HBO. In 1991, Twice appeared on VHS and laserdisc. Warner Bros., who owns the rights, has never released the film on DVD or Blu-Ray.
Regardless whether or not Korty and Swenson’s film fits the label of cult film, Twice dazzles. With its organic shapes, its watercolors, its spider web-thin lines, the film’s animation recalls Eric Carle (sans his vibrant colors), Jazz album covers like those designed by Neil Fujita and David Stone Martin, as well as The Yellow Submarine and John and Faith Hubley’s animation, both acknowledged influences.
In an early New York Times profile around the time of The Crazy–Quilt, Korty talked about the travails of making his kind of films: “To me, the problem and the real challenge is to make pictures putting people back together.” He shows the building and the wear and tear in a relationship central to his first feature. He constructs a character out of many characters in Funnyman. And in Twice Upon a Time two characters become unlikely heroes (in “a time of desperate need for heroes—any kind of heroes” an opening title card reads). In Korty’s films, identities are constructed and relationships are built. They are his building blocks.