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Richard Leacock

     Richard Leacock said it himself: in the 70s and 80s when he headed the MIT Film Unit in Cambridge, Massachusetts, there wasn't a lot of teaching going on. But the atmosphere was informal and pleasant, and "Ricky" (that's what everyone calls him) was, between involvements with luscious girlfriends, a generous soul, cooking legendary dinners for his students at his Somerville flat below Inman Square, and lending them his 16mm Bolex to make their movies.

     Those who landed at MIT were a mature, self-motivated bunch, and, better, deeply talented. What other school can claim such an honor role of now-established documentarians? Among them: Ross McElwee, Robb Moss, Steve Ascher, Jeff Kreiness, Joel DeMott, Michel Negroponte, Claude Chelli, Alexandra Anthony, Mark Rance, Mary Arbuckle.

     "I never had more than twelve students at a time, 120 in all," Leacock noted. "I still know most of them."

     The one-time pride of the Hub was famous when living here for, among a thousand accomplishments, being Robert Flaherty's cameraman for Louisiana Story (1946), and helping pioneer cinema-verite-style documentary with such non-fiction classics as Primary (1960), Crisis (1963), and Monterey Pop (1966). Where did he run to?

     In July, I saw Leacock, now 79 and winningly fit and energetic, at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic. Still Gregory Peck-handsome, he has filled his life this way, since leaving MIT as a Professor Emeritus in 1988:

     "After a year mucking about Paris, I fell in love with this lovely lady there, Valerie Lalonde, and we've been together ever since. She does everything I don't do - she smokes, she drinks - and I absolutely adore her. I started filming her, and then she started filming. Now we love shooting together. We live out in the country in Normandy, with our dog and cats and our technical equipment. It's wonderful.

     "I've sold my movie camera. I'll never use film again. Digital technology is everything I ever dreamed of, and it gets better every day. We can make movies out of our own pockets. DVD is a way to show quality films. You can show them in your house and invite friends."

     Leacock and Lalonde collaborated on an 84-minute work for French television, shot on Video 8, which he calls "the only documentary I know that is about nothing in particuloar, only things we like."

     Lalonde, also in Karlovy Vary, elaborated: "It's called 'Les Oeufs a la Coque de Richard Leacock,' a cheap French pun, which means 'Richard Leacock's Soft-Boiled Eggs.' It's a love song to France and me, and to the French girls he had met. Little scenes of people enjoying themselves - shopping, fishing, gossiping, mushroom hunting - are intercut with people eating soft-boiled eggs. See Gulliver's Travels for the war between people who eat their eggs from the pointed end and those who eat them from the rounded end. Most important indeed!"

     (Yes, there's an age difference. Lalonde told me: "I was born in 1947, he in 1921. I'm a few months younger than Ricky's oldest daughter, who says I'm the best stepmother she ever had.")

     At Karlovy Vary, Leacock unveiled a rough cut of a digitally-produced work, "A Musical Adventure in Siberia," a 57-minute collaboration with his daughter, Victoria Leacock, and (typical Ricky!) a blonde, beautiful ex-grad student from MIT, Natalya Tsarkova. Said Leacock: "Sarah Caldwell, the ex-head of the Opera Company of Boston, telephoned me with a proposal. In a Moscow library, she'd discovered a handwritten score by Prokofiev from October, 1936, of a symphonic drama with actors of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. The two men who had worked with Prokofiev were taken to a hospital and supposedly died of food poisoning. They were liquidated, and the piece was banned under Stalin. But now she would stage it in Siberia, in an industrial town which, until recently, was closed to foreigners. Could I do something about it? Video the actors and musicians? There would be no money, but we would be provided with an apartment."

     Leacock and crew came to Siberia and shot verite-style, capturing the black comedy of an exasperated Caldwell trying to impose her aesthetic on a provincial group of actors and singers, led by a temperamental dramatic director, someone too stubborn to read Prokofiev's own notes.

     "We wanted originally to show the whole opera. The music is lovely, but I found the rest excruciatingly boring. There's an awful lot of talk, minuets, and dances. As for the performance, someone described it as 'Shakespeare performed by truck drivers.' It wasn't the definitive version."

     PBS isn't interested in broadcasting "A Musical Adventure in Siberia," and it's unclear if we'll get to see it about Boston because Caldwell is less than crazy about the candid way she is shot. Undaunted, Leacock is enthusiastically enmeshed in his latest project, sponsored by MIT: a series of CD Roms documenting his life and work: "My recipees, my wives, my children, my loves, my letters from combat in World War II, films which I made, films which influenced me, like a Russian silent film about the building of the Trans-Siberian railway. I was eleven years old when I saw it and I said, 'I can do that! All I need is a camera!'"

(August, 2000)


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