Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Lonely Boy

Most of the specialized cinemas in town have announced their programming for the rest of the year, and some of them (like YBCA) into early 2012. December themes at the Roxie, PFA, Castro & New People include Southen (Dis)Comfort, classic musicals, and François Truffaut.

The screening space at SF Museum of Modern Art has been relatively quiet in the past few months, but December it becomes more active. A three-film series in conjunction with the ongoing exhibit devoted to designer Dieter Rams includes Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and a documentary featuring Rams, Objectified. This Thursday's George Kuchar tribute offers a chance to see restored prints of many of that dearly departed teacher & maker's most influential, beautiful films, including Hold Me When I'm Naked and Wild Night In El Reno.

And today at noon, SFMOMA hosts a free screening of six films selected by Goldie-awarded filmmaker Paul Clipson. Three by Peter Kubelka, one by Nagisa Oshima, one collaboration of Alain Resnais and Chris Marker, and one by the comparatively lesser-known Canadian documentarians Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor. Yesterday Brecht Andersch ably previewed the full program on the SFMOMA blog, reminding that I was sitting on an unpublished piece of my own on one of the selections: Koenig & Kroitor's Lonely Boy. Here it is:

The 1962 film Lonely Boy, directed by National Film Board of Canada filmmakers Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroiter, may seem at first glance like a piece of fluff, unworthy of a place in the annals of great documentary history. It's a portrait of pop singer Paul Anka on tour in New Jersey and New York, told through fans-eye views of his concerts, a certain amount of backstage access, and largely self-aggrandizing interviews from Anka and his manager Irvin Field. But it's a testament to the importance and influence of the new technologies becoming available to non-fiction filmmakers in the early 1960s that Lonely Boy looks as familiar and modern as it does to us today. The music and hairstyles may date the film as a fifty-year-old artifact, but the technological (and philosophical)-driven techniques are recognizable as some of the same ones dominant in documentaries of 2011.

When Lonely Boy was made, cameras and sound equipment were becoming available in easily-portable versions. Technologies developed for usage by war photographers and others during World War II became crucial in the development of "civilian" filmmaking. Perhaps none was more crucial than the increased infrastructure for the production and distribution of 16mm film stock, which is only about a quarter the width, resolution and weight of the 35mm standard in use in industrialized film production around the world. Most feature films and studio-produced shorts still used this standard (and indeed, the most lavish productions were now beginning to regularly utilize the even-more cumbersome 70mm film format) but avant-garde and independent work, as well as documentaries, found 16mm cheap and convenient enough that it proliferated. Film stocks were becoming more light-sensitive as well, freeing filmmakers from the necessity of bringing bulky electric lighting equipment everywhere they wanted to shoot.

16mm cameras themselves were more light-weight and portable than ever. I'm not sure there's a single shot in Lonely Boy which uses a tripod or dolly. Zoom lens technology improved significantly, giving filmmakers access to images far beyond the range of previous cameras -- a valuable asset when shooting "in the field." Audio recording equipment had become far lighter and more easily transportable as well, and improvements in synchronization technology meant that for the first time, a modestly-budgeted documentary could capture picture and image simultaneously on location, unshackling filmmakers from the tyranny of the voice-over narration. Interviews could be gathered on the street, or wherever the action was, and not just in a specially-prepared studio.

Though Lonely Boy makes use of all these technologies, providing an easygoing, behind-the-scenes look at a popular star that would have been simply impossible (especially on a NFB budget) only a few years before, perhaps it's most fascinating because it doesn't stick purely to new, often considered "realer" techniques, unlike the Direct Cinema films being made at around the same time with the same kinds of equipment. A key moment of the film is at a concert in New York, filled with female Paul Anka fans. For a time we experience the scene as if we are amidst the crowd, hearing Anka's music only when it cuts through the din of the near-constant youthful screaming. But when Anka brings a young woman up onto the stage with him, the soundtrack smoothly switches from the synchronous sound recording of the event, to the hit record version of the song he's singing, "Put Your Head on My Shoulder." Skillful matching of the camera-captured lip movements to the studio-recorded lyrics reminds us of the role of technology in selling pop music to mass markets, and the pop singer's mandate to sonically recreate a specific performance every night. But the transition also may be read as an entry into the young fan's head, where the sounds of the other concert-goers can be blocked out and only the emotion and the music (its ingrained memory as much or more than its physical sound) exists.


  1. I first saw Lonely Boy in 1965 with a bunch of would be Junior High School filmmakers. The guy who showed us the film was a film student from Northwestern University. Lonely Boy was said to have been something of an influence on the making of A Hard Day's Night. It is no accident that it is included on the DVD release of Privilege as Peter Watkin's lifted some of the dialogue from the earlier film.

  2. I really need to see Privilege; thanks for the tip, Peter!