Intimate Leiting: In No Great Hurry

30 May 2013

'In No Great Hurry', a documentary on photographer and painter Saul Leiter, enjoys a short run at London's ICA at the end of June.

Describing himself as "a minor figure who does not deserve to have something made about him," Saul Leiter appears not only to be a difficult interviewee for any would-be biographer, but a reluctant artist to begin with. In making a film about the Manhattan-based photographer and painter, then, Tomas Leach has done well to elicit and arrange the material he has. In No Great Hurry is a 75-minute documentary due for a short run at the ICA in London at the end of June (following appearances at the Salem Film Festival and Thin Line Film Festival earlier this year).

If the title of In No Great Hurry acknowledges its subject's belated artistic recognition (or deliberate drift into relative obscurity), its subtitle - 13 Lessons In Life with Saul Leiter - recalls the equally arbitrary heading of Errol Morris's The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003). Presumably, the reference is intended to be self-effacing, because while the latter film had at its centre a forthright former US Defence Secretary, Leach has the challenge of hanging out with someone who gives the impression at least that he'd prefer to be left alone. As such, on the privacy scale, Leiter (born 1923) might sit somewhere between fellow Manhattanites JD Salinger, the famously reclusive subject of a new documentary by Shane Salerno, and the late Ben Gazzara, the focus of Joseph Rezwin's Gazzara (2012), which I saw (and reviewed) at IndieLisboa last month.

But for brief contributions from art historian Max Kozloff and Leiter's assistant Margit Erb (who is also Leach's co-producer here) - In No Great Hurry is like Rezwin's film limited to interviews with its subject, whose palpable doubts regarding the conventions of traditional biography come eventually to inform the film itself. There's very little here in the way of historical context, for instance, and the assumption of some prior knowledge might contradict the filmmaker's ongoing intention to celebrate this "hidden away" artist. If the way in which Leiter adjusts his hat and scarf indoors (as if he were enduring a wintry draft) suggests some level of discomfort with being in the spotlight, at many other points you can almost see his brain catching up with his mouth, as if he is aware of and embarrassed by the inherent romance of speaking on one's own life.

Indeed, self-deprecation is Leiter's go-to defence mechanism against anything resembling sentiment: when clearing the junk and souvenirs he has amassed in his own apartment over the years, he interrupts his own recollections of long-time lover Soames Bantry (who died in 2002) with a false confession to her death ("everything is my fault," he says, beginning to laugh). Nostalgia seeps through this hardened front elsewhere: "And it tears your heart out if you know what I mean - if you have a heart - if you don't have a heart you're very lucky." What are we to make of such comments? Merely, that an artist isn't necessarily the best authority on their own work.

Since Leiter would obviously prefer his work to speak for itself, the inclusion of some of his stills (and briefer glimpses of his paintings) is fitting and effective. His colour work, especially that from the 1950s, belies its age, and ought to outlive the casual horrors of our Instagram Era. Indeed, photographs such as Through Boards (1957), Chinatown (1958), Harlem (1960) and Red Umbrella (1967) are beautiful works in themselves, even before one considers their socio-historical importance. Leach, meanwhile, whose first feature-length documentary this is, demonstrates his own knack for composition and colour, especially in those evocative interludes in which he documents New York City, accompanied by a score from Mark Rustemier that is at once celebratory and mournful.