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Arts & Life

What Should We Watch Tonight? Our Critic Says The Films Of Robert Young

Alambrista.jpg
Janus Films/The Criterion Collection

I should start by revealing that I've known Bob Young since the 1970s. We're friends, although not close friends. But I think he may be the finest living filmmaker in America. He's now 95 and still writing. As a director, I believe he's made at least five full-out masterpieces, and hardly anyone knows of him.

His best dramatic films are Alambrista! (1977), The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1982), Dominick and Eugene (1988) and Caught (1996). In documentary, he made the first four NBC White Papers, in the early 1960s, back when television networks did good documentaries. He did the stunning 1960 Sit-In about student civil rights actions in Nashville, and Cortile Cascino about poverty in Sicily. In 1970, Young filmed the Inuit in Canada on their last migration for his magnificent film The Eskimo Fight for Life.

In 1964, with Michael Roemer, he made Nothing But a Man about a young Black couple facing racism in the south. This film is no ordinary show of a white man's pity for suffering African-American. It was apparently Malcolm X's favorite film, because Young and Roemer saw into the complex humanity of the couple. Nothing in the movie is simple or obvious -- there's even a crucial class difference between the railroad worker husband and his wife-to-be, the daughter of a prominent and white-approved minister.

Young was the film's cinematographer and co-writer. His eye for the visual richness of a scene brings the movie tremendous energy and insight, qualities he's brought to all his work. In 1992, Young's dear friend, actor Edward James Olmos, directed his first feature, American Me. Olmos wanted Young on the set with him, so Young renewed his operator credentials and worked the camera.

Once at a conference, a group was talking about teaching cinematography. People had all sorts of ideas, but Young said that there is no rule about how to shoot a scene: "You put the camera where the story is."

That's probably why Young's films are visually dynamic. They're in the thick of things. And one of his other great talents is that he treats his characters as if they were people, not categories. For me, Bob Young is the one white filmmaker in America who can make films about human beings different from himself -- for the simple reason that he films everyone with deep respect.

Some time ago, a group of Hispanic scholars were chatting when one said that the only film he knew that captured what it was like for a young Mexican man to enter the U.S. undocumented was Young's Alambrista!, a film he figured no one else had seen because it got no distribution. By chance, most everyone in the room had seen it. They contacted Young, got a grant from the Ford Foundation to restore the picture and add new music -- and that brought it back into the world.

When Young saw an  early script for The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, he said it was simply a tale of misery, so he turned it into a story of different perceptions like Akira Kurosawa's great Rashomon. Characters misunderstand all through the picture. The story comes from an actual event in Texas in the early 20th century. A Spanish-speaking man spoke truthfully to an Anglo sheriff whose interpreter faked the meaning of   some Spanish words he didn't understand, with a deadly result.

So why is a filmmaker of such power and achievement unknown? Young has a combination of terrible commercial instincts and terrible commercial luck. Studio heads changed and films were abandoned. Young chose actors for their skill, and against the commercial advice of publicists. He ignores the business side of the movies. But his films are magnificent, and they are available.

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