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By Alan Scherstuhl
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There's an amazing scene in Leadbelly--the best and least-known of Gordon Parks's films--in which the folksinging title character sternly objects to the prospect of his songs being preserved in the Library of Congress, likening the practice to sticking pins through butterflies. Now Parks has received his own well-mounted display in Half Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks, a biographical documentary that pays quiet homage to the octogenarian artist's fierce survivalism and constant productivity as a photographer, novelist, poet, musician, and filmmaker.
The difference is that the butterflies are allowed to flap their wings in Half Past Autumn (airing throughout the month on HBO), which is to say that Parks's works are discussed and even created onscreen by the 88-year-old artist himself. That distinction is an important one for the doc's Twin Cities-based director, Craig Rice. "Right when we first started the project six years ago," Rice recalls, "I said to people that this is the kind of thing usually reserved for dead black men--whereas [the Parks film] was a chance for us to actually get him involved. I wanted to show him as an older, active, working artist. I didn't want him sitting in a chair for the whole thing. I wanted him to be out walking around, taking pictures, writing, and composing."
Given that Parks spent a pivotal period living in the Twin Cities, where he endured extreme poverty and freezing cold to present his first-ever exhibition of photography, it seems fitting that Half Past Autumn should itself have been shot by a multitalented Minneapolitan. Like his subject, the 49-year-old Rice--an accomplished music-video and TV-commercial maker whose career took off when he served as assistant director of Purple Rain--spent an ample part of his younger days playing music in Minnesota. (Rice also road-managed the Purple Rain tour in 1984 and '85.) More to the point, it was Parks who inspired Rice to hock his music gear and enroll in film school.
"Seeing [Parks's] Shaft in the Seventies really triggered something for me," Rice says over French toast and coffee at the Uptown Bar. "I had wanted to direct movies since I was five years old, but I didn't totally believe that I had the opportunity. Just being black in America, I didn't think it'd ever happen. Seeing Shaft made me think, 'Yeah--I can do this.' I applied to film school the next day." (Such youthful cinephilia has evolved into a mature set of industry connections: Rice eagerly credits Half Past Autumn's existence to a team of collaborators that includes consulting producer Robin Hickman, Parks's St. Paul-based niece, and co-producer Denzel Washington, whom Rice met through mutual friend Cecil Cox.)
Rice's childhood in the now-demolished Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul was vastly different from Gordon Parks's. Where the latter's cruel brother-in-law kicked him out of the house at age 14, Rice's parents took care to cultivate the creative side of their son's personality, which involved regular visits to the orchestra, the gallery, and the movie theater. "I remember my mom took me to see Stalag 17 when I was five," says Rice, "and when it was over I asked her, 'So who does all this?' She said, 'Oh, that's the director.' I said, 'Well, that's what I want to be.'"
After high school, Rice studied film, theater, and photography at the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. While working at Walker Art Center in the mid-Seventies, a chance encounter with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury encouraged Rice to pursue film school at USC, which Tewkesbury had attended before writing Nashville. It was here that he first met Gordon Parks, albeit briefly, through a friend who had worked on Parks's semi-autobiographical film The Learning Tree.
If, 20 years later, Rice felt astonished to be directing a feature-length film in the close company of his idol, he kept that urge to himself. "I had to resist the tendency to genuflect to him," says Rice. "We had a film to make. I know there were [interview] questions that he didn't like. Gordon doesn't like to dwell on the negative. And I respect that. But as a filmmaker, you want to get as many colors on the palette as you can."
Color, at least as it relates to race, remains an understated component of the film, in deference to Parks's "apolitical" commitment to his muse. Yet Rice's investigative zeal regarding Parks's lifelong love affair with his art--a romance that came at the expense of his three wives--does give Half Past Autumn a number of discomfiting and poignant moments. "In the dramatic arc of any story," says Rice, "the hero gets to a point where he has a choice to make. Gordon made a choice, you know? And we may agree or not agree, but he made a choice."
Rice says the scene in which Parks ruefully recalls his first wife's response to an invitation to join him in Venice for the performance of his first piano concerto--"I'm frying potatoes for your children; have a ball"--has evoked strong reactions in public screenings. "You can feel the tension in the room," he says. "It's as if the audience wants to tell him, 'Don't you understand what she's saying here?' In the end, he has to live with it."
Rice hasn't stopped idolizing his subject, although to him, the chief lesson of Half Past Autumn is, "My kids are very important to me." (Rice has four children, two of whom are in their 20s; the other two are 17 and 8.) He continues: "I think artists have a tendency to get myopic about their work. Like, 'This is why I was sent to planet Earth--to do this.' And I'm really aware of the costs of that, because ultimately, kids take that pain with them well into adulthood--and you see that in the movie. In the end, it's not even about sacrificing the work, because what I learn from my children I bring to the film. What you learn from children is who you really are."
Half Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks airs Wednesday at 6:00 p.m., Friday at 10:30 a.m., and Monday at 2:30 p.m. on HBO. It also airs four times in December on HBO-Plus.
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