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Matinee: 'Half Past Autumn: The Life and Work of Gordon Parks' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

1 February 2014

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the eighteenth in our series of Saturday matinees today: Half Past Autumn: The Life and Work of Gordon Parks.

Parks was born dead, he tell us. But his doctor's assistant, as an experiment, dumped him into a tub of cold water to revive him. "I began to holler ... and I've been hollering ever since," he tells us in this hour and a half documentary. Parks, who had many talents, composed the music himself.

He worked a number of jobs, including semi-pro basketball, before starting a family and working as a waiter on the railroad. He knew he wouldn't be able to provide for his family on those wages, though.

After watching a war movie that featured a photographer who impressed him with his courage, he decided to learn photography. When he the train pulled into Seattle, he went into a pawn shop and bought a camera for $7.50. And two rolls of film.

He tells an amusing story about his first fashion shoot, which didn't go well. But his subsequent documentary photography was an instant success -- and maks for another amusing story.

He figured out fashion photography well enough to work for Vogue after that before going to Life magazine, where his first assignment was a crime story about gangs. That story took him all the way to the gas chamber at San Quentin.

Then on to Paris, which seduced him, influencing all his work but especially the fashion shoots. He let the models move, he tells us, but used a slow shutter speed, panning along with them for a unique look.

He took the whole family to Paris with him. He'd found a home. He composed music, he wrote poetry, he photographed the city.

And next? Well, he meets his muse, Gloria Vanderbilt. And his second wife, Liz. Who was not the last.

Then he meets Malcolm X and Elijah Mohammed, hoping to do a story about them for Life. He wrote a piece on Martin Luther King, Jr. for Life after King was assassinated. Eldridge Cleaver asked him to be his public relations agent.

Instead he launched his film career, directing feature films in Hollywood, starting with his own novel The Learning Tree, still available as a book or DVD. His son, Gordon Parks, Jr., followed in those footsteps, too. Until tragedy struck.

There are fortunately a lot of his stills in this production but (perhaps also fortunately) not a lot of technical information. You won't miss it.

It's more than the story of an up and down and up career, too.

It's the story of a life. The life of a talented man who would not be bought but was nevertheless engaged in the world. How they ever fit this story into an hour and half is a mystery. You'll leave it begging for more.

February is Black History Month and this feature is a great way to kick it off, but we never spend two minutes listening to Gordon Parks without thinking tomorrow is going to be better than today. And an hour and half of that lasts us a long time.

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