It used to be that documentaries had to prove their subjects were worthy of a film. Now we’re inundated with so many of these features that the documentaries instead must prove themselves worthy of existence. There is little doubt that Saul Leiter is deserving of attention, at least for his fans and certainly at this very time that he has just passed away only six weeks ago. Thomas Leach’s In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter is a well-intentioned matter of legacy that does its job of putting the person to a piece of perpetuity, but it does little more than show us yet another old man living in another humble Manhattan apartment, spending his final days in a hoarder’s manor (that is, in a hoarder’s manner) surrounded by piles of his life and work.
We’ve seen it all before, only this one is the specific record of a certain photographer rather than that other certain photographer or that other one. And as the subtitle points out, he’s got some wisdom to share with us — or at least he makes some comments that Leach wants to share with us in the form of chapter-headed “lessons.” The film is just an interview, the sort that would come through just fine in the transcript, mixed with short slideshow sets of some of his pictures, from his black and white beginnings to his covers for Harper’s Bazaar magazine. Occasionally Leach follows him through the Village as he walks about, sometimes with camera in hand, but mostly we’re stuck with them in the dreary, cluttered 10th street studio.
If you’re not familiar with who Leiter is or what he has done, spending money on a movie about him is not the way to find out these days. There’s Wikipedia for the introductory bio and Google Images for the extraordinary photographs, including the early color masterpieces involving New York City in the 1950s, snow and fogged windows and postmen and taxi cabs and awnings and lots of umbrellas. There are books, most notably the one called Saul Leiter: Early Color, that offer both for a price much higher than a movie ticket yet containing far more value for the money. You can even find other interviews and lectures and slideshows set to jazz and analyses from historians on YouTube and Vimeo.
For those who’ve followed his career and status in the worlds of modern art and fashion photography, there may be more interest in spending time with the man behind the camera as he sits in his habitat and talks modestly about himself. He’s another of these guys who questions his own importance in general, let alone his value as a documentary subject. “Am I a pioneer?” he asks, repeating the question put to him by Leach. “I don’t care one way or another.” Later he claims, “I aspire to be unimportant,” which is rather absurd when you’ve just been shown another grouping of his brilliant snapshots. His reluctance is not only from a lack of pretension; he tells the filmmaker early on that he will have to do a good job in order to earn the right to make the doc at all. Obviously it met his approval, but I can’t say it fully meets my own standards.
Leiter has a few fairly interesting things to say about what he knows and what he has experienced. He explains his technique simply as just taking shots of what he sees rather than doing a lot of planning and setup and arrangement — ironic, perhaps, given the parallels to documentary cinema and how Leach’s film here is so formally positioned and controlled and structurally outlined. But much of the subject’s words seem merely that of any individual of a certain age and background reflecting on the hows and not too many of the whys of his eight-decade path. He’s sporadically amusing yet rarely a real joy to watch on screen, perhaps because he’s expecting Leach to do the brunt of the work here, as he should. Regarding his own work, he doesn’t have a lot to say, which is fine since the majority of his photos are the sort of art that speaks for itself or quietly asks for the viewer to hold up the conversation.
In No Great Hurry does nothing to comment or inform about the work, either, but it’s not the sort of documentary that brings in experts to discuss Leiter’s photos and his place in the context of the New York School scene and the fashion industry. Nor is it the type to make any statement of its own. It’s an intimate film but not a very revealing one, nor is it very distinguished. And the couple times it aims to mimic Leiter’s aesthetic only makes it less so. What a contrast it is to see such unique photographs, impossibly taken by any other artist given the same camera and time and place, celebrated within such a simple movie, one that looks like it could have been made by anyone.
In No Great Hurry is now playing in New York City.