When one thinks of the great American independent filmmakers who emerged in the 1960s, John Korty is likely not one of the first names that come to mind. An innovator who incorporated animation and non-narrative elements into his feature filmmaking, he was never radical enough to be considered part of the avant-garde cinema of Bruce Conner, Kenneth Anger, or Shirley Clarke. And it goes without saying that Korty has had a quieter career than his colleagues George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. Though they once all shared the same Folsom Street studio space in San Francisco, Korty eschewed his friends’ Hollywood ambitions, opting to stay in Northern California for a comparatively lower profile career in television, where he still enjoyed great success, his many achievements including Emmy awards for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) and Farewell to Manzanar (1976) as well as both an Emmy and an Oscar for the extraordinary documentary Who Are The DeBolts…and Where Did They Get 19 Kids? (1977).
While there is no denying Korty’s prolific and acclaimed track record, there is something particularly special about the early stage of his career. Before his move to television, Korty made three eccentric, under-the-radar features that he directed, produced, and shot himself—The Crazy-Quilt (1966), Funnyman (1967), and Riverrun (1970)—all of which are long overdue for a re-viewing and a re-appreciation. Now 75, Korty has entered a kind of golden era in his career, marked by his return to making personal documentary projects after a 40-year career as primarily a television film director. It is both a time to look forward (he is currently juggling a number of new projects) as well as back—he recently completed the first ever retrospective of his work in San Rafael, California and just self-released his debut feature The Crazy-Quilt for the first time on DVD.
Korty was born in Lafayette, Indiana in 1936, and his interest in film began in his 11th grade art class at Kirkwood High School in Kirkwood, Missouri. There, a whole new world was opened to him by his teacher, the painter Dorothy Vorhees. “She was always challenging us,” he explains. “I came in one day and she was pulling down all the blinds. I said, ‘What’s going on?’ She said, ‘We’re going to look at some movies today.’ And they were the movies of Norman McLaren. The one that really turned me on…is “Begone Dull Care”. That was the turning point for me. I had interests in music and art and writing and everything, and they were all separate things in my mind. When I saw McLaren’s films, I thought, ‘Wait a minute. Film is the one thing you can do that combines all these different elements. From that moment on, I was hooked on the idea of becoming a filmmaker.’”
After attending Antioch College, where Korty started his own animation studio, creating commercial spots for local Ohio TV stations, he created his own big break in 1960. After hearing about a large group of Quakers planning to stage a two-day vigil in front of the Pentagon, he rushed to Washington, D.C. armed with his Bolex in time to film their silent stance against nuclear weapons. The resulting short documentary, “The Language of Faces” (1961), largely composed of the peaceful objectors’ solemn expressions, went on to win 11 international awards, including the Grand Prize at both the Bergamo and San Francisco Film Festivals.
With fresh wind in his sails, Korty moved across the country to Marin County, north of San Francisco (“I had this kind of dream of going to the West Coast, living on the ocean, having a big lodge, and walking down to the beach every day”), where he completed a satiric anti-smoking short, “Breaking the Habit” (1964) for the American Cancer Society, earning an Academy Award nomination. Later that same year, brimming with confidence, Korty turned his attention to making his first feature film—his first with actors—based on Bay Area psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis’ short story “The Illusionless Man and the Visionary Maid,” which had just been published that May.
That adaptation would go on to become The Crazy-Quilt, a contemporary fable about Henry (Tom Rosqui), a doom-and-gloom termite exterminator, and Lorabelle (Ina Mela), his free-spirited female counterpoint. The story of their mismatched relationship, wryly narrated by Burgess Meredith, is presented as a series of contrasts, balancing youthful whimsy and a sage sobriety. It is a forgotten American independent gem, and aside from its initial glowing reviews and longtime championing by its most devoted supporter, film scholar Ray Carney, it has never been given the credit it was (is) due.
Revisiting The Crazy-Quilt, it is easy to see why “Begone Dull Care” spoke so clearly to Korty as a teenager—the same pulsating movement in McLaren’s films is evident in Henry and Lorabelle’s zigzagging path toward finding meaning in their life together. Korty’s radiant black and white photography, a visual love letter to his new hometown in Stinson Beach, mirrors Henry’s melancholy and Lorabelle’s buoyancy. The inky blackness of the crawlspaces where Henry toils is contrasted with some of the most beautiful use of natural light you will ever see—sunshine diffused through leaves, illuminating actress Ina Mela’s hair, beaming through big windows and trees, reflected over water, and filtered through curtains as well as an actual crazy-quilt. The film’s mix of bright, breezy montages and painterly, reflective pauses, along with Peter Schickele’s alternately playful and moody score, create heightened states of feeling that Korty repeatedly upends and rebalances, leaving the viewer feeling simultaneously contemplative and invigorated by the end of its brief 70 minutes.
The Crazy-Quilt’s spontaneous energy is a direct reflection of its creator’s open attitude toward life. If it feels like a film made by intuition, that’s because it is, filmed almost entirely without a script. When Korty says of its origins, “I didn’t want to write a screenplay. I hoped to kind of wing it on the basis of an idea”,(1) one can hardly be surprised to learn that he moved to the West Coast sight unseen, without ever having visited, calling his relocation “the best blind date of my life.” In the same spirit, he cast the wonderful unknown Ina Mela as his Lorabelle without even meeting her, based on what a friend had told him about her. When asked what she wanted to do with her life, she replied that she wanted to go up in a hot air balloon. With that, Korty had his lead female figure.
In addition to the serendipity Korty surfed, the smaller scale of the production also helped give The Crazy-Quilt its personal, handcrafted feel. Because of poor location sound, Korty had to re-record much of Henry and Lorabelle’s live dialogue and cut it in afterwards. “In 1964, there were no self-blimped 35mm cameras you could hand hold,” he recalls. “An Arriflex took good pictures but made a noise like a washing machine. So we worked the way many Europeans did, shooting synch sound with camera noise in it, editing that to the work print and then post-dubbing the edited dialogue with the same actors.” The resulting technical roughness is a boon, generating the kind of low-budget warmth that would have been impossible to achieve with a larger production. Having a tiny crew was another advantage, the minimal equipment being more easy to carry and conceal from location to location, allowing setups to be more quickly achieved. As a result, many of its wondrous shots feel—and were—impromptu. If, as Robert Bresson once said, that a film must feel like it was made by human hands,(2) then Korty more than met that criterion. (The new DVD of The Crazy-Quilt is a treasure trove, featuring Korty’s recollection of making the film as well as his interviews with musician Peter Schickele and the late Allen Wheelis, who became a close friend of Korty’s, was one of the film’s initial investors, and whose daughter plays Henry and Lorabelle’s daughter Noel.)
When discussing Korty’s filmmaking sensibility, it’s hard not to think of the great Morris Engel. About a decade before The Crazy-Quilt was conceived, Engel, along with his wife Ruth Orkin, also made three independent features in a similar style—The Little Fugitive (1953), Lovers and Lollipops (1955), and Weddings and Babies (1958). Both Engel and Korty’s films are all low on dialogue and plot and high on meditative moments lightly accented by silence or an understated musical score. Moreover, each of their films is rich in local colour—San Francisco and Marin County as important to Korty as much as Manhattan was to Engel. Korty says of Engel, who died in 2005 at age 86, “He was an inspiration primarily for getting his films made and into theatres. I did like his use of natural light, too, but I was already doing that on my own. My one brief meeting with him was a sad one because he was so cynical and depressed about the distribution and exhibition business. He was so cheated by his first deals that he refused later ones and really dropped out of circulation.” Indeed, to this day, Engel’s last feature, and his only one in colour, I Need a Ride To California (1968), remains unseen.
After the success of The Crazy-Quilt, Korty received directing offers from major film studios, but he opted to continue down a path less traversed. Korty humbly shies away from being called a rebel (“I wasn’t an angry young man…never part of the Beat Generation. Much too Midwestern middle class for that.”), but his personal convictions are clear: “The main thing about my going to Northern California instead of Hollywood was that I knew if I went to Hollywood, it would make me into a different kind of person than I wanted to be. I knew it’s impossible to be in that environment and do the kind of films that I wanted to do… The whole Hollywood scene to me was the last thing I wanted to do. I wanted to stay away from it. And of course when certain professionals would meet me in San Francisco and find out I was a filmmaker, they’d say, “Well, why are you here? You should be in Los Angeles.” And I said, “No, I shouldn’t!”
Korty’s second feature, Funnyman, features the 1960s San Francisco improvisational comedy troupe The Committee, with Peter Bonerz (who co-wrote the script with him) as a comedian who doesn’t think being funny is enough, so he embarks on a journey of introspection along the coast to regain his mojo. Woven into the story are animated sketches created in Korty’s signature cut-out style—what he would later name Lumage, a technique he later used in several of his title card sequences, shorts for Sesame Street and The Electric Company, as well as his George Lucas-produced feature Twice Upon a Time (1983). These comedic bits, along with the striking use of monochromatic colour filters, proto-mumblecore acting, and atmospheric location photography resulted in a marvelously eccentric film whose style and structure resemble that of an actual crazy-quilt even more than its predecessor.
Next came Riverrun, based on Korty’s first fully original screenplay, about a young medical school dropout and his pregnant girlfriend who choose to live unmarried and off the grid on a sheep farm, much to the chagrin of the girl’s bitter father, an old sailor. It is a heavier, bleaker, and more traditional film than Korty’s previous efforts that provides further insight into his own life pursuit: trying to balance art with the necessity of commerce, struggling to making room for dreams and ideals amidst the frustrations and limitations of everyday life. In his first book on John Cassavetes, Ray Carney praised Korty along with other neglected filmmakers Barbara Loden and Robert Kramer for their ambition to express unconventional artistic impulses within a restricted, conventional medium: “they would all reject the poetic highroad of the avant-gardists to choose to make their way along the winding earthbound footpaths of narrative filmmaking, where there are no visionary escape routes around the temporal and spatial burdens and entanglements of mundane social and emotional life.”(3) Indeed, it’s one thing to break cinematic rules in an experimental film, but to do so in the context of telling a story poses a greater set of challenges altogether. As Carney identifies, dreams only have value as much as they are put into action, and Korty’s films attempt to do just that, asking if flights of fancy might find a welcome place to land, what place being funny has amongst the seriousness of responsibility, if one can live on the margins of society and still be accepted by it. While Korty’s answers are in the affirmative, they do not come easily—the rewards of such striving ultimately lie within the striving itself.
Riverrun is a masterpiece of mood, its rich amber hues inspired by San Francisco-based photographers Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Imogen Cunningham. “There’s something about life there which leads to that feeling for image quality,” Korty told the New York Times shortly before its 1970 release. “In still photography they do it just by using bigger and bigger cameras. But one of the reasons I became a filmmaker was that I felt contemporary films lacked a feeling for the screen as a graphic surface…When I thought about the film, I didn’t think first about the characters and the plot. My first thought was, I want to make a film about salt water and grass and earth and wind and old wood, the texture of the farmhouse, and about animals and about flesh. To me, these are the building blocks.”(4) Is it any wonder, then, that Riverrun isn’t mentioned in the same breath as Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967), Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), or Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969)?
“When I made it, I had almost no thoughts about box office,” Korty said in the same interview. “I felt that…I was really going to do a film which I wanted to do, something which was honest to myself. To hell with all the other considerations!” Korty even cited Cassavetes’ signing with Paramount as an example of exactly what he did not want to do: “He made Shadows , then he went to Hollywood…Not only [did it] not help his career, it was like three giant steps backwards. And then he had to reorient himself to make Faces  and get out of that.”(4)
For all of Korty’s nonconformist values, working outside the Hollywood system ultimately proved unsustainable, as neither Funnyman nor Riverrun were able to build on The Crazy-Quilt’s momentum. With public taste turning more cynical in the post-Fall dawn of the seventies and the fact that Korty was no longer a young, first-time filmmaker, the critics’ attention waned, and he would never again make another self-financed live-action narrative feature. Korty took his situation in stride, his reflections today about this turning point in his career not unlike what he was telling reporters some 40 years ago. With a dry humour not unlike his glass-half-empty hero of The Crazy-Quilt, he says, “When I talk to film students, I say when you do something successful and you have a lot of steam, the reason they call it steam is because it evaporates.
“One of the problems is that my films were never about hot subjects in the same way that some other people’s were. I remember when Riverrun came out, I was really excited about it because I felt that I’d learned a lot and put so much into it. It opened and got mixed reviews, and the guy who interviewed me from the New York Times [Craig McGregor] came to my hotel and asked me all about the film and everything and he started off by saying that I was a filmmaker who, in the middle of the war in Vietnam, chose not to make a film about Vietnam. And it was like such an amazing thing for someone to say…just to immediately criticize me because my film wasn’t an anti-war film. A film takes three or four years to get going, so when I started this film, the war in Vietnam wasn’t even an issue yet.”
Korty’s unpretentious, pragmatic approach to filmmaking led him toward the more liberating medium of television, where he found his niche. “Everybody assumes that in television you would have less freedom and that you would be pushed around even more,” he explains. “My experience is just the opposite—in all the 28 films I made for television, I had a great deal of creative freedom. And I was almost always able to do things my way, whereas in feature films, because more money is at stake, the supervisors and the executives tend to really get into it more. When I did [1978’s] Oliver’s Story [one of Korty’s few forays into Hollywood], which is not a great film, I had a very good ending that was trying to rescue it from being corny, and Paramount cut off the last 20 minutes of my cut. I mean, just slashed it off. And the film came out and of course it was a big failure, and they all blamed me. Lots of critics [said], ‘How could you have ended the film this way?’ Well, that wasn’t my ending, but I had no choice because it was a $7 million picture and Paramount was in the driver’s seat.”
Korty found television production to be more expedient, less lined with red tape and financial hurdles, than the high stakes world of feature films: “When I was doing television films, the producer would call me up on Monday and say, ‘Are you available?’ and I’d say, ‘Yes.’ He’d say, ‘Well, we’re getting a script to you. It’ll be there overnight. Read it tomorrow and call us as soon as you’ve read it.’ I would read it on Tuesday and call him either Tuesday night or Wednesday morning. They’d say, ‘Do you want to do it?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Okay, well get on a plane and be down here tomorrow.’ And that was it. I mean, in three days it went from not knowing about a project to having a job. That’s a nice way to work.”
And while television directing did not have the same cache as feature filmmaking, Korty has no regrets about his nonlinear career trajectory. “I made some choices of my own,” he says. “After [1974’s] Miss Jane Pittman, I could have done all kinds of feature films. I was offered all the films about old ladies, all the films that took place in the South, and all the films about black people. And I said, you know, I’ve done that. I want to do some other things now, thank you very much. I wanted to do Farewell to Manzanar [for NBC] because I thought it was a very important subject, and if I didn’t do it, nobody else would. So in a sense I gave up the leverage that I had in order to do Manzanar. And everybody in the business, all the agents, said that was a terrible mistake, but it was what I wanted to do at that point.”
Shortly another career highpoint that year—his brooding adaptation of John Updike’s short story “The Music School” for PBS—Korty spent the better part of the next three years filming in and around the home of San Diego couple Robert and Dorothy DeBolt, who had adopted 14 handicapped and orphaned children and integrated them into their own family. The subsequent record of their experience, Who Are The DeBolts…and Where Did They Get 19 Kids?, was initially rejected by network executives for being too explicit in its raw footage of disabled children going about their daily lives. In fact, The DeBolts did not air until it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, going on to earn an Emmy two years later, in 1979.
“All the way through we were told by various network people, ‘Oh, the audience doesn’t want to see these handicapped kids,’” Korty recalls, specifically referring to the swimming pool scene where young Karen, who has no arms or legs, frolics in an inner tube. “She was just totally free in the water. She giggled and squealed and splashed around and she loved it. And when she came out, there were all her artificial limbs on the grass by the pool and she had to put them on again…The conventional thing would have been to really push it musically [sentimentally], [so] I went to [composer] Ed Bogas, and said, ‘You know, I want the music for this to be very graceful and sweet [with] absolutely no sense that there is anything difficult or sad emotions here. I just want it to be bright and graceful like English garden music.’ And he did that, and it works beautifully because what the music is telling you is that that’s how Karen feels. We’re not trying to make the audience feel a certain way; we’re trying to say that this child is totally at ease with what she’s doing, and that’s what you have to realize.”
After several years away from directing (Korty made his final television feature in 1999), his career has come full circle, returning to what he began 50 years ago with “The Language of Faces”: making compassionate, regional documentaries that bear his unique mark as a visual craftsman. Korty, who will be 76 in June, is now enjoying one of the most productive periods of his life as an independent filmmaker. Among his latest projects are My Friend, My Horse (2006), Miracle in a Box: A Piano Reborn (2009), John Allair Digs In (2011), an upcoming documentary on Imogen Cunningham, as well as his new “Director Prep” series, a 20-part collection of advice, insights, and anecdotes from the filmmaking frontlines. His many different films—animation, commercials, narratives, experiments, documentaries, film and television features, children’s programming—all contribute to a career that emerges much like a wonderful crazy-quilt still in the making. He may not be recognized as one of the great American filmmakers of his generation, but that’s not even a consideration for the man who chose Stinson Beach over Hollywood all those years ago. “Fame and fortune were never on my agenda,” he says, adding with the same mix of levity and gravity that marks his best work, “I wanted to make films to save the world, to bring peace. I tell people now, ‘Just read the morning papers and you can see how fantastically successful I was at that.’” He continues: “I loved the work and I got to do a huge amount of it—with other people footing the bill. I got plenty of attention and feedback and I don’t compare myself to anyone. In 100 years, none of us will be remembered.”
- Korty, John. Interview. The Crazy-Quilt. DVD. Korty Films, 2011.
- Bresson, Robert. Notes on the Cinematographer. Los Angeles: Green Integer, 1997. p. 33.
- Carney, Ray. American Dreaming: The Films of John Cassavetes and the American Experience. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1985. p. 36.
- McGregor, Craig. “Korty: People, Yes, Propaganda, No!” New York Times. May 3, 1970.