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Don’t Look Front

The Naked Truth about my meeting with Richard Leacock

Photo by G. Andrew Boyd

Montreal, 1971. I was 21 and had just finished a first-feature-film-acting job in Tadoussac. I was truly awful in the film, having done tons of theatre and television, but with no understanding of how still one needed to be for an enormous close-up. Mine was a very twitchy performance, from which much was learned, one film later than would’ve been ideal.

Journey, the Paul Almond film, was a mytho-surreal piece that floated through simultaneous time frames in period costumes, which were designed by Ann Prichard, who’d become a location-friend. When we wrapped, she invited me to visit her huge loft in Montreal’s cobblestoned Place Jacques-Cartier, the heart of Old Town. There I met her long-time friend Québécois film director Claude Fournier (Deux femmes en or). Over a charcuterie and wine lunch, M. Fournier asked my future plans. I said I’d be heading to Boston, to visit a friend.

“Oh,” he replied, “you must telephone my copain, Ricky Leacock. He is teaching there, at M.I.T. I am certain that he will be pleased to meet you.”

Awkward with cold-calling strangers, I asked if M. Fournier could telephone Mr. Leacock to say I would contact him. He agreed. After a few days in Boston, I rang Mr. Leacock, who had a British-accented friendly telephone voice (reminding me of my late father—always a good thing). He said he’d be having a “quite casual end-term party for his film students this Saturday. If you’re free, you must come.” Despite a fear of walking into rooms filled with strangers, unless there for a purpose (artistic or socio-political), I accepted the invitation with thanks. Along with almost everyone of my generation, I knew the Leacock-Pennebaker film Monterey Pop, and a room full of film lovers and filmmakers of that same generation, hosted by a master documentarist, sounded quite fine.

Mr. Leacock lived in “a ramshackle old place in Cambridge, just across the river.” He gave me public-transit directions. Saturday, at twilight, I knocked at his door. Sounds of laughter, conversation and music were coming from inside. I knocked a bit harder. A tall, slim but slightly paunchy older man opened the door. “Hello, you must be Claude’s Canadian friend. Welcome! I’m Ricky Leacock.”

Given his slimness, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the paunch, were the man not completely naked. Except for brown sandals. Which I’d noticed due to doing an eyeball jump-cut from his face to his feet, in a desire not to stare at Mr. Leacock’s cock. And wishing I’d not thought to call it that, making the words inseparable, from that day to this. Behind him, I saw various young men and women, most of whom were also naked. There was nothing orgiastic about the ‘feel’ of the room. Young people were drinking beer or wine, dipping chips into dips, chatting away. Everything about their collective nakedness was new to me. Almost.

In Toronto, I’d been in a play, Hair. It had what they called ‘a nude scene.’ A great media-fuelled public fuss had been made, though the scene was very brief, theatrically lit and included choral singing by people who were all looking straight out into the audience. Chez Leacock, people were not doing a play. They were having a young cinema academics’ party. Unlike the cast of Hair, they were not nude. They were, most of them, naked. Nude is the stuff of theatre, film, fashion and art photography. Naked, to me back then, was what happened with an intimate friend, or if somebody opened a door by mistake. Neither nude nor naked, I was still standing on the hallway side of the door. Cool, be cool, I thought. “Hi!” I said, offering a shakeable hand. “Welcome,” said the still smiling Mr. Leacock, “come on in. Food and drink are there on the table. People are everywhere. Clothes are, as you see, optional.”

“How come?” I blurted, wishing I’d said something more nonchalant, more cool.

“Oh, it started earlier in the year, just as a relaxed way of being…more ourselves. Less guarded.”

“I see. You all look quite…relaxed. Um…for the moment at any rate, Mr. Leacock, I’d feel more guarded without my clothes.” There, I thought. That sounded quite grown-up. And was said in the Britspeak accent of my childhood, of my father and of Mr. Leacock.

He laughed. “Fine. Come, let’s get you a drink.”

Thanks to my aforementioned father, who belonged to both dramatic feature and documentary cinematheques in Hampstead, I’d loved film since the age of six. I, too, searched out such places. Friends would tease me about a willingness to sit happily watching African women weave kente cloth for an hour, as they spoke in Xhosa. “Well. I’ve never been to Africa. And, in case I don’t get there, this is the next best thing.”

Mr. L. was seated in a tall wooden chair, on a cushion, legs crossed. A group of students sat at his feet. A glass of acidic white wine in hand, I nestled into this group, eager for discussions of Deren, Maysles, Riefenstahl. But the group of young professional documentarists was discussing shot sizes, focus, handheld cameras and, most importantly, places where one could score film ends to splice together when budgets were tight. I realised that actual film was discussed in class and that downtime might be more about practicalities, about which I knew nothing. I was, however, relieved that no one mentioned the famous Leacock-Pennebaker film Don’t Look Back, as the voice and persona of Bob Dylan were, for me, unbearable (though I liked many of the songs, when sung by others).

Probably to bring me into the conversation, Mr. Leacock said he admired the Canadian feature films of Claude Jutra, which he felt combined documentary and inner monologue drama. He then asked whose documentary films I liked, “[p]resent company excepted, of course.” “Maya Deren. That mix you mentioned of doc and drama in Sembène. And whoever made the film about a Mississippi folk artist called Theora Hamblett. It was made by the Center for Southern Folklore.”

Someone asked about Brakhage. Always an amateur drinker, and fortified by bad wine, which was best drunk fast anyway, I said, “Too murky. Too out of focus. Murky films make me sad. I can’t find a way into them.” Mr. L. thought I raised “an interesting point” about “ambience versus clarity.” Someone, in a soft voice, accused me of wanting travelogues. I said I wanted “voyage,” which was not the same thing. We discussed politics versus artistry concerning Riefenstahl. Knowing nothing about shot sizes, I was, at last, happy and comfortable. And ‘naked’ became simply what some of the guests, and our host, were wearing.