A contemporary tribute to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the 50-year-old book about Depression-era tenant farmers, Ross Spears's TO RENDER A LIFE not only mimics the style of James Agee's and Walker Evans's classic work, but also includes relevant comments from other writers and filmmakers who use the documentary method. Spears's film opens with a panoramic...read more
A contemporary tribute to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the 50-year-old book about Depression-era tenant farmers, Ross Spears's TO RENDER A LIFE not only mimics the style of James Agee's and Walker Evans's classic work, but also includes relevant comments from other writers and filmmakers
who use the documentary method.
Spears's film opens with a panoramic view of a luxurious country estate, but then the camera draws back at increasing speed past a golf course, lake and shooting-range, winding up fifteen miles down a rural road before a simple shanty where Obea and Alice Glass live with their adopted daughter,
Anita. Since they own the land on which they live in a house they built themselves, the Glasses are ineligible for any kind of aid from local, state or federal agencies; Obea and Alice are both missing teeth and look older than their years.
Copying the style of Walker Evans's photographs, TO RENDER A LIFE focuses on both human portraiture and the small details of daily life--no matter how common. For several long takes, the frame is filled with close-ups of discarded toys, rusting tools and an abandoned vehicle. The film also
includes occasional readings from Agee's text, which one critic calls excessive, while another notes that it has passages of genius despite its flowery style.
Obea Glass supplements his meager income from restoring furniture by participating in shooting matches at which he earns boxes of foodstuffs. And we watch how Alice tends their wood-burning stove to make a starchy hot meal despite the 100-degree summer heat. Not only do they each chop wood, but
they have to lug plastic bottles and pails of water from a nearby stream for their daily needs. A hard-working couple, the Glasses built their own house from timber and tarpaper; the close-ups of bent, rusty nails are proof of their handiwork. Poor but generous, the Glasses adopted Anita when her
ailing health triggered Alice's maternal instincts.
Made over a period of three years, TO RENDER A LIFE notes a deterioration in Alice's health to which both an accident that wrecked their car, and the demise of the family's refrigerator, contribute. Woven into these observations is an editorial gloss concerning the responsibility of documentarians
to their subjects, with input from Robert Coles, Frederick Wiseman, Tom Rosengarten, Howell Raines and others.
Despite the obvious affection that developed between the filmmakers and the Glasses (at one point Alice, energetically washing the floor, knocks out the camera), there is one detail that highlights the immense gap between film crew and subjects. Anita is given a still camera to take a parting shot
of the director and his team; the camera is a very modern, very expensive Leica. After having seen the old-fashioned washing machine with attached wringer that Alice used (it died, like the fridge), the contrast is jolting. Still, TO RENDER A LIFE represents a plea for social justice that is
needed now as much as ever.
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