Henry Glassie: Field Work – Quiet contemplations of creativity

Great Irish filmmaker Pat Collins documents the work of a famous ethnographer

Henry Glassie: Field Work
    
Director: Pat Collins
Cert: Club
Genre: Documentary
Starring: Henry Glassie, Pravina Shulka
Running Time: 1 hr 45 mins

The latest documentary from Pat Collins – one of our nation’s greatest filmmakers – which was well received at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019, arrives just a week after Jessica Sarah Rinland’s frighteningly austere Those That, at a Distance, Resemble Another. Both feature much footage of hands working away at emerging artefacts, but, though unlikely to be confused with Godzilla vs Kong, Henry Glassie: Field Work is much easier on the digestion.

The picture is a study of the great American folklorist of the title. The dauntingly intelligent, impressively lucid academic – a son of the south, raised on civil war battlefields – began by recording the music of the Appalachians and surrounding areas (fans of the legendary ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax will sense some similarities).

As he explains here, fired by the mix of ethnicities – Irish, English, African – he wished to “celebrate the complexity of southern life”. That led on to studies of the wider culture. Glassie, now a professor emeritus at Indiana University, has carried out fieldwork in every corner of the globe.

It hardly needs to be said that the director of Song of Granite and Living in a Coded Land takes no lazy, meat-and-potatoes approach to the material. Indeed, it is a good 45 minutes before we get a substantial contribution from the subject. Much of that opening section is taken up with footage of artists creating work. A Brazilian develops beautiful religious images. Another artist carves masterpieces from wood.


Punctuating these sequences with Colm Hogan’s economic shots of the surrounding environment, the film documents the cultural activities that interest Glassie. It does more. It is inviting us to do what he does: remain quiet and watch attentively. “You have to be as if you are in the desert,” one artist tells us.

When we do eventually hear from Glassie – flyaway grey hair, substantial moustache, chocolatey voice – he proves endlessly charming and consistently wise. He speaks of the “terrible sincerity that gripped me” as a younger man. He explains how Lady Gregory saw all fieldwork as an exercise in “reverence and patience”. Towards the close, he tells us that another Irish sage explained that “history is matter of place rather than time”.

The ultimate impression is of a reverie politely interrupted by well-honed wisdom. A comforting film for uncomfortable times.

Video on demand from April 16th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist