Henry Glassie: Field Work
Renowned American scholar and folklorist Henry Glassie has spent his long career traveling the world to learn about artists and the work they so passionately and painstakingly create. The journey of discovery has taken him to Brazil, Turkey, Ireland and southern USA, as he strives to understand what makes these artists and their art special, both in terms of their individual expression and how their work connects to the cultural context it was born from. Irish-born filmmaker Pat Collins translates Glassie’s admiration for art (whatever form it takes) and its creators for the screen in his latest project, Henry Glassie: Field Work (released digitally after premiering at Toronto Film Festival in 2019), with varying results.
Glassie is infatuated with the concepts of creation and artistic expression. To him, as he eloquently phrases it, art is a way for creators to express “emblems of their being”. There’s a great deal of love, devotion, and wholehearted admiration laced through every word he speaks on the subject, especially whenever he reflects upon notable characters he’s encountered over the years. There’s perhaps no better lens to understand and appreciate aesthetic beauty more than through the eyes of its subject. However, Glassie isn’t the one making this documentary – Collins is. And therein lies the main obstacle that the film must overcome: how can one person convey how Glassie understands other creators?
To tackle this problem Collins boldly decides to show the creative processes as they are. With no narration, no music, or any unnecessary editing to speak of, a large portion of his documentary is dedicated to watching these people work. Although there’s an unspoken magic in watching their dextrous fingers bring their creations to life (whether they’re clay sculptures, pottery or wood carvings), extraordinarily little is learned about the creators or their creations. It’s not until around the halfway mark that Glassie injects his own thoughts and perspective, and even then, the anthropologist’s insights are unceremoniously short-lived. Not long after properly introducing to him, Collins cuts back to yet another voiceless compilation of other artists.
For a project that so often highlights the importance of understanding context to appreciate beauty, it misses this crucial step in its efforts to frame Glassie’s viewpoint onscreen.
Henry Glassie: Field Work is released digitally on demand on 16th April 2021.
Watch the trailer for Henry Glassie: Field Work here: