Tricky Dick

02.16.11

Left: Dick Fontaine, Who Is Sonny Rollins?, 1968, still from a color video, 30 minutes. Sonny Rollins. Right: Dick Fontaine, Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up?, 1968, still from a color video, 60 minutes. Norman Mailer.


A TERRIFIC MOMENT occurs halfway through Norman Mailer’s nonfiction novel The Armies of the Night (1968) when, writing in the third person, Mailer interrupts an account of his participation in the 1967 march on the Pentagon to introduce an important bit of information: All along, including during his subsequent arrest, he was being followed by a camera crew. At the head of that crew was Dick Fontaine—a ubiquitous figure in the 1960s—whose resulting Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up? (1968) possesses a journalistic immediacy and experimental drive manifest throughout the bulk of the director’s pioneering documentary work.

Fontaine pushed to the fore of Britain’s post-Grierson documentary scene through Granada TV’s World in Action, an investigative news program for which he wrote and directed controversial episodes on Tory politician Alec Douglas-Home (1963) and the Gulf of Tonkin incident (1964). While working in television Fontaine became increasingly concerned with the effects of media, and he sought new forms to explore the intersections of art and his own profession. “Temporary Person Passing Through” (1965), the debut episode of the BBC series One Pair of Eyes, examines the paradoxes of post-colonial India via the self-reflexive impressions of journalist James Cameron; “Heroes” (1967), for ABC’s unconventional New Tempo series, sends up the celebrity industry with a collage of publicity-age image-gods and image worshippers; “Who Is Sonny Rollins?” (1968), also for New Tempo, creates a moving profile of the jazz legend, then on spiritual break from the pressures of fame and practicing solos on the Williamsburg Bridge.

In Will the Real Norman Mailer . . . Fontaine becomes a satellite to the fragmented personality of the writer who is here no longer simply a man of letters but a veritable media figure, expending his energy on antiwar theater, contentious television appearances, and his own gonzo improvised filmmaking ventures. (Norman Mailer Vs. Fun City, USA [1970] later documents the author’s run for mayor of New York City.) In Mailer, the director found a subject through whom politics, art, and media all strangely and powerfully converged. And as part of the collectivist production company Tattooist International, Fontaine captured his own creative and personal contradictions in kaleidoscopic cine-memoir Double Pisces, Scorpio Rising (1970).

But his greatest passion has been African-American culture, as documented in Beat This! A Hip Hop History (1983), the graffiti defense Bombin’ (1988), and I Heard It Through the Grapevine (1980), a James Baldwin–led odyssey through the torn and struggling cities that gave birth to the civil rights movement. Whether charting the sympathetic contact between South Bronx spray-paint stars and marginalized Thatcher-era British youth or listening to the unfinished dreams of the men and women who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., Fontaine’s real subject seems to be the founding principle of the documentary genre: communication.

Michael Joshua Rowin

“Minding the Gap: The Films of Dick Fontaine” runs February 17–24 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.