Landmark documentary captures world of Carl Sandburg
New York — Ms. Perry Miller Adato has done it again.
The producer/director of one of the best TV personality documentaries of the decade (''Picasso - A Painter's Diary'') has succeeded once more in presenting a vivid, unforgettable portrait of an artist in a thoroughly entertaining, informative, and innovative way.
As in the case of the Picasso documentary, ''Carl Sandburg - Echoes and Silences'' (PBS, Tuesday, 9-11 p.m., check local listings), this is much more than a film about a creative person. It is also about the times in which he lived and the impact of his talent and humanity upon the world around him. The production is part of the amazingly diversified ''American Playhouse'' series.
Carl Sandburg, one of America's most beloved populist poets, is known to every schoolchild for his much-anthologized poem, ''Fog,'' his landmark ''American Songbag,'' and for his biographies of Abraham Lincoln.
But there was much more than a little poem, a big biography, and a collection of authentic folksongs about the man. He echoed the struggle of the blue-collar worker, the farm hand, and all the ''little guys'' of the nation, struggling to find a solid, comfortable place in society. He thought socialism and he wrote socialism, cloaking it all in the mantle of patriotism and Americanism which his Midwestern roots and his immigrant parents had instilled in him.
''Echoes and Silences'' utilizes a form in which the director, writer Paul Shyre, and leading actor, John Cullum, search on camera for a ''handle'' for the documentary. What made this poet and historian the mythical character he is believed to be? Cullum admits he has only found the shell of the man and then proceeds to visit the places that played important parts in the development of Sandburg as a creative artist and as a man.
This unique blend of drama and documentary takes the viewer back to Galesburg , Ill., where he was born, and to his farm in rural North Carolina. Through conversations with friends, neighbors, family, with the aid of snapshots, home movies, old prints and photos, and historical movie footage of his vagabonding days, Ms. Adato has re-created the essence of the man and his relationship with the world around him, as well as the family that adored him.
Many viewers may not have realized that famed photographer Edward Steichen was Mr. Sandburg's brother-in-law, which partially explains why Sandburg wrote the forward to the book version of Steichen's famous ''Family Of Man'' exhibition.
Interwoven with the documentary aspect of the film is the one-man show about Sandburg which actor John Collum takes on tour. With superb style, avoiding simplistic mimicry, he presents viewers with authentic samples of Sandburg's poems, idiosyncracies, attitudes, and remarks.
''Carl Sandburg - Echoes And Silences'' is landmark biography as well as landmark documentary. It deserves to be seen by those who already know and love Carl Sandburg's work and by those who are curious about his amazing mystique.
It would be difficult to view this dramatic documentary without coming to love the man. A talk with daughter Helga
One of his daughters - Helga - was in New York recently to attend a premiere screening of the film at PBS headquarters. I spoke with her while she was here, riding the crest of the thrill of sharing her own admiration for her father with the world. A writer too, Helga Sandburg Crile has already written one biography of her father's earlier life and is now at work on another, which takes him to his last days at his farm.
She is just a bit testy about the unfair treatment she believes her father received at the hands of the poetry establishment.
''On my father's 100th birthday recently, one of the poetry societies gave a medal . . . to William Carlos Williams. On my Dad's birthday! They're still scared of him. They're still not sure he's a poet.
''He even wrote poems about what he called 'the abracadabra boys' - those poets who needed interpreters to help people understand what they were saying.''
Mrs. Crile, who retains the strong and somehow regal look of her pioneering ancestors, is very proud of the fact that her father ''wrote about America - he really interpreted it. He wrote for Now, even though many of his poems will withstand time and are for the ages.''
She is especially proud of the fact that ''when John Steinbeck got his Pulitzer Prize, he was quoted as saying that the prize should have gone to Sandburg because Sandburg is America.''
Mrs. Crile revealed that Carl Sandburg himself got just a bit weary with all the schoolchildren who would come up to him and quote the poem ''Fog.'' ''Why don't they learn something else,'' he told her, ''I wrote many little poems they could remember, too.''
She is very happy with the Adato documentary. ''It's a sociological study of the period, the story of the nation evolving from the sweatshops into real democracy, the kind of things Dad wrote about and was involved in.''Although he was beginning to get some notice as a poet, it wasn't till he was past 40 and the Lincoln books came out that he was acclaimed,'' she recalls. ''And it was only then that the family wasn't worried about money.''Sandburg was constantly traveling around the country on lecture tours to earn enough money to support his wife and three daughters, all of whom gave him total moral support. According to Helga, at the end of the day when her Dad came downstairs from his writing room, the family sat around the table and listened intently as he read what he had written that day.''I wouldn't change one thing about the wonderful life we lived with him. Although he was often away for months at a time, when he came back he gave us his complete attention and we gave him ours, sitting up till dawn sometimes listening to his stories and experiences.''We never took vacations because being at home with him was so exciting. In our house there was always all the music, all the literature, we needed.How would Helga describe her own Dad and his place in literature and history?She thought for a moment, pushed her glasses back on her nose, smiled a recognizable Sandburg smile, and said carefully: ''Well, I don't like to use the word ambitious. I think my father had what I call a sense of destiny. I think he was humble about himself but he had that sense of destiny about himself and his work.''My mother had that same feeling about him and always told him how great he was. She had few ambitions other than to help him achieve that destiny. Whenever he expressed doubts about being able to make it, she would tell him that the family could live on nothing, if necessary, as long as he continued to do his work.''Dad didn't demand much of life, either. He once wrote that all he wanted was 'to stay out of jail, get what I write printed, eat regular, and get a little love.' He was a simple man who just cared about simple things.''It doesn't bother Helga at all that there are still some people who consider Sandburg a fine biographer but a rather WPA-type poet.''Sure there are people who still don't understand that he was the kind of socialist who came out of the soul of America. He stood for the country amd for the people - he says it all in 'People, Yes.' ''In her own travels around the country and the world, Helga Sandburg Crile senses a renaissance in interest in Carl Sandburg. ''He is in just about every school curriculum - his poems as well as his Lincoln biographies. He was truly a man of destiny and the test of time is helping to prove that estimation correct.''Time . . . with, perhaps, a little help from ''Carl Sandburg - Echoes and Silences.''