John Muir, Roger Baldwin, Willem de Kooning; Compelling look at three extraordinary men
New York — Unique people almost inevitably make unique television.
Three men with seemingly disparate points of view, talents, and life styles are the subjects of three extraordinary television documentaries: John Muir, Roger Baldwin, and Willem de Kooning.
Taken separately, each of these documentaries cannot help but instill in the viewer a sense of what the individual can accomplish in his own lifetime. Taken as a group, these documentaries force the viewer to recognize the diverse potentials of man in our society. There are, in all three men, personal obsessions that, in the long run, benefit mankind, even if their own society is slow to recognize their achievements.
All of the shows air on PBS: California Dreams: Wilderness Man (premiering and repeating throughout the week and weekend), Traveling Hopefully (Monday, May 10, 9:30-10 p.m.), and De Kooning on de Kooning (Monday, May 10, 10-11 p.m.). All of these programs may be difficult to find in today's many-channeled TV spectrum, but they are gems worth the digging effort.
''Wilderness Man,'' brought to public television via KOCE/Huntington Beach, Calif., concerns John Muir, the first president of the Sierra Club, who is sometimes called the father of conservation. Using Eddie Albert as narrator and reader of Mr. Muir's journals, ''Wilderness Man,'' (the first in a series titled ''California Dreams'') traces the life and career of Muir from Scotland to Wisconsin and then to California's Yosemite Valley.
The Sierras and their conservation became Muir's obsession, which eventually resulted in Yosemite National Park. Muir shouted from the mountaintops about the joy of wilderness. He wrote of its sublime stillness, of hearing the symphony of jubilant wilderness waters.
He became an inventor of mechanical gimmicks, but at one point in his life, he worked in a factory to support himself. There he was temporarily blinded in an accident. When his eyes healed, he decided to devote his life to the inventions of nature rather than his own mechanical inventions.
''Climb the mountains and get their good tidings,'' John Muir wrote. ''Look at the glory around you!'' The glory is directed and written by J. Francis Gladstone and recorded with stunning stills, aerial shots and cinematography, and the prescient words of John Muir. ''Wilderness Man,'' is not only a tribute to John Muir, it is an exultant electronic hymn to man's coexistence with nature. Roger Baldwin
''Traveling Hopefully'' highlights the life of a man perhaps even more controversial in his own time than John Muir. It is an inspiring documentary about Roger Baldwin, founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. Although currently at a membership ebb, mainly because of its defense of the American Nazis' right to march in Skokie, Ill., a few years ago, the ACLU continues its battles in its own way for the Bill of Rights.
Made shortly before Mr. Baldwin's demise at the age of 97, ''Traveling Hopefully'' is directed with skill and sensitivity by John Avildsen and incorporates newsreel shots, personal tributes, and discussions with Mr. Baldwin by Norman Lear, Gail Sheehy, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. It takes its title from Adlai Stevenson's words: ''To travel hopefully is better than to arrive. . . .''
Mr. Baldwin, whose ideas about safeguarding liberties did not meet everybody's approval, nevertheless was a man who not only spoke of principles but acted upon them. ''Liberty never stays won,'' he says in this strong documentary, ''you have to win it over and over again.''
''Traveling Hopefully,'' is a landmark film - it honors the man for his tenacity to his ideals. Whether or not you believe in his method of safeguarding freedom, the fact remains that Roger Baldwin was a unique national resource, a man whose devotion to principle probably helped many people become more aware of their rights as individuals. Willem de Kooning
''De Kooning on de Kooning,'' on the other hand, tells the tale of a very private person - Willem de Kooning, the abstract expressionist-impressionist whose modesty in the face of a unique talent may be difficult for some people to fathom. The documentary produced by Courtney Sale and directed by Charlotte Zwerin comes to PBS through KERA/Dallas.
Displaying in glorious color a retrospective of his work, the film celebrates modesty and individualism in a talented human being. ''I am a very talented house painter,'' he says, ''who just gets excited every once in a while.''
That excitement has been transmitted to the world of art, although unlike many of his contemporaries, de Kooning remains aloof from much of the superficial sociality of contemporary artists who need the constant wooing of art dealers and museum curators to stroke their egos. De Kooning works on in the privacy of his own self-assurance, in the unique world of God-given talent.
So, the lives of these three men - Muir, Baldwin and de Kooning - make up a trilogy of documentaries that can only reinforce our belief in the uniqueness of the individual and the inspiring contribution that that uniqueness can bring to society.