Gordon Parks documentary displays his many talents
New York — Gordon Parks: Moments Without Proper Names PBS, Monday, 10-11 p.m., check local listings. Producers: Shep Morgan and John Carter. Director: Gordon Parks. At first glance, this would seem to be the supreme exercise in egocentricity: an homage to Gordon Parks by Gordon Parks, featuring the words, music, and images of Gordon Parks.
Well, certainly ``Moments Without Proper Names'' indicates a more than average degree of self-absorption on the part of Gordon Parks, but the man deserves every bit of the awe and respect he demands of his audiences. And this impressionistic autobiography, alternating flashes of technical brilliance and romantic sensibility, proves that Parks is an authentic American original, a multi-talented virtuoso.
Parks, a self-educated black son of Kansas dirt farmers, for 20 years served as a prize-winning photographer at Life magazine, was the first black to direct a major motion picture (``The Learning Tree''), wrote books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, composed music. In short, despite the obstacle of race, he managed to become a kind of modern Renaissance man, reflecting not only the black but the universal conscience.
There are sparklingly pungent observations about people and events in Parks's life. Of Duke Ellington, Parks says: ``He never shuffled; he strode.'' Parks insists that ``nobody knows the black man; not even the black man.'' And he is not so much tired of the ``long hot summers. I am tired of the long hungered winters.''
Most of the graphics in the film are the diverse prize-winning photographs he made during his long career as a photographer. But there is fine new footage by cinematographer Michael Livesy. Sometimes it is difficult to differentiate between Livesy, Parks, and archival footage. Parks reads some of his own poetry; the rest is recited by Roscoe Lee Brown, Avery Brooks, and Joe Seneca. Parks wrote the original score.
The film starts in Parks's Kansas, where he remembers ``the silver September rain, orange-red-brown Octobers, and white Decembers with hungry smells of hams and pork butts curing in the smokehouse.'' He goes to Harlem, where ``the people looked as if promise had died inside them,'' then moves on to France, then to his son's Vietnam experience, his return to America, and, in the end, to the Kansas heartland, where ``time had whittled down to mere hills the great mountains of my childhood.'' He is relieved to discover that ``there is still warmth here, even when the wind blows hard and cold.''
The film is humorless and, for some, a bit pretentious. But Parks is, after all, a serious artist, in a world filled with ironies. As he says, ``No country ... offers blacks the opportunities that America does. The sad thing is: America makes it so difficult for blacks to take advantage of these opportunities.''
``Moments Without Proper Names'' is a joyous, ``Look-At-Me, I-Did-It'' film - Parks's brilliant reminder that he took advantage of those opportunities.