#483) Film Portrait (1972)

#483) Film Portrait (1972)

OR “A Movie-able Feast”

Directed & Written by Jerome Hill

Class of 2003 

The Plot: After a lifetime of documentary and experimental films, Jerome Hill turns the camera on himself to examine his life in the aptly titled “Film Portrait”. Hill covers his childhood in Minnesota, his early films in Europe, and his later, more renowned documentaries, as well as the techniques he learned for and applied to all of them. Hill’s meditation on his past and present (as well as hypothetical futures) came at just the right time, as Hill passed away shortly after completing “Film Portrait”.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives a brief rundown on the film, and a link to the Jerome Foundation, which features “Film Portrait” (and Jerome’s other works) in its entirety. It should be pointed out, however, that the NFR erroneously lists the film’s release year as 1970.

But Does It Really?: Jerome Hill isn’t well-known to modern audiences, but his films are an important link between the experimental filmmakers that inspired him, and the ones whom Hill inspired. “Film Portrait” is a thoughtful, entertaining memoir, never becoming too reverential or self-important, and is filled with the kind of experimentation Hill was known for. “Film Portrait” earns its spot on the NFR as representation of Jerome Hill’s artistry.

Shout Outs: I’m pretty sure “Intolerance” is among the silent films featured in Hill’s montage about the early days of cinema.

Everybody Gets One: A plethora of biographical information on Jerome Hill can be found within this film (obviously), as well as in this authorized essay by Mary Ann Caws. To summarize: Hill was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and was an avid film lover from day one. Before becoming a filmmaker, he studied music at Yale, and painting at the British Academy in Rome (both of these disciplines would find their way into his films). He started making experimental films in the 1930s, and even got a few of them distributed by Warner Bros. After serving in various Army film units during WWII, Hill made a documentary short about painter Grandma Moses, earning his first Oscar nomination. Hill’s filmography was supplemented by his musical compositions, paintings, and photography.

Wow, That’s Dated: Mainly the art of making films with actual film. The final sequence of Jerome editing “Film Portrait” on an old-school flatbed looks like a complex nightmare. Then again, watching him examine his past on Final Cut Pro wouldn’t pack the same punch.

Seriously, Oscars?: Although “Film Portrait” played Cannes (and other festivals) in 1972, it appears that the film didn’t have an Oscar eligible run until 1973. No posthumous nomination for Jerome Hill, but “Film Portrait” does feature footage of Hill’s 1957 Oscar win for “Albert Schweitzer”. For the record: 1973’s Best Documentary winner was Kieth Merrill’s “The Great American Cowboy”.

Other notes 

  • Right out the gate, Hill’s passing is causing problems for this movie. Much of the first 10 minutes is Hill theorizing how he will die, played out in various comic scenarios, including a ski accident and being eaten by a giant fish. It’d be more fun without the foresight.
  • Hill grew up in the 1900s-1910s, so every photo in this movie looks like the ending of “The Shining”.
  • The first section of the film is Hill looking back fondly on where his fascination with movies comes from. His father was a photographer, and the Hill’s were among the first families to own a movie camera. Surprisingly for the 1910s, the Hill family is well documented in what could be considered the earliest known home movies.
  • Many of Hill’s recreations of his childhood include one of his favorite experimental tricks: painting directly onto the film negative. The amazing part is that, in order to get the colors right, Hill had to paint the complimentary colors on the negative. For example: painting red on the negative would make the color appear green on the positive print.
  • I appreciate Hill’s use of footage by Georges Méliès and the Lumière Brothers. Since these important filmmakers were French (and based in France), their monumental work is ineligible for the NFR, so including them here is a nice workaround.
  • So much cutting and manipulating of family photos; if only Photoshop had been a thing in the ’70s.
  • The bulk of the movie is Jerome discussing and showcasing the experimental movies he and his friends made in Europe in the late ’20s and early ’30s, utilizing such then-revolutionary techniques as film reversal. All good stuff, but there’s a point where it feels like padding. Almost like Jerome’s goal was to include as much of this footage as possible.
  • Hill’s 1932 film “La Cartomancienne”[roughly translated: “The Fortune Teller”] briefly turns into yet another “staring at water” movie. I’m beginning to see why the NFR picked “Film Portrait”.
  • Shoutout to legendary “Nanook of the North” filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty, whose films inspired Jerome to start making documentaries.
  • One of Hill’s later in life attempts at a narrative film includes the dark comedy “Open the Door and See All the People”. After an hour of avant-garde footage, I was not expecting this movie to have a pie fight.
  • My main takeaway from this movie is a quote from Jerome towards the end: “Through cinema, time in annihilated”. Hill recognizes film as a form of time travel, where the past is always the present. This is visualized in the final shot; a modern (c. 1970) recreation of the Lumière Brothers’ “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat”, filmed at the same station from the same angle.
  • Ultimately, I don’t know enough about Jerome’s timeline to conclusively determine whether or not he knew he was dying while making “Film Portrait”. I suspect he did, as the final film is an in-depth assessment of his work. And if he didn’t, Hill was 67 when he made the movie, making a thorough self-reflection unsurprising.

Legacy 

  • Jerome Hill died of cancer in November 1972, just four weeks after attending a screening of “Film Portrait” at the Museum of Modern Art.
  • In 1964, Hill founded the Avon Foundation, with a mission to support young artists in both New York and his native Minnesota. After Hill’s passing, the foundation was renamed the Jerome Foundation, and is still going strong, providing a wealth of information on Hill, including his papers and films.
  • Among the filmmakers inspired by Jerome Hill’s experimental work were future NFR inductees Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas. Mekas was also responsible for finishing Hill’s uncompleted documentary on Carl Jung, which became the 1991 short “Carl G. Jung or Lapis Philosophorum”.

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