Film Review: In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul LeiterDocumentary portrait of a great photographer is hampered by the taciturn nature of its subject.
The New York street photographs of Saul Leiter, haunting, poignant and yet vibrant with color, made the artist's reputation, and are the centerpiece of this gentle documentary profile. Leiter died last fall at 89, shortly before the film's first showing, and Tomas Leach's doc is elegiac and beautifully photographed, if rather frustratingly thin.
The reasons for this thinness lie in the subject himself. Leiter comes across as a studiously modest, often cantankerous personality with a "Why me?" attitude towards his own personal acclaim, a senior form of urban cool which, given the vagaries and vicissitudes of the New York art world in which he has existed for most of his long life, seems a tad suspect. He is an extremely reticent interviewee, often frustratingly leaving stated thoughts dangling in mid-air with no resolution. We learn little of his personal life in In No Great Hurry, apart from a mention of his family's Holocaust roots and his Orthodox rabbi father's disappointment with his choice of a career. He initially worked in fashion, but there is no evidence of any of that here. He had a longtime companion, Soames Bantry, whom he recalls fondly as he sifts through her belongings in his dusty East Village apartment, cluttered with the found art treasures and detritus of a lifetime. "I killed her—I have to take responsibility for that," he mutters, but such is Leach's cowed reticence that he doesn't pursue that avenue any further.
Leiter's observation that, for him, supportive and loving relationships always took precedence in his life over career success does seem genuinely heartfelt, and a rare moment of personal revelation. Leiter has a loyal, doubtlessly long-suffering assistant, Margit Erb, one of the film's producers, and it would have been salutary to hear a lot more from her as well.
Leach's hesitation is perhaps understandable, as Leiter, although he scrupulously hones his own unassumingly modest image (perhaps the result of only being truly appreciated some 50 years after his greatest artistic activity), is a cranky old bird who does not suffer fools gladly. "He came to Europe to torture me," he observes of Leach, and like so many gifted but difficult doc subjects before him, threatens to not give final approval to the project if he doesn't like the results. "My photos are meant to tickle your left ear" is perhaps his most revealing statement regarding the meaning of his work which Leach so avidly seeks.
Thankfully, as inexpressive as the photographer is, his images speak infinitely interpretable volumes, and I wish Leach had included more of them instead of training his camera so insistently on the man himself, with a rather bullyingly wistful music score pounding on the soundtrack where silence and ambient sound would be a more appropriate fit with Leiter's solitary life. The splitting up of the film into 13 chapters with headings like "Sharing Art" and the titular "In No Great Hurry" seems an unnecessary attempt to add some thematic depth to the footage.