If the name John Korty doesn't ring a bell, fair enough. It has been a while since the North Bay filmmaker's Oscar-winning 1977 documentary about a family of adopted disabled war orphans, Who Are the DeBolts and Where Did They Get 19 Kids? Since then he has been retiring, in the sense of remaining withdrawn from wide circulation, but not in the sense of stopping work. That distinction seems crucial for Korty, a perennial independent.
Given the Oscar, his many Emmys, and a host of other award nominations, not to mention all the films themselves, we may begin to marvel at the way Korty makes quasi-obscurity look like a trade secret. We may ask: Who is John Korty, and how did he get 50 steady years worth of independent filmmaking experience? Inasmuch as an answer exists, it'll be available at the Smith Rafael Film Center's welcome retrospective of Korty's work.
Who Are the DeBolts and Where Did They Get 19 Kids?
Maybe the most important thing to know going in is not just that Korty's the guy who inspired Francis Coppola and George Lucas to move to Northern California and work outside Hollywood, but also the guy who stayed his course even after those two became excessively famous and enmeshed within Hollywood.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
We know, too, from 1974's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, about a woman born into slavery who lived long enough to embrace the civil rights movement, that Korty is attuned to endurance. We see rudiments of his humane, resourceful style in The Crazy-Quilt, a beautifully unvarnished, poignantly funny 1966 love story about an exterminator and a flower child, from San Francisco psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis's story, The Illusionless Man and the Visionary Maid. And from the following year's Funnyman, about an improv comedian who wants his work to matter, we infer Korty's faith in the elasticity both of spirit and of form.
If there is a throughline from Korty's short 1961 documentary debut, The Language of Faces, about a Quaker peace vigil at the Pentagon during the Cold War, all the way to this year's John Allair Digs In!, a portrait of the Marin County rock 'n' roller and piano tuner, it must be a bold zigzag. Korty is an artist whose perceptiveness cuts across lines of race, class, gender and especially genre. He seems equally at home in trippy, vintage, Sesame Street animation and in the sober genteel short fiction of John Updike.
Korty's website lists the distinguished alumni of his production concern, whose ranks include David Fincher, hired at the tender age of 19. "I take no credit for the accomplishments of these talents," Korty writes, "but I am proud to have provided a place of employment for them outside of Hollywood."
So, do we detect an outright aversion? Too mannerly to wear the label of maverick with any real pomp, Korty probably wouldn't go so far as to call Hollywood a "garbagerie," to borrow a term from his Lucas-produced, collage-animated 1983 fable Twice Upon a Time. But there is the sense of real staisfaction with all that has sprung from his raffish DIY studio in Stinson Beach. There is the sense, still plausibly inspiring to those who would so receive it, that Korty wouldn't have it any other way. As Updike's narrator tells us in The Music School, which Korty adapted in 1974, "in the end each life wears its events with a geological inevitability."
The Films of John Korty will be showing Thursdays and Sundays, November 10 through December 4, 2011 at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, with director John Korty and other special guests in attendance. For tickets and more information, visit cafilm.org.