Henry Glassie: Field Work – Review

Henry Glassie: Field Work - Review

This documentary follows folklorist Henry Glassie as he interacts with and documents artists and their work across continents and generations. Spanning Brazil, Turkey, the U.S., and Ireland, this film serves as a celebration of artists and the art they create. More specifically, the film contains a meditation on why people create art and why Glassie has studied art and artists in order to understand people and their cultures.

One of the most remarkable things about this particular documentary is how subdued and meditative it is, particularly the first half. Director Pat Collins along with editor Keith Walsh and cinematographer Colm Hogan keep the film in a mostly observational mode, where the presence of the subjects are much more felt than that of the filmmakers. This is due in part to Glassie stating, “I don’t study people at all, I stand with people and study the things that they create.” The filmmakers here seemingly have allowed this philosophy to inform the construction of the film.

Viewers along with Glassie observe as artists work with a perfect blend of close-ups on hands and the medium the artist is working with to convey the care and precision that is needed, as well as close-ups and wides on the artists themselves. Sometimes their faces are an expression of confusion, almost as if they are trying to decipher what the piece itself wants to be naturally as opposed to inflicting their will upon it. Other times, their faces convey a perfect sense of tranquility as they get into an almost unconscious state where they are working seamlessly with their medium. All the while, the filmmakers are not shown to be saying anything. The observational and more subdued nature of this film can lead to the feeling of a slower pace than some viewers may be used to as opposed to documentaries with a more conventional guiding force and narrative structure.

Contributing to this observational feeling, we do not hear a lot from the artists themselves in the film apart from one or two comments on how their individual process works. The subject we hear the most from is Glassie who talks about his travels, his mentors, and why he views art and artists as such a crucial part of understanding people, culture, and place.

At its core, this film serves as a meditation on why people create art. Both Glassie and the filmmakers here posit that crafting art of any kind is one of the true universal human experiences. Glassie himself says at one point that, “Art is ultimately a devoted reconciliation between the individual and collective nature that all of us have.” The film shows that different cultures and individual artists use different mediums, in Brazil we see a lot of woodworking and sculpting, in Turkey we hear about the making of oriental rugs and ceramics, in the U.S. it is pottery and sculpting, in Ireland, song and the sharing stories and history. All of these artists are also informed by varying cultural and religious values. For instance in Brazil, a lot of the artists work on pieces centered on religious figures and iconography, whereas in the U.S., the pottery and sculpting does not seem to have overt religious connotations. Despite the individual approach each artist has to their craft, all of these people are bound by this desire to express themselves and share what they create with others. This variety of results stemming from a universal impulse is what fascinates Glassie and is what the film communicates and utilizes to enthrall the audience.

Henry Glassie: Field Work is a thoughtful documentary on the universal power of art and its ability to affect and connect people regardless of culture, background, and economic status. Featuring great cinematography displaying the beauty and intricacies of artists and their work, viewers interested in art and how people express themselves should seek this film out.  

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Trent loves watching and discussing films. Trent is a fan of character dramas and blockbusters. Some of his favorites include: The Breakfast Club, A Few Good Men and The Martian.


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