We celebrate the opening of Jonathan Demme's complex and moving The Agronomist and cherish the sensibilities of horror-film art director Robert Burns, who passed away this week
A working agronomist and a huge film fan (he was director of Haiti's Cine Club), Jean Dominique abandoned his chosen field for the political fray. He entered the arena not as a politician or social movement leader but as a journalist and commentator. In Haiti, this hemisphere's most impoverished country, Jean Dominique became a speaker of truth, still the rarest of commodities in that society, which lacks almost all of the rest of them as well, including so many of life's necessities.
Dominique purchased the lease on Radio Haiti, the country's oldest radio station, in 1968. Under the leadership of Dominique joined by Michèle Montas after they married the station evolved from offering only entertainment to programming news and commentary. Notably, Dominique broke tradition to begin broadcasting in Haitian Creole, the language of most Haitians, rather than in only the accepted French of the ruling oligarchy. Powerfully charismatic and driven by a sense of mission, Dominique came to wield such influence that the government felt forced to exile him in 1980 and, after he returned in 1986, again in 1991. Jean Dominique was assassinated at his beloved radio station in 2001. A month later, Michèle Montas returned the station to the air, saying in the first broadcast back that he was not dead but alive, that he had been seen in his hat, holding his pipe, walking the land. In the people's spirit, Jean Dominique is alive; in their dreams, he is alive; out of their history, despite their oppression, he is alive.
Fearing for her own life, Montas has subsequently exiled herself from Haiti again.
This is the bare bones of the story told in The Agronomist. But in words alone it is so hard to convey the passion and power of Jean and Michèle, to even begin to touch upon the extraordinary vitality of the Haitian people, most of whom live well below the poverty level. This documentary is greater than itself: The Dominiques' spirit, their commitment to justice, passion for Haiti, and compassion for the people burns brilliantly, not ignoring but rather defying the reactionary and destructive realities of their country. The film offers not only the brilliance of their characters, these two champions of freedom, but also a number of scenes that send your heart soaring. Unfortunately, recent events, though not even documented in the film, still haunt it. There is an undercurrent of overwhelming darkness as political forces constantly and continually drench the hopes of the Haitian people, reinforcing rather than challenging the country's incredible inequities.
The version of The Agronomist I saw about a year ago was not entirely finished but was still stunning. I was overwhelmed by the film, near sobbing as I watched it on an Avid (the only reason I didn't burst into tears at the end was some attempt at restraint because the film's editor was sitting next to me). During SXSW, I watched just the very last part at the Alamo Drafthouse. Watching it then was just as overwhelming as it was the first time. Michèle Montas' insisting Jean was alive and well is so powerful and so depressing, offering hope against impossible odds while acknowledging crushing, inhumane realities. I thought of the end of Viva Zapata!, scripted by John Steinbeck and directed by Elia Kazan, one of the two moments in the movie (a highly praised film that I've always found to be counterrevolutionary and anti-progressive) to treasure: Peasants are sitting around talking about how Zapata isn't really dead because the federales have always been saying that, so why believe them now? They note that Zapata, in fact, has been seen in Morelos, and he's been seen in Veracruz. He was seen in Chiapas and walking the streets of Mexico City. Zapata was alive, not dead; he was in Mexico, and he was everywhere. There is a shot of Zapata's white horse, without rider, racing through the mountains.
Standing in the dark at the Alamo, watching The Agronomist, in Michèle's voice I see a white horse.
Friends had a range of reactions to this film. Although every one of them admired and liked it, few found it as moving, inspiring, and disturbing as I did. Some suggested that, unless one knew more Haitian history, the film lacked context. Although during a period in my teens I read extensively on Haitian history, the country birthed by the only successful slave revolt in the western hemisphere, I remembered little, and certainly wasn't current.
Any discussion of Haiti's present or history is controversial, and not only regarding the causes and consequences of current political realities; there is no topic that is easily agreed upon. Most agree on our country's negative role in Haiti, with some insisting that we have almost directly authored every evil. Others offer more complex views, still others more narrowly racist ones.
The Agronomist transcends political detail, historic consequences, and diplomatic strategies by relating personal history. In telling the story of Jean and Michèle Dominique, of Radio Haiti and Haiti, Demme crafts a humanist celebration of perseverance, of love, of belief. This is the most political of stories by virtue of being among the most human. Despite The Agronomist's inescapable tragedy, the film understands that the unabated belief in human possibility, no matter how hopeless the situation, is all that's sometimes left to excite democracy, encourage change, and provide hope.
Last night we received an e-mail telling us that our friend Robert Burns had died. I want a couple of beats here, some silence the taste of Austin early morning when you can still imagine it as it was two or three decades back. I'm going to sing Burns' praises, note his achievements, and insist on his importance. But first we need to take a quiet walk down South Austin streets. Before the legend, let us break bread with the person.
Robert defined "idiosyncratic," yet he was warm, giving, and funny. Burns could be dark, but he delighted in people and celebrated creativity. Unassuming in general, now mostly unknown, Burns helped create the landscape of the modern horror film, where, rather than from monsters, the real terror comes from people who look just like you and me where the deepest evil isn't from outer space or artificially created in a lab, but found within the family.
Robert Burns was an art director and production/set designer. Burns' twisted, dark imagination created the demented human butcher house and bone furniture of the Sawyer family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; the otherworldly, bone-littered, spirit-haunted landscape in The Hills Have Eyes; the demented ballet and haunting imagery of the mannequins in Tourist Trap; the hidden, dark world lurking right beneath the one we know in The Howling; the twisted, modern-appliance-as-execution-chamber humor of Microwave Massacre; and the blood-soaked laboratory of Re-Animator. Burns created corpses for Poltergeist, was dialect coach on Ballad of the Sad Café, was art director for Disco Godfather, wrote and directed Mongrel, and starred in Confessions of a Serial Killer.
But those are just credits. He was also the creator of the most awesome and inspired Halloween costumes I've ever seen, crafter of many odd and unique objects, a legendary genealogist, and a great friend to so many.
Burns was also the most notable collector of material on the actor Rondo Hatton. When the Chronicle decided that we should offer a mask cover for Halloween, there was no question as to the first one; it had to be Rondo Hatton (and no question that it had to be drawn by Guy Juke). Rondo Hatton was an American actor who suffered from acromegaly, a pituitary disease that results in deformity. For most of his career Hatton was an extra, but he had the leading role in a handful of horror films Pearl of Death (as The Creeper), Spider Woman Strikes Back, Jungle Captive, House of Horrors, and The Brute Man before his death in 1946. Famously kind, Hatton just looked horrific.
Burns' passion for Hatton was more obvious than surprising to anyone who knew him. Delighted by deceptive surfaces, subconscious-evoking sets, and visual contradictions, Burns loved horror films because they scared and delighted us, because they haunted and thrilled us. Who more would have cherished Hatton, not just seeing the beauty in the beast but understanding there was no contradiction: They were as one.
Rest in peace, Robert; you will be missed. And, as is your wont, if you decide to return to visit one Halloween eve, just remember how old and easily haunted so many of your old friends are now.