The Polymath in Boston

Last week -- Friday, February 18, to be exact -- I trekked down to Boston for the New England premiere of Fred Barney Taylor's film The Polymath, or, The Life & Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman. I'd seen it a few years ago at its premiere at the TriBeCa Film Festival, and more recently on DVD, but Fred and Chip were both going to be at the Boston event, and I was curious to see the Q&A, since Chip hadn't been able to be at the TFF premiere, and I was interested to see what sorts of things the audience would want to discuss.

The DVD version, which is what was shown in Boston, is different from the TFF version, and, I'm told, from the version that won the Best Documentary Feature award at the Philadelphia International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. The editing is, to my eyes, smoother; there are fewer title cards; there's some new footage; and the whole film has been through additional post-production color correction, which I found most noticeable (in a good way) during the lyrical/abstract composite shots. I hadn't particularly liked those shots in the TFF cut, finding them muddy and, frankly, kitschy -- but then when I saw the DVD version, I thought, "Oh, that's what they were going for!" The effect is beautiful. Fred said that aside from the need for color correction, there had also been an additional problem at TFF -- the festival had insisted on everything being projected in high def, and the vast majority of The Polymath was shot on a standard def camera (a Sony PD-150 -- the same camera, in fact, that David Lynch used to film Inland Empire) and hadn't been converted to HD. An SD source projected as HD is ... less than ideal.

So I am happy to say that the version of The Polymath available for sale, and shown in Boston, is a significant improvement over the first cut I saw, both in terms of content and video quality. The pieces hold together more coherently, and flow into each other more clearly. It's not a standard documentary, and that requires some adjustment for anybody who goes in expecting something like A&E's Biography, but that's a strength, because what the film gives us, rather than a linear, then-he-did-this-then-he-did-that portrait, is a sense of Delany's many interests and knowledges, the turns of his mind. The title is brilliantly apt, both in finding some of the few labels that can, I think, adhere without too much torture to the man (polymath, gentleman), and in hinting at what the film offers (the life & opinions of).

It's a film that, I find, gains a lot from at least a second viewing -- partly because of my interest in Delany, and my knowledge of his life and works, viewing it the first time was just a way to see what's included, and it was especially difficult to assess the film then. Repeated viewings have made it clear to me that this probably isn't just a result of my own peculiarities; it's a densely-packed film, artfully constructed.

The bonus disc of the DVD offers even more -- not just the full version of Delany's own film, The Orchid in an excellent transfer, but also over two hours of extra interviews. These aren't just outtakes randomly thrown together; Fred spent a lot of time editing the footage and organizing it into different categories. It's rougher than the documentary itself, of course, but plenty fascinating -- I watched it all in one night and at the end thought, "Wasn't there supposed to be more than 2 hours here?! That couldn't have been more than an hour!" Then I looked at the clock. The night was no longer young.

photo by Abigail Linn, BU
The Q&A in Boston was fun, and I probably should have taken notes, but I didn't. I've seen enough Delany Q&As now that I can predict at least a few of the questions that will be asked ("Why write sci-fi?", "Did you really have that many sexual encounters?", etc.). There were some smart and thoughtful questions about sociology (Delany noted Durkheim as writer he read fairly early on in his life) and other topics, though I regret that, not having had dinner at that point, my brain kept thinking about food, and I didn't pay enough attention to remember many questions well.  Many of the people in the audience were film students, since the program was part of the Boston University Cinematheque, and there were some good questions about process -- for instance, Fred revealed that the composited imagery I mentioned above was created right within Final Cut Pro. He also said there was a lot of thought about what to use for the opening scene, though the current one feels so perfect as to seem inevitable, perfectly balancing two of the main themes of the film: writing and sex. Because of the frankness of some of the subject matter, the film has been a bit difficult to find distribution for, good reviews from such outlets as The New Yorker.

What I most remember was some publishing news. Bad news first: with the restructuring of Alyson Books and the departure of publisher Don Weise, Delany's new novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is once again looking for a publisher (tell all your publishing friends!). Good news: there are plans afoot to publish Delany's journals in four volumes.

Apparently, too, the BU Library had a display of materials from The Delany Collection, but I didn't have a chance to get over and see the exhibit. I don't know if it's still running.

After the Q&A, Chip signed books for folks, and I snapped a picture before I had to run off to Inman Square for dinner with friends:

Samuel R. Delany signs Dhalgren. Background: Fred Barney Taylor.
To order a copy of the DVD, see the mail or Paypal instruction at either the Maestromedia site or the film's Facebook page. You can also apparently order it from the Autonomedia Bookstore or St. Mark's Books. (I found ordering through Fred himself via Paypal really fast and easy. And he didn't know me from a hole in the internet then. Had he met me at that time, he would have delayed it and scratched it and written obscene words all over the packaging, I'm sure. But I always try to do business with people before they have reason to curse my existence. He even emailed me, "How did you hear about the movie?" I told him I was hanging out with Bobby DeNiro and Marty Scorsese one night, and Bobby said to me ... well, that's another story altogether...)

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