Reading Picture, first published in 1952, reminded me about what real journalism is about. Integrity. Objectivity. Responsibility. Power of observation. Respect for the privacy of your subjects. Lillian Ross, who worked at The New Yorker for more than half a century, is considered one of the pioneers of novelistic journalism, and Picture was named one of the “Top Hundred Works of US Journalism of the Twentieth Century” (Reporting is the writer’s other work that is on the list). I didn’t even know about the new edition, released in June by The New York Review of Books, until I discovered it in my favourite bookstore – who doesn’t have a good bookshop keeper, they should buy one.
“Beautiful journalism”, John Huston said about Picture. No stylistic flourishing, no gratuitous metaphors, no speculation or gossip, just clarity and simplicity, a probing insight into filmmaking. Picture, Lillian Ross’ reporting of the making of John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage, is one of the most authentic and accurate documentations of how a movie is made, of how the big studio Hollywood mechanisms work and how an original, artistic film and a director’s uncompromising vision can be slashed into a whole different thing when the studio heads and producers step in and cut down by a third a film they had previously thought was great in its initial form just because of the public pressure (“that odd sampling of the public that comprises preview-goers,”, as Lillian Ross describes them). The studio heads who think that you have to tell people what the movie is about because they can not think by themselves. The studio heads who disconsider any other kind of movie made outside Hollywood because they say those films want to harm the heart-warming, sentimental Hollywood motion-picture business. The producers who disturbingly admit that once the director is through, they can usually do whatever they want with a picture.
One of my favourite parts in the book were the John Huston passages. Every mention of his name has the capacity of revealing something from the character of this magnetic, bigger-than-life man, great director and talented artist, and to make the reader part of the moment. His wit, his humour, his ego, his search for simplicity and truth, his appetite for life and art. As Anjelica Huston (if you haven’t already red her two-part autobiography, A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London and New York and Watch Me, I highly recommend that you do) says in the introduction to Ross’ book, “in the country recently, my husband, Robert Graham, and I were reading Picture aloud to each other. We were laughing and having a lot of fun when suddenly I realised that reading this book was like being in the same room with my father again.”
But what I believe Lillian Ross captured first and foremost, and so well and effortlessly, was that rare quality that John Huston had for looking at and making art with enthusiasm and curiosity but without intellectualization. She was able to capture the essence of the artist, with his many facets, just by reporting the facts. That’s a rare quality, too.
Related reading: A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London and New York, by Anjelica Huston / Watch Me, by Anjelica Huston / Room to Dream, by David Lynch