AN AMERICAN POTTER (1976) Featuring Gerry Williams. With Jamie Weiss, Peter Sabin and the Williams family. Produced, directed and edited by Charles Musser. Camera: Joan Weidman. Sound: Ron Yoshida. “Blue Ribbon,” American Film Festival; “Best in Category –Fine Arts,” S.F. Film Festival; CINE “Golden Eagle.”
“Stretches far beyond the confines of the studio into the philosophical and psychological regions in which all life thrives.”––Denise Hare, Crafts Horizon.
DVDs are available for $25 plus $3 handling (check only) @ New-York Hollywood Feature Film Company, PO Box 820 Times Square Stat., New York, NY 10108
I met Gerry at his Dunbarton, New Hampshire, home and studio during the annual Williams Christmas sale in December 1968. I was immediately entranced. The sale ran for two weekends and I immediately invited myself back for the finale. There I met Phil and Jennifer DuBois and somehow wrangled an invitation to their home over Christmas break. Phil taught me how to throw on the wheel. That winter I was soon throwing pots every day and “apprenticing” to Gerry once a week. Gerry quickly became my mentor and guide–a surrogate father.
When I eventually fell out of pottery and into filmmaking, I knew that I had to make a documentary about Gerry. He was such an inspirational figure. Moreover, it was also a way to continue our relationship and get to know him better. I often hitch-hicked from Connecticut or New York City to New Hampshire to visit and watch him at work. Even as a college junior, I was writing grant proposals to fund the film. My work on Hearts and Minds, even in the modest role of First Assistant Editor, gave me enough cred so I was about to get an NEA Bi-centennial grant to make the film. The little irony was that the conservative Republican Governor of New Hampshire Meldrim Thomson, Jr. disapproved of government spending in this area and insisted on personally reviewing the grant, which needed his approval since it went through the state arts council. And of, course, the film was about a lefty, conscientious objector (CO). So I hitchhiked up to Concord, put on a coat and tie, to attend a public hearing. Happily, he signed off on the grant.
The pottery film is its own genre, one that has a poor reputation to say the least. Telling people that I was making a pottery film generated many funny looks and raised eyebrows. I know various people questioned my choice, and there were and probably are lots of bad pottery films: I saw dozens of them while doing my homework. I also wrote about them for a magazine Gerry was starting–The Studio Potter: it was my first non-student film publication! So there were a number of things I wanted to do differently. I was annoyed that pottery films always focused on a single individual. So I wanted to include the apprentice as a central strand of the film. We brought back Jamie Weiss, Gerry’s sometime apprentice, for the film. I was also interested in showing the potter as part of a larger community–again something that was never done. So we arranged to have a gathering of local potters for a wet fire party and I also filmed Gerry meeting with several of his fellow potters. The scene with Peter Sabin, his closest colleague at the time, remained. Obviously I knew Gerry and his stories well. My cinematographer, the highly talented and charming Joan Weidman, served as his fresh audience. As did Ron Yoshida who took sound. I remained pleased that my first effort at professional filmmaking had a woman cinematographer and a multiracial crew.
Gerry had his own complaints about pottery films. As it turned out, he was a Bazinian. He hated the way these films would show the making of a pot: there would be numerous cuts and the clay would be about to collapse. Nothing was shown in real time. To a potter, it always seemed bogus. An American Potter thus starts off with a close up of Gerry throwing a pot–from beginning to end––in a single shot. I always like to remind people that Jean Renoir started off as a potter.