Emboldened/terrified by Girish Shambu’s post on filmmaker overviews (and the challenge of writing them well), as well as a fine example of the form (Bert Cardullo’s brisk introduction to Andre Bazin’s early essay on Jacques Tati), I’ve decided to take on a pet project that I’ve been considering for a while.
Ballard is the overlooked hero of the American rebels who emerged from the 1970s, in part because he makes kid-friendly dramas, mostly about children and animals, that take on mythological undertones. Critics perhaps think of him as a simpleton. It’s a pity. He paints with light with the same level of skill as Terrence Malick, and with the same intensity as Brakhage paints on film. Every frame is stunning. His camerawork is thoughtful and contemplative, his narrative pacing is so orderly and graceful, and his characterization is so free of pop-culture riffs, rudeness, and smirks that he shames most of the overcooked, over-amped stuff that passes for children’s cinema today.
On the surface, Ballard’s lack of name recognition is odd, as he’s associated with cinema’s greats and was a significant figure in the San Francisco independent scene that produced Francis Ford Coppola, Philip Kaufman, and George Lucas. Coppola, through his Zoetrope Productions, was the executive producer of Ballard’s first feature The Black Stallion—widely regarded as one of the best children’s films of all time—and Carmine Coppola composed its magnificent score. Ballard served as a second-unit director of George Lucas’s Star Wars, shooting many of the desert scenes set on Tatooine. Two bigwigs, Caleb Deschanel (The Passion of the Christ, The Natural, The Right Stuff, Being There) and John Toll (The Thin Red Line, Legends of the Fall, Braveheart) have served as Ballard’s cinematographers. The filmmaker had an early champion in the formidable Pauline Kael, who praised both 1979’s The Black Stallion and 1983’s Never Cry Wolf fervently—repeatedly writing that the former was one of the greatest movies of its era—and heralded as Ballard’s 1960s documentaries as counteroffensives to what she deemed the ineptitude of “movie brutalists.” Roger Ebert, the country’s most high-profile working critic, loved 2005’s Duma so much that he launched a (mostly unsuccessful) campaign to get it released theatrically on a national scale.
So, what gives?
I’ve decided to write an overview of Ballard’s work (because, apparently, I need even more projects). Anyway, the essay will address: 1) his place with the pantheon of San Francisco-based New Wavers that emerged during the late-1970s and into the 1970s; 2) the tensions between humans and nature that are present in almost all of his features; 3) capsule aesthetic and thematic discussions of his movies; 4) his concentration on the genre on children’s cinema, children as protagonists, and the absence of a parental figure; 5) his influence and significance to his filmmaking peers; and 6) critical reception of his work, and Ballard’s response(s) to the media/critical establishment at-large.
And here’s where I need your help. Because of either a relative lack of critical respect for Ballard or Ballard’s own reluctance to engage with the media, there are relatively few interviews that I’ve been able to turn up and only glancing mentions to his work in film criticism and scholarship. His 1960s documentaries and shorts are, for me, untraceable. If you have any leads as to books I should read, articles or documentaries that I should consult, interviews I should seek, access or fuller information about his 1960s work, or anything else Ballard-related, please drop me a line in either the comments box or by email at wbiggins2 at gmail dot com.
Thanks in advance for any help you can offer. Our irregularly scheduled programming will resume shortly.