Henry Glassie is one of America’s greatest folklorists, devoting his life to studying the art of other cultures around the world. He doesn’t just observe from afar either; Glassie spends a decade or more living in an unknown place to become intimately involved with the people and their practices. Like an anthropologist, it his field work.
Pat Collins’s documentary portrait of the man who, at 78 years old, is still chronicling today, succeeds in capturing the spirit of that work, described by Glassie as the lifeblood of his writings. Glassie himself doesn’t even speak and is barely onscreen until a good 45 minutes into the film. Instead, Collins spends time with the folk artists that he has come to see, methodically showing their processes as a clay angel is sculpted or a metal statue is fused together. The camera becomes a portal by which we see through Glassie’s eyes.
When we do eventually hear from Glassie, he is a zen master, espousing his worldview that being curious about other people and their interests is the most exciting part of life. While his notion that people are inherently good sounds, frankly, kind of delusional in this day and age, there is such a calm wisdom behind his eyes and in his demeanor that you can’t help but go with it.
With the arts increasingly being taken over by commerce, it’s refreshing to see true human artistic expression at a regional level. Glassie’s field work is more important than ever.