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To Render a Life (1992)

Not Rated | | Documentary | 18 November 1992 (USA)
A portrait of a contemporary, poor, rural family living under the same conditions as the cotton sharecroppers of the Depression.


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Credited cast:
... Himself
Anita Glass ... Herself
... Himself
... Himself
... Himself
Jonathan Yardley ... Himself


In 1936 the writer, James Agee, and the photographer, Walker Evans, traveled to Hale County, Alabama, to document the lives of three families of desperately poor cotton farmers. The result of their brilliant work was published in 1941 by the Houghton Miflin Co. as the book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a book destined to become an American classic. Initially fewer than 600 copies of the book were sold. Both critics and readers were baffled by the book's unique form and intensely subjective style. Reissued in 1960, however, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men achieved instant critical acclaim and became one of the most read books of the Civil Rights Movement. For many writers, photographers, artists, and historians, the book became an important inspiration. It has become essential reading in American Studies, American History, and American Literature, as well as ethnography, sociology, and photography. To Render a Life is the first feature film to be made about Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. ... Written by Ross Spears

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Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and the Documentary Vision




Not Rated


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Agee Films



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18 November 1992 (USA)  »

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This documentary, while not perfect, is important and should be seen by everyone for whom documentary work is meaningful.
9 September 1999 | by See all my reviews

Ross Spears' documentary is as much about the difficulties inherent in doing documentary work as it is a document of a poor Virginia family. The film is a follow-up to James Agee and Walker Evans' influential and groundbreaking documentary, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." Their book, both loved and hated by practitioners in the field because of its precision and excesses, engenders the basic questions examined in "To Render a Life." Namely, how do you make a represented life more than words on a page or images on celluloid? How do you creatively treat actuality?

To get at these questions, Spears acknowledges the presence of the documentarian. In one scene, for example, one of the main characters of the story almost knocks the camera over while trying to mop her floor. We are instantly reminded that this woman mopping her floor is not simply a character in a story but a real person doing her housework. In another montage, Spears contrasts Agee's words about the stereotypical odors of the Virginia sharecroppers' shack with images of greasy food, grimy eating and cooking utensils, refuse and roaches. Unsettling to the viewer, we are not only forced to consider how we are intruding on this fami but also how these striking aspects of the Glass' family life characterize them. Elsewhere throughout the film, other documentary makers also comment on the challenges of dealing with the interpersonal human drama of making a documentary about living subjects---a drama that usually takes place behind the scenes. Spears puts this drama in at least partial view. Indeed, the problems he deals with are ones that should be taken up by all documentary artists in some form or another. Spears is to be commended in his attempt to weave the problems of making documentaries with the story of a family's life.

All of this attention to intellectual detail makes for a great film for intellectuals. Unfortunately, the actual story of the Glass family gets pushed to the periphery. Little work is done to give us an in depth picture of how the Glass family works as a family. All we are given is a loose account of two members of the eight or so people that comprise the family. While the persons focused on are important, little sense of context can be derived from their sketchy accounts. In this way especially, Spears' film suffers and does not nearly approach the richness of documentary detail shown in Agee and Evans' book.

In another more extreme interpretation and in relation to the observations made above, it sometimes seems as if Spears "used" his subjects to advance a film about the demands of documentary filming. Although this is not wholly the case, at the very least the viewer is left with the sense that Spears has made two films in one: one about the documentary process and another about two people in the Glass family.

Overall, "To Render a Life" while not perfect, is important and should be seen by everyone for whom documentary work is meaningful.

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