In Review: December 17, 1997
Pulitzer-winning book made into film
Laurie Kahn-Leavitt '78 depicts 18th-century midwife's life
"I WAS SICK AND TIRED of omniscient narrators who know everything about the past. The past isn't something that's delivered by an omniscient narrator. It's something you piece together. I wanted to show that process of piecing the past together. I know what it's like to do, and it's incredibly exciting."
Film producer and writer Laurie Kahn-Leavitt '78 is talking about her new film, A Midwife's Tale, to be televised next January 19, as the opening show of the 10th season of PBS's American Experience series. The film is an adaptation of historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's book of the same title. Ulrich's book is a portrait of the life of Martha Ballard, a midwife in 18th-century Maine, based on the diary Ballard kept for 27 years. In adapting the book, Kahn-Leavitt took an innovative approach. Rather than making a documentary or a straightforward drama, she combined the two forms. The film interweaves dramatic reenactments of Ballard's life and work with documentary segments on Ulrich's 20th-century work as she discovers and pieces together Ballard's diary. "From the beginning I saw it as a film with not one but two stories, about two women," says Kahn-Leavitt.
The film began in 1990 when Kahn-Leavitt read about Ulrich's book in The New York Times Book Review. Kahn-Leavitt was then senior associate producer for PBS's American Experience series. She had worked on documentary films about 20th-century history, but she wanted to work with prephotographic history. Ulrich's book was a unique account of life in colonial New England. Explains Kahn-Leavitt, "Most of what you find on colonial life is about founding fathers or girls going to balls. This was a steady record of a woman who through her work saw everyone and everything in town, and wrote about it for 27 years."
Kahn-Leavitt optioned the book (which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize) and started her own production company to make the film. Working closely with Ulrich, she developed a screenplay and applied for and received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Kahn-Leavitt, who studied philosophy at Princeton and wrote about the arts for the Prince, was a relative neophyte in the film business. She had worked on documentary films, but she hadn't made one of her own. She laughs about how little she knew at the beginning. "This film broke every rule of low-budget film-making. You're supposed to limit the time and place and season, use a small cast, and avoid portraying the distant past. This film takes place on the frontier, over 200 years ago and spans 27 years and four seasons. It got made only through a combination of ignorance and enthusiasm and chutzpah!"
To save money, Kahn-Leavitt and director Richard Rogers rehearsed scenes in a loaned barn in Lincoln, Massachusetts, using unpaid stage actors who wanted film experience. This gave Kahn-Leavitt and Rogers the chance to experiment with camera angles and dialogue. The bulk of the film was shot at King's Landing in New Brunswick, Canada, an 18th-century village settled by fleeing loyalists during the Revolution. A Midwife's Tale was filmed in six weeks for less than $2 million.
For anyone tired of the overwrought glitz of Merchant-Ivory type historical adaptations, A Midwife's Tale will be a pleasant surprise. The film borrows its tone from the simple patterns of Martha Ballard's daily life. The acting is restrained; there's no gratuitous hairspray or makeup. The camera finds beauty in small details--in the lush colors of a changing season, or in the rhythms of women's hands at work. Much of the film's energy emanates from the documentary segments focusing on Ulrich. Ulrich's excitement at her discoveries is contagious; this film makes archival work look positively sexy.
And like the best of historical documentaries, A Midwife's Tale speaks across the years. The issues Martha Ballard's diary raises--the function of medicine, women's roles in society, child care, rape, domestic violence, premarital pregnancy--are surprisingly contemporary. "You see in this film the birth of the world we live in," says Kahn-Leavitt.
Currently, Kahn-Leavitt is busy attending screenings of A Midwife's Tale at film festivals around the country, and working to get the film distributed. What will she do next? She has many ideas for documentary and feature film projects; she isn't sure which one she'll pursue. She sounds nostalgic when she talks about leaving Martha Ballard behind, as if she's abandoning an old friend.
During the filming, she says, she sometimes found herself thinking about her subject. "When we were on set, with trucks full of cameras and lighting gear and people walking around with walkie-talkies, I would think, what would Martha think if she saw us with all this high-tech gear recreating her low-tech life? I thought about that often. Our world is so foreign to her world."
--Tamsin Todd '92
Tamsin Todd is a freelance writer living in Baltimore.
Rehabilitating an accused killer on death row
ON MARCH 10, 1981, in the gritty, southwestern Virginia coal town of Grundy, an intruder raped Wanda McCoy--a young married woman who was watching TV alone in her small but comfortable hillside home--and murdered her with the brutal slash of a knife. Soon after, the authorities arrested 22-year-old Roger Keith Coleman, who had been working as a coal miner after serving 20 months in prison for attempted rape. Coleman was convicted of the McCoy murder and spent most of the 1980s on death row, before his case became an international cause célèbre, even placing him on the cover of Time magazine in 1992. In bold type, Time's headline read, "This Man Might Be Innocent. This Man Is Due to Die."
Villa I Tatti, a scholar's home
WILLIAM WEAVER '40 in A Legacy of Excellence: The Story of Villa I Tatti (Abrams, $49.50) chronicles the life of a house. But truly, Villa I Tatti was more than simply a house owned by art historians Bernard and Mary Berenson. The villa, from its beginnings as a farmhouse shell with no eminities to its current life as Harvard University's Center for Renaissance Studies, was a way of life. At I Tatti, scholars and friends of the Berensons gathered to visit the couple and enjoy the fruits of their collective labor, which included Bernard's collection of photographs, scholarly journals, and Renaissance art, and the villa and its beautiful grounds, Mary's province. Weaver, a writer and translator, documents the nearly 60 years of the villa's existence, including substantial biographical information about the Berensons. The book is illustrated with archival photographs and contemporary ones by David Finn and David Morowitz.
King's Jazz on CD, and his book for beginners
CD: The Meltdown
Book: What Jazz Is: An Insider's Guide to Understanding and Listening to Jazz
by Jonny King '87 Walker and Co., $12.95
IT'S 7:30 ON A TUESDAY evening in November, and a crowd is beginning to fill up the spacious basement of The Jazz Standard, a new music room on East 27th Street in Manhattan. The club has been open for just one week, and there is a buzz of hopeful excitement in the air. Jazz is often lauded as "America's classical music," but that seems to be our way of honoring it without having to listen to it. "A lot of clubs have been closing lately," explains pianist and composer Jonny King '87, minutes before the Jonny King Quintet takes the stage. "A lot of New York jazz musicians are really rooting for this club to make it."
"WHEN I'M BAD, I'M BETTER": MAE WEST, SEX, AND AMERICAN ENTERTAINMENT, by Marybeth Hamilton *90 (California, $17.95)--In this book, both biography and cultural history, Hamilton looks at the life of Mae West and examines society's reactions to her. Hamilton teaches American history at Birkbeck College, University of London.
POUR YOUR HEART INTO IT, by Howard Schultz and Dori Jones Yang '76 (Hyperion, $24.95)--a "how-I-grew-the-business" book by Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, and Yang, a writer and former reporter for Business Week.
WHY PEOPLE DON'T TRUST GOVERNMENT, edited by Joseph S. Nye '58 et al. (Harvard, $18.95)--a collection of essays by scholars, mostly from Harvard, that tries to clarify what is seen as public distrust of government. Nye is dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government.
CRUISING RULES, by Roland Sawyer Barth '59 (Head Tide, 207-729-7403; $12.95)--an amusing book by a sailor about the rules he and his mates have devised to promote harmony at sea.