John Korty, a godfather of Northern California filmmaking, dies at 85

Korty paved the path for greats such as George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola

By David Thomson

Special to The Examiner

John Korty died on March 9 in Point Reyes Station, where he had lived for years.

In the early 1960s, he had it in mind to be a filmmaker, but he did not accept the automatic cultural assumption that the only way to pursue a movie life and career was to go to Los Angeles. He took the view that, like a writer or a painter, a creative person might live in eastern Oregon, in the woods of Vermont or even in the headland country north of San Francisco. After all, the people in those places might be interesting and valuable, all the more so in not living beneath the idiot HOLLYWOOD sign.

Of course, there was a fast answer to this attitude in the ‘60s. It was: It’s absurd to want to be a filmmaker and not huddle in the seance of Hollywood where agents, producers, money people and valet parking can ignore you as if you don’t matter. To which Korty responded: Well, movies need light and nature, people and their stories — and maybe they need those things more than they need the desperate starlets, the stale narrative genres and the endless dispiriting compromises of Hollywood. Korty’s retort was: Suppose we think of filmmakers as people who are attached to place, to life and to people. Why make movies if you don’t believe in those things?

Korty was not from the Bay Area or Northern California; he was born in Lafayette, Indiana, in 1936. But once he’d found the area, he concluded that it had a lot to explore. He graduated from Antioch College in Ohio and began playing around with film, a youthful hobby that turned into an obsession. He filmed live things, but he experimented with animation, too. He was drawn to what we call documentary, but he was just as interested in stories and held by moving imagery of all sorts. It was in 1964 that he found the Bay Area, and moved to Stinson Beach, amazed by its low rental prices.

In 1964, Francis Coppola was 25 and just finished with film studies at UCLA, but so desperate for work and income that he made a few skin flicks. George Lucas was only 20 and just starting USC for film. I provide this chronology because you still hear the legend that those two invented Bay Area cinema. They are the giants, of course, but Korty was several years ahead of them at a time when it was still very difficult to make independent films anywhere in America.

Working out of a barn studio in Stinson, Korty produced multiple works with little support. “The Crazy-Quilt” was a 1966 feature film about a complicated marriage that was little seen. But “Funnyman,” about a San Francisco comedian who yearns to have respect, won attention a year later. A good deal of it was improvised. The whole movie was startling and much closer to French models than American habits of filmmaking. So many Hollywood norms were being abandoned — thus the success of “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate” — but “Funnyman” was a new attitude and much closer to the hippie Bohemianism of San Francisco.

It cannot have been easy for Korty as others founded the Bay Area theory of cinema. He moved in various directions, as survival can dictate: He did a feature film, “Alex & the Gypsy” (1976) that starred Jack Lemmon and Geneviève Bujold, but it didn’t impress audiences. He would be compelled to do “Oliver’s Story” (1978), a lame sequel to “Love Story,” with Ryan O’Neal and Candice Bergen. It flopped. He made “Farewell to Manzanar,” about the experience of a Japanese American family in an internment camp, before such subjects were safe.

But around the same time as those “failures,” Korty delivered “Who Are the DeBolts? And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids?” a documentary about the adoption of disabled war orphans that won an Oscar and the 1979 Directors Guild of America Award. It was a hit and, when a shorter version played on television, it received an Emmy, too. No one was surprised by this flowering of interest, for a few years earlier in 1974, Korty had made “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” with Cicely Tyson, for CBS television — and that won nine Emmys, including for best actress and best director. It was a triumph of make-up, too, as Miss Pittman went from being 23 to 110. More important, it was a landmark in the cinematic discovery of Black lives.

Korty worked very hard until around the millennium, and he had some reason to feel he had been overlooked and his work neglected. I don’t know how well he took that, but I daresay envy, resentment and going a little mad can take a fuller hold of an artist in Los Angeles than in Point Reyes. Maybe that’s sentimental. I hear Korty as an old man used to row a boat on Tomales Bay.

More to the point is that so many luminaries of Bay Area cinema knew that Korty was a quiet pioneer in realizing this might be a place for doing good work away from stardust and limelight. The community of Northern Californian filmmakers was large and distinguished — not just Coppola and Lucas, but Walter Murch, Carroll Ballard, David and Janet Peoples, Jon Else, Matthew Robbins, Phil Kaufman, Bob Dalva, Hiro Narita and many others.

Not all of them have stayed and cultivated the land. You can say Coppola and Lucas both sought to reestablish a new Hollywood in the Bay Area. In that process, they helped foster companies that became a haven for movie post-production from all over the world: American Zoetrope, Fantasy Films and Industrial Light & Magic.

This all seems a long time ago now, and too often we seem to notice a cinema in danger of giving up on real light, remote places and odd people. In that uneasy spirit, we can do worse than remember Korty, in his boat on the bay, and try to search out his pictures. There must be some meadow or inlet in Point Reyes to be named after him.

David Thomson is a San Francisco-based writer and the author of over 20 books, most recently “A Light in the Dark: A History of Film Directors” (2021) and “Disaster Mon Amour (2022).”

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