The Rasky touch
Immodest? He has little to be Immodest about
Harry Rasky is not especially fond of swimming but he has been doing it for the better part of 30 years. In winter, his 49-year-old body churns through the waters of Toronto’s Central YMCA pool every noon hour. In summer, weather permitting, the first thing Harry does each morning is climb into his car, a 1976 Pacer, and drive 1.2 miles from his Toronto home in Rosedale to the Mooredale Community Swimming Pool, where he swims a slow crawl end to end for 15 minutes and then drives home for breakfast. When he lived in New York, he swam nearly every day at the47th Street Y. Harry Rasky is acreature of habit. He always swims for 15 minutes. He always smokes Reas’ Belvedere cigars. He always dresses as though he were playing an extra in a movie about skid row. And every year or so he turns out another well-crafted documentary for CBC television, his employer.
Since his return to Canada in 1972, Rasky has made films about Tennessee Williams, Stephen Leacock. George Bernard Shaw and Jerusalem. All have been acclaimed. His most recent work is Homage To Chagall—The Colors Of Love, a 90minute eulogy to the Russian-born painter, in praise of which critics from New York to Nice keep falling over each other. Judith Crist, a long-standing admirer, called it “glowing, a paean to life,” and staged a weekend retrospective of Rasky’s work at her Tarrytown resort. Film juries in Los Angeles and San Francisco con-
ferred awards. And there is growing consensus that Homage To Chagall will win at least an Academy Award nomination, and possibly the Oscar itself.
A more singular development will unfold this month, as Rasky’s film opens in eight Famous Players theatres across the country. It has already played to adoring audiences in six American cities, including a six-week run at New York’s Little Carnegie that drew 30,000 people. In the 25year history of CBC television, indeed in the entire history of TV on this continent, no film made for the medium—no drama, no entertainment special, no news documentary—has ever been given subsequent theatrical release. Rasky’s Homage To Chagall is the first.
This is no small achievement.
For their tenth wedding anniversary in 1975, Ruth Arlene Werkhoven Rasky— Harry’s wife—gave him a poster of Marc Chagall’s Paris Opéra mural and suggested the artist might be excellent material for a film documentary. Harry agreed. Chagall was almost 90. He had been painting for 70 years. He was universally known, almost universally loved, and whatever one thought of his work as Art it was undeniably beautiful to look at. Harry decided to go to see him.
Attending a film festival in Monte Carlo, Rasky took an unannounced side trip to Chagall’s home in St. Paul de Vence, in the south of France. He knocked at the door.
An unfriendly servant informed him that Monsieur Chagall was not at home to uninvited film makers. A large dog snarled. Harry left.
It ought to be said early on that Harry Rasky does not acknowledge failure easily, if at all. In 25 years of film making he had managed to see, among others, David Ben Gurion, Haile Selassie, the Royal House of Sweden, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Fidel Castro and Martin Luther King Jr. That Marc Chagall refused to see him was merely a temporary inconvenience, calling for new initiatives.
Back in Toronto, Rasky called powerful friends in New York, people with con. nections to Chagall. None felt close enough to play the go-between. Other avenues led to other dead ends. Some public figures, one might have concluded, are simply untouchable. That conclusion did not occur to Harry Rasky. He is tenacious. Not demonstrably tenacious, not I-havenot-yet-begun-to-fight tenacious, just dogged and persistent and absolutely relentless in pursuit of what he wants. He will not call a wrap to a day’s shooting until every last camera angle has been covered. He will not begin writing his final script until he has exhumed all relevant footage from film libraries and steeped himself in the lit-
erature of his subject, poring over texts and commentaries like a talmudic scholar and boring friends and associates with his acquired expertise.
At length, an Israeli government tourist officer suggested that Rasky try contacting Teddy Koliek, the mayor of Jerusalem. Koliek was on good terms with Chagall, already knew Rasky’s work—a framed telegram lauding Next Year In Jerusalem hangs on Harry’s office wall—and, lo and behold, just happened to be visiting Toronto and staying at the Inn on the Park under an assumed name. Rasky called the hotel and asked for the man the mayor of Jerusalem was pretending to be. The mayor answered. Harry asked to see him. “I’m leaving tomorrow and I’m busy today,” the mayor told him. “But I have breakfast at 5.30 a.m. What would you like for breakfast?”
Harry’s predawn breakfast with the mayor led to an exchange of correspondence. Koliek wrote to Chagall, praising Harry’s work. Harry wrote to Chagall asking whether he would consent to appear in the film. Madame Vava Chagall, the painter’s wife, wrote back inviting Harry to come for a visit. But she made no commitments on behalf of her husband.
Undeterred, Harry Rasky flew to France, taking a full CBC crew with him. They went directly from the airport to Chagall’s home. The servant smiled. The snarling dog was silent. Rasky screened Next Year In Jerusalem, which includes a long segment devoted to Chagall’s stainedglass windows at the Hadassah Medical Centre. The artist was pleased.
“Making this film will help me live longer, not less,” he said. “Of course, the Bible is simple; Chagall is complicated.”
Harry agreed, readily.
“Well, perhaps I will walk for your camera. But I won’t talk.”
Harry said nothing.
“But first I must go to Switzerland for 10 days. You will wait for me.”
Harry waited. He shot paintings in the Chagall museum in Nice. He shot landscapes. He shot seascapes. Finally, Madame Chagall called. “We are home. Come at 2 p.m.”
Harry was nervous. The sky was overcast. What if it rained? What if Chagall changed his mind? What if I can’t get him to talk? A $400,000 film and the man won’t talk—who needs it? Chagall walked out into his garden. He seemed in good spirits. The sun pierced the clouds. The artist looked around.
“Where do I sit?” he said.
“Don't you want me to talk?” Film crews have seldom moved so fast to light a set.
Harry Rasky is the fourth son of the late Louis and Pearl Rasky, who emigrated to Toronto from Kiev in the early 1920s and set up house in the back room of the Mackay Street synagogue, near Dufferin
and St. Clair. The room was rent-free, given in exchange for Rasky’s cantorial services. The family chicken-slaughtering business managed, nonetheless, to finance the education of eight children. Indeed. that was its purpose. Its doors closed, forever, the very day the youngest Rasky collected his university degree.
Harry Rasky went from the University of Toronto to Kirkland Lake, Ontario, where he wrote articles for a newspaper owned by Lord Thompson. He did not like the weather, which was cold, and he did not like the money, which was $27.50 a week, so he returned home, and joined the CBC in time to be present at the creation of Canadian television. Rasky was associate producer on one of the first CBC telecasts, wrote and directed the earliest versions of Newsmagazine and was part of a group destined to make a considerable impact on the medium: Reuven Frank, Lome
Greene, Arthur Hiller, Norman Jewison, Christopher Plummer. Within five years of the CBC’S birth in 1952, most of them had departed for the United States, including Rasky, who went to New York and worked for Irving Gitlin at CBS News, and then free-lanced for 12 years, selling documentaries to every major English-language network in the world. But by the early Seventies, Harry Rasky had started to think seriously about returning to Canada. The big U.S. networks were closing their doors to independent film makers.
Harry Rasky works out of a small CBC office in midtown Toronto. Like the man himself, the office is disheveled, littered with unopened editions of Variety and The New York Times, books pertaining to past and current projects, letters from far-flung admirers, coffee-stained manuscripts and video cassette tapes of Rasky’s films.
Neatness is not a factor in Harry’s life. It is possible that he sometimes runs a brush through his greying fringe of curls, but he hides the evidence well. He will walk around wearing the collar of his suit jacket up. He will sport a dry cleaning tag on the sleeve of his coat for months. He will wear the same pair of pants, torn at the pocket seam, for two weeks consecutively. Rasky rarely notices. If he notices, he does not care. Fine clothes, fine furniture, fine wines—he has no taste for them.
Beyond his wife, a Tennessee girl he met in an apartment elevator in Greenwich Village, and his two children, what Rasky cares most about is his work, a photo history of which hangs on his office walls. There is Harry with Fidel Castro in 1964. during interviews for his celebrated Cuba And Castro Today documentary. All of the sessions, including one with Che Guevara, a Minister of Industries before he discovered the joys of terrorism, were conducted after midnight, when the Cuban government opened for business.
There is Harry with James Mason in Westminister Abbey, the subject of his 1967 film. Hall Of Kings, Rasky’s first attempt to mix drama and narrative in the
documentary form. The film won an Emmy. The English placed it in a stone case and buried it in the Most Holy Vault, not to be opened for 100 years. “If you’re around at the unveiling,” Rasky told Mason, “you can collect residuals.”
There is Harry with Orson Welles, who played Michelangelo in Rasky’s Upon This Rock his 1970 film about the Vatican. To get the necessary permissions, Harry had screened Hall Of Kings for Archbishop William Carew, the Pope’s English-speaking emissary and a Canadian. Carew liked the film and wrote a memorandum asking Paul VI to sanction the new project. His Holiness initialed the memo and sent it
back—an act everyone interpreted as signifying papal authorization. No one had the temerity to ask His Holiness just what his initials meant.
There is Harry with Tennessee Williams, with whom, since the filming of Tennessee Williams’ South in 1973, he has maintained a close friendship, lunching with him once a month in New York and visiting him at the Elysee Hotel, where he lives, and where the doorman, seeing a strong resemblance between the two men, believes Harry to be the playwright’s brother and calls him Mr. Williams.
And there is Harry with the Chagalls, in the sunlit garden at St. Paul de Vence. The
film has been a kind of zenith for Rasky; certainly its reception was unlike that accorded any previous work. Every day, it seemed, there were new inquiries, calls from Madison, Wisconsin, or Portland, Oregon, calls from people who had heard about the film and tracked down Rasky to ask whether they could see it. They could. With Toronto financier Murray Koffler, Rasky had formed a company to buy distribution rights from the CBC and to market the film around the world.
He sees his work as constituting a permanent record, a legacy for future generations. “I want these films to have an endless life,” he said, “so that if you want to know Chagall and his relationship to his work you will turn to this film. I would certainly feel I had missed something if everything 1 did disappeared after I disappeared.”
Rasky is quite deliberate about it. He works in television because it reaches the widest possible audience. He hires bigname stars because their work helps his own survive. He makes 90-minute films whenever possible because in television a 90-minute show is more important than a 60-minute show. And he always goes after the Big Subject, themes with international appeal. Next Year In Jerusalem embraced the story of the Bible itself. If the Dome of the Rock could survive for 1,300 years, so might Harry Rasky.
With the same tireless enterprise with which he pursued Marc Chagall. Rasky promoted his films—and himself. Reticence he knew not. He took critics to lunch to tell them the inside story of his latest project. He wrote letters thanking them for kind and thoughtful reviews. He gatecrashed cocktail parties to bend elbows with media heavyweights. And he scripted a five-page curriculum vitae that began: “Harry Rasky is a man for all media.” It cited the titles of three unpublished novels, one unproduced screenplay and quoted John Leonard, the celebrated New York Times columnist as saying: “(Rasky is) doing better work than everyone in Los Angeles and New York.”
Harry’s promotional energies amused his colleagues. They looked at the marquee on the Little Carnegie Theatre, which read HARRY RASKY’S HOMAGETO CHAGALL and they smiled. They forgave his excesses. They learned to accept them as they had learned to admire his propensity for never having a dollar in his pocket when there was coffee to be bought. Of course some people think promotional zeal is Harry’s principal asset. By implication, the same people do not think altogether highly of his talents as director and writer. Rasky, they say, is a creative producer—little more. He gives actors free rein in interpreting their
roles. His scripts consist largely of other writings: the plays of Williams and Shaw, the poetry of Leacock and Chagall, Biblical and historical extracts. His own prose, it is said, runs to purple. He relies heavily on his cameraman, Ken Gregg, his editor. Aria Saare, and his composer, Lou Applebaum. Saare is particularly indispensable.
In sum, Rasky’s critics—including those who are simply jealous of his talent or his budget or the clout that permits him to spend more than a year on a single, 90minute film—assess his contribution to film art as slender, to film literature as modest and to film technique as virtually nonexistent. He is a packager; he identifies
popular subjects, performs magic to win their cooperation and put it all together with solid camerawork, excellent acting, brilliant editing and a lush musical score. Lew would call it Art, but in the vast wasteland of commercial television it is a flourishing oasis.
Rasky himself rejects this theory outright. “Writing isn’t just words,” he insists. “It’s not just the narrative hookup of various thoughts. It’s visual and emotional, the entire fabric of a script. As for directing. I know more about the workings of a camera than nine out of 10 directors. Ken Greggdoesn’t do anything without my approval. Indeed, the very great directors have all come out of documentaries—Karel Reisz, John Schlesinger.
“I think my greatest strength is the total linking of the three talents—writing, directing and producing. Some producers have no creativity. Some very good screenwriters can’t work with actors. I do all of those things. Not only to have the chutzpah to go after Marc Chagall and to get him. but to know how to handle him in a human way, to know how to film around him, how to link with the narrative. Everything must be orchestrated.”
Harry Rasky has always been his own best audience but he has quite a few loyalists in the crowd. Erik Barnouw, author of Tube Of Plenty, regards Rasky’s work as “very impressive” and says Rasky himself is “an important figure” in the evolution of the documentary. Toronto Sun columnist Bob Blackburn, one of Canada’s best TV critics, considers Rasky one of the two finest documentarians in the country—his other candidate being Donald Brittain.
Rasky’s inner circle is no less supportive. “I respect his intelligence,” says cameraman Ken Gregg. Despite appearances to the contrary, Gregg says. Rasky is aware of everything happening on a set and quickly responds if he sees or hears anytiling he doesn’t like. His editor. Aria Saare, with whom he worked at the CBC in the early Fifties, doubts whether there could be a more ideal person to work with. She says they have quarreled seriously only once—during the mix on Chagall.
“Harry wanted music played over James Mason’s reading of a Chagall poem. It was about the Crucifixion and 1 thought music would absolutely destroy the effect of the reading. Well. I was in the control room and Harry was on the floor and when we reached that segment I said ‘Keep the music down’ and Harry raised his palm upward and said, ‘Bring up the music.’ Nothing happened. ‘Bring up the music,’ Harry repeated. Then we stopped and 1 went down and I said, ‘Harry, you can have your music if you want it. But you won’t .have me. Because I'm going to walk out that door.’ Well, he fussed and he fiddled and he finally gave in—not very graciously. But then he told me that a New York reviewer had written that we must have been strongly tempted to use music over the poem and how wise we had been to resist the temptation. He didn’t have to tell me.”
For a very long time. Harry Rasky considered Homage To Chagall beyond embellishment. the perfect synthesis of image and language, film and narrative. But as time passed, he began to notice one or two things that did not seem quite right. Nothing major, nothing he would go back and change, just a slight flaw or two in construction or perspective. He seemed genuinely pleased by this discovery, as though it signified something more than the mere absence of absolute perfection. For just as it is characteristic of Rasky to boast that a film is “almost perfect,” so too is it characteristic of him to leave some private space for personal growth and improvement. His work on two more films—The Peking Man Mystery, an archaeological thriller, and interviews with philosopher/historians Will and Ariel Durant—are nearing completion. And he has plans for documentary profiles on Saul Bellow and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Harry Rasky is 49 years old and can look forward to perhaps another quarter century of productive film making. It would not do to reach perfection just yet. One does not want to peak too soon.'T