In his apartment on the Lower East Side of New York, Saul Leiter (1923-2013) sits in a high-backed wooden chair. Wearing a small striped scarf, one-dollar bills bulging out of his shirt’s breast pocket, he firmly states, “There is a charm to disorder…there’s too much here, everywhere.” He has been living in the same apartment for over 60 years and has photographed the surrounding neighborhood for just as long. Boxes upon boxes of negatives and prints lay untouched, tabletops dipping from the weight.
When watching In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter, we would do well to believe that a man with such a rich artistic history in photography has a grand story to tell. He has amassed an enormous collection of prints, but garnered much less of a popular reputation than contemporaries like Andy Warhol. In his piecing together fragments of Leiter’s disorderly existence, filmmaker Tomas Leach relies upon a pitfall of too many documentaries produced about aging artists—that a solemn wisdom should emerge vis-à-vis their work and be shared with fellow aspiring artists. The end result poses as unsuccessful, for Leiter is as indifferent to his legacy of pioneering color photography as his yawning cat.
While the film deserves no scathing review that would disarm its intention to allow us to get to know the light-hearted soul of Leiter a little better, it leaves us to question what exactly the 13 lessons are, even though Leach does mold something out of Leiter’s “pleasant confusion.” This is partly due to the fact that the film is erected on a disjuncture involving a self-mocking artist who would rather avoid at all costs such a serious proposition to provide a life philosophy, not to mention a documentary made about him and his work. What feels awkward is the sincerity emitted in one moment from a sentimental piano-string soundtrack, and then in the next, seeing Leiter cup his hands to his face, laugh, and ask rhetorically, “Am I a giant straddling the mountains of photography?” This is the artist at his best, but perhaps the tone of the film moves to places where we don’t want it to go at times.
A more persevering idea, one arising naturally from the documentary tradition, is the self-reflexivity enveloping such a character as Leiter. In many scenes throughout the film, he acknowledges the presence of the camera team, childishly informing strangers on the street that they are making a film about him. This reflexive timbre implies a lofty detail about Leiter’s own being—he is perpetually reminded of his work when he has literally been living in it for over 60 years. And when he bends to dust a section of the floor in his apartment, and we see a book entitled A Captive of Time resting supine on a table behind him, an image of this artist standing still, perhaps inside himself, surrounded by every little piece of his life’s achievement, is forged in our mind.