Above His Station

Those fond of appropriating F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that “the very rich are different from you and me” rarely include the follow-up—the part about why they are so. “They possess and enjoy early,” Fitzgerald explained in The Rich Boy, “and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful.” This awareness might have first sprouted during his years at the St. Paul Academy, where he shared a private education with the sons of lumber barons and grain tycoons. Fitzgerald’s use of the inclusive “you and me” is somewhat attenuated, of course, given that he was at least sharing lavatories with them. But in Paris Hilton’s America (let’s allow Barbara Bush to speak for herself), where the slightest hint of a persona can seize fame when backed by a trust fund the size of Belgium, Fitzgerald’s indictment of the rich kid whizzing decadently into the next urinal still resonates.

Jerome Hill, class of ’22, would likely have proved the exception had he not attended the academy a decade after Fitzgerald. Jerome demonstrated an earnest and incisive creative talent from an early age. And he was rich in the veriest sense. His grandfather was James J. Hill, empire builder and the patriarch of Summit Avenue, where his Romanesque mansion and the cathedral he built to honor his wife’s Catholicism still form the gateway to the grandest procession of homes in Minnesota. Jerome grew up next door, and fortune allowed him to self-publish a volume of poetry in his adolescence, to acquire a music degree at Yale, to master painting in the academies of Paris, and to contemplate the art of photography with Edward Weston.

Yet such was the demand for seemly perfection amid all that wealth that the Hills’ home movies were filmed by Hollywood newsreel crews. Hill tells the story in the autobiographical Film Portrait of his artistic young self having to lark for the camera in front of an easel that held a painting left professionally unfinished by a hired artist. Hungry for a life beyond the striving capitalism of his family, Hill found a spiritual home as a young man in the Provençale town of Cassis, where he began to summer in 1931. He eventually acquired a villa there that became a veritable summer camp for artists, a place where hands and minds could never idle. He supported still more artists financially, and used his resources to compose, paint, photograph, and film with humbling diligence. Indeed, that very multidisciplinary productivity and his generous distribution of the wealth behind it may have prevented Hill’s reputation as a serious artist. Nonetheless, the avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage, a friend and associate during Hill’s later years, was convinced that Hill achieved artistic success despite his wealth.


Hill made his largest creative splash in cinema. (Walker Art Center pays tribute with A Filmmaker and His Legacy, four nights of screenings featuring his films and those of filmmakers supported by his foundation, from November 16 to 19.) He began to experiment seriously with the medium during the twenties and thirties, when the art of cinema was still young. In 1939, he collaborated with the Austrian Otto Lang on a short reel about alpine skiing on Washington’s Mount Rainier that received wide distribution in American theaters. During World War II, he produced training films for the American Army, and brought to his service many archived photographs of the south of France that were helpful for military intelligence.

Hill’s first independent effort after the war was his 1950 film portrait of Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses. The director could not have been more different from his subject. Grandma Moses did not take up painting until she had farm-raised, fledged, and then outlived half of her ten children, and at that late hour only because her hands were ruined for domestic toil. Hill was a gay man approaching middle age who had learned to paint with one hand while the other clutched a silver spoon. But his admiration for Moses and her work is obvious. The opening scenes, which depict the nonagenarian’s domestic life, go a little heavy on the syrup and hokum. But a signature of Hill’s oeuvre is his trust in the ability of images to speak for themselves, and a five-minute idyll late in the film features only music, a few sounds, and slow panning across a variety of her paintings to great effect.

Grandma Moses was nominated for an Academy Award, as was Hill’s next effort, a feature-length documentary about Albert Schweitzer, a name once synonymous with selfless Christian charity. Hill portrays the wizened physician and theologian’s sworn enmity to human misery with reverence: A lengthy scene recording Schweitzer’s rendition of a Bach prelude on the church organ in his native Alsatian village expresses pitch-perfect solemnity. Hill and his cinematographer Erica Anderson also spent weeks at Schweitzer’s hospital deep in the interior of Gabon in West Africa, where fungus crept into their lenses and the subtropical heat melted the film soon after exposure if it was not promptly dispatched. The film shoulders the white man’s burden during a few uncomfortable moments, due largely to screen idol Frederic March’s voicing of translations of Schweitzer’s writings. But Hill also lingers on the faces of the ill and destitute with a tenderness well beyond pity, and a final sequence that ponders what it means to be human against this backdrop of suffering and cultural isolation is transcendent and powerful. The effect was rewarded: Hill won the 1958 Oscar for best documentary feature.

He intended thereafter to profile the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. But after much preliminary work, Hill decided instead to pay allegorical tribute to Jung’s theories about dreams and the collective unconscious. Albert Schweitzer had consumed years of Hill’s creative life; a narrative film shot without professional actors on a single location seemed more manageable yet still challenging. The Sand Castle (screening at the Walker on November 18) ran during the summer of 1961 in New York and San Francisco, receiving generally positive reviews as a victory for America’s fledgling independent cinema. The central character is a young boy who captivates a gathering throng at the beach by sculpting a Mont St. Michel of sand. Hill camped it up with the supporting characters, archetypes all—a cavorting frogman, a martini-swilling fatso, a gaggle of nuns playing baseball—but the film is firmly rooted in the boy’s creative diligence. In a brilliant example of filmic layering, Hill cast his own dexterous hand for the close-ups of a painter’s evolving portrayal of the scene, a clear reference to the home movies of Hill’s youth. A cleverly animated dream sequence imparts the lesson that the artist has nothing to fear from the destruction of what he has wrought, for it all is deeply rooted within the mind. Hill portrays the sand castle as the perfect metaphor for ephemerality: The film ends as the boy watches without regret as his fortress is breached by the rising tide.


The sixties began in earnest for Jerome Hill sometime before he was quoted in the New York Times in 1964 saying he intended to work on a project about LSD: “The dreams, or euphoria, or call it what you will, that it induces are, I’m convinced, dramatic stuff.” While Open the Door and See All the People, released that same year, was therefore not that film, it shows signs of being under the influence. Hill attempts to weave a story of love and manners through the contrasting worlds of aged twin sisters, one rich, one of modest means. One would think, given this disparity, that Hill hoped to cast a few stones at his lofty origins. But the resulting farce is hamstrung by the lack of professional acting, and the action careens from one scene to the next, somehow culminating in a massive food fight between rival Chinese restaurants. Aside from a few memorably odd and funny scenes—notably the sisters’ different reactions as they consecutively drive past an apparent car crash—the film tends to leave the viewer looking for footnotes. The score by Alec Wilder—a gifted composer who wrote for Frank Sinatra, Stan Getz, and Marian McPartland, among many others—was his fourth collaboration with Hill, and is the film’s finest asset.

A longtime resident of Manhattan’s Algonquin Hotel, Hill became a part of New York’s avant-garde with his post-Schweitzer works, and collaborated with Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas, among others, to found Anthology Film Archives. (Mekas was a film diarist of Warhol’s New York, and his Walden features cameos by Allen Ginsberg, John Lennon, and Yoko Ono, as well as a time-lapse document of Hill’s Cassis villa.) He released several short films during this period, but he also worked on his legacy. He created two foundations, now called the Jerome and Camargo foundations, which have aided the development of artists in all disciplines. (Film projects supported by the Jerome Foundation screen on November 16 and 17.) And very quietly, according to Mekas, Hill made strategic financial contributions to ensure the establishment of an American cinema independent of Hollywood.

Of course, Jerome Hill being a tireless artist, part of that legacy is his final cinematic creation, the brilliant, autobiographical Film Portrait. (A newly restored print screens on November 18.) Employing home movies, animations, and dramatizations, Hill traced the development of his own aesthetic parallel to the nascent art form of cinema. Given the means of his childhood, his family did not simply rent showings of the latest releases; they acquired the reels. In Film Portrait he ponders the effect that this collection, including the wondrous films of George Méliès (A Trip to the Moon), had on his artistic development: “What an advantage to be able to learn films by heart, as if they were pieces of music.” Cinema, “the seventh art” in Hill’s nomenclature, triumphs by seizing the ephemeral, by capturing “the eternal moment.” Footage of his own engagement in the editing process walks a tightrope between art and documentary—artist, editor, photographer, ontologist—successfully enough that Film Portrait nearly succeeds in defining its own metaphysics. As Mekas put it simply, the notion of film autobiography was entirely unique at the time. With subtle grace and wit, Hill wonders: “Isn’t voyeurism at the core of the cinematographic sense?”

The Walker’s series culminates on November 19 with “An Evening with Todd Haynes”—screenings of Far From Heaven (2002) and Poison (1991) and a discussion with the director, whose early work was supported by the Jerome Foundation.