The Independent Spirit of Robert M. Young

Robert M. Young

Late in the summer of 2022, New York’s Metrograph presented a series of screenings as a tribute to brothers Irwin and Robert M. Young, whose father, Al, had founded the film processing lab DuArt in 1922. Irwin took over the company in 1960 and turned DuArt into a vital fulcrum in the emergence of American independent cinema in the 1980s. Robert cowrote, coproduced, and shot Michael Roemer’s Nothing but a Man (1964) and directed ¡Alambrista! (1977) and The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1982), and all three films have been entered into the National Film Registry. Irwin died at ninety-four in January 2022, and Robert M. Young passed away last week at the age of ninety-nine.

Bob Young started out in the 1950s making educational films and documentaries such as Secrets of the Reef (1956), a groundbreaker in the annals of underwater cinematography. In 1960, he landed at NBC, where he made Sit-In, an episode of the prime-time documentary series NBC White Paper focussing on civil-rights activists in the South, including a young John Lewis. Sit-In won a Peabody Award.

“There was something about Bob’s concrete relationship to the world that seemed very important to me,” Roemer told Nicolas Rapold in a Filmmaker interview. Young and Roemer first teamed up on Cortile Cascino (1962), a portrait of Italians living in the slums of Palermo, and a few days before it was to air, NBC shelved it. “Bob and I left NBC in anger,” said Roemer. “I think they didn’t want to put that much poverty in the American living room so they basically destroyed the opportunity to see the film. We were just determined never to have that happen again, so I said, why not make a fiction film?”

Nothing but a Man stars Ivan Dixon as a railroad worker who falls for a preacher’s daughter played by jazz singer Abbey Lincoln. “Roemer, a Berlin-born, Harvard-educated Jew, was looking to capture something essential about Black life in small-town, contemporary Alabama,” noted Nick Pinkerton in the Village Voice in 2012, and Nothing but a Man “has a commanding veracity that makes a viewer trust in its truth.” Just as truthful but shot by Young in a radically different milieu, Roemer’s second feature, The Plot Against Harry (1969), is a comedic portrait of middle-class Jewish life in New York City.

For his first narrative feature as a director, Young adapted Miguel Piñero’s play Short Eyes in 1977. Bruce Davison plays an alleged pedophile who becomes a target in prison. When Short Eyes was revived in 2003, the Voice’s Joe McGovern found that “Young’s firmly anchored direction creates an appropriate chamber ambience.”

In ¡Alambrista!, the winner of the first Camera d’Or to be presented in Cannes, Domingo Ambriz plays a Mexican farmworker who slips into California to earn money to send back to his family. “No American feature film had ever taken viewers as deep into the world of undocumented immigrants as ¡Alambrista!,” wrote Charles Ramírez Berg when we released the film in 2012.

¡Alambrista! was the first film that David Leitner blew up from 16 mm to 35 mm when he was a freshly hired technical director at DuArt. Writing for Filmmaker, Leitner explains how crucial technical innovations—many of them initiated at DuArt—were to the then-burgeoning independent filmmaking movement. And the sense of community that grew around DuArt was just as crucial. Talking to Nicolas Rapold at Metrograph Journal, filmmakers such as Susan Seidelman, Joel Coen, Lizzie Borden, and John Sayles testify to Irwin Young’s generosity of spirit.

The ethos seems to have been: let’s get the film made and out in the world, and we’ll settle accounts later. Spike Lee took his first feature, She’s Gotta Have It (1986) to DuArt. “I didn’t have the money,” Lee told Richard Sandomir in the New York Times in 2022, “but Irwin let me develop the film, print the dailies, and he gave me some slack; he’d say, ‘When you get the money, pay me.’”

The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez draws on the true story of a Mexican American farmer on the run in the early 1900s and the lore that followed. Bob Young’s “documentary style . . . gives the then-eighty-year-old story a sense of you-are-there immediacy,” wrote Charles Ramírez Berg in 2018. Gregorio Cortez is one of eight films Bob Young and Edward James Olmos worked on together. As a director himself, “I always brought the aesthetic I brought from Bob,” Olmos told Rapold. “The aesthetic was simple. You don’t romanticize. You don’t glamorize. You don’t exploit. You don’t manipulate.”

Bob Young worked with an amazing array of talent on features that ultimately made less of an impact than ¡Alambrista! or Gregorio Cortez. He directed Paul Simon in One-Trick Pony (1980), an odd and definitely not autobiographical tale about a one-hit wonder. Ray Liotta, Tom Hulce, and Jamie Lee Curtis starred in Dominick and Eugene (1988), a story of twins that has reminded some of Rain Man, which was released the same year. Willem Dafoe plays a Greek boxer at Auschwitz forced to fight his fellow prisoners for the entertainment of his captors in Triumph of the Spirit (1989). And in a perhaps unexpected career move, Young directed five episodes of Battlestar Galactica in the mid-2000s.

“We lose important people all the time,” former Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper tells Tom Brueggemann at IndieWire, “but then there are those who embodied a spirit that is truly original. Bob Young was one of those.”

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