One of the things non-narrative films often do that traditional narrative films don’t is pose questions without simple answers. Things get a little tougher in our case since Avery Willard, the filmmaker we are researching, is one who received precious little attention during his lifetime and is virtually unknown today. Charles Wassum Jr. (excerpted above), one of the earliest films by Willard still in existence, offers a first-hand illustration of the challenges posed by this project.
A nine-minute experimental portrait of a young man from Willard’s hometown of Marion, Virginia, the film demonstrates Willard’s keen eye at a young age and brings to mind elements of the later structural film movement of the 1970s, especially the repetition of shot composition and motion. There is a hypnotic and compelling rhythm to the cuts and mirrored frames. With little visual context, Willard is able to create a sense of intrigue around his subject, which makes for a deceptively simple and elegantly textured work.
The film’s subject “Charles Wassum, Jr.” is caught walking from his car to various buildings around town and from buildings back to his car. His outfits change from day to day, but his smile toward the filmmaker seldom wavers. Willard’s relationship to Wassum remains unknown. Was he the filmmaker’s friend? Mentor? Co-worker? An unrequited crush? A lover? Or none of the above?
So far, all our team has been able to find was an obituary for Wassum, Jr., which states that he died at age 90 in 2003, in the same Marion house he was born in, leaving behind a wife and many offspring. During his life, he was an entrepreneur responsible for planting gardens and estates from Tennessee to New England. One of his most notable works was being one of the visionaries behind the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area in southern Virginia. The obituary also says that he maintained an apartment in New York City for many years and that he was a witness to many of the most notable moments in New York City’s history during the early 20th Century: the ticker tape parade when Charles Lindbergh’s plane crossed the Atlantic in 1927, Rudolph Valentino’s funeral in 1926 and the explosion of the Hindenburgh in 1937. He also was a frequenter of speakeasies during the era of Prohibition.
But as is the case with this project, the answers we find don’t tell us the whole story. Anything we find out invariably leads to more questions, more unexplored pieces of the story, becoming part of a puzzle that may never be quite put together. Could it be possible that by seeking to solve the mystery, we may be ruining it in the process?