CHARLOTTE NEWS PROFILE, June 28, 2007
by Chris Ingrahm
Charlotte filmmaker Jan Cannon stands in a stall in his goat barn. He wrestles a bewildered newborn kid toward its equally confused mother to assist with a critical first feeding. Two more kids stumble around the enclosure, bleating the dismay of all animals that find themselves suddenly and inexplicably thrust into existence. One stall over the rest of Cannon's goat herd – all seven of them - jostle and crowd the walls of the pen, curious about the newcomers and indignant at still being cooped up inside on a fine June morning. Cannon is quite literally up to his elbows in obstinate goats, and at this moment there is no happier man in Charlotte.
“Look at them,” he says, gesturing toward the three newborns, “They're so beautiful.” Spoken by someone who's spent the better part of a lifetime in search of beauty and its expression, these words carry more than usual weight. For over 20 years Cannon worked as a studio potter, and he now devotes his artistic energies exclusively to filmmaking. His recent documentaries include RADICALLY Simple, a profile of sustainability guru Jim Merkel, and Marching for Action on Climate Change: Five Days Across Vermont with Bill McKibben and Friends, a film about last year's march for global warming awareness.
On the surface, pottery and documentary films don't seem to have much in common. Cannon's work with clay was inspired by what he calls the “simple, elegant beauty” of Eastern art. He spent nearly two years in China, Korea, and Japan, studying local ceramic traditions. Part of pottery's appeal for Cannon was its potential for non-verbal, non-intellectual meaning. “I am fascinated by the processes of pottery and the possibilities of making the most basic elements of life—earth, water, fire, air and ether—eloquent,” he says in the artist's statement on his website. In his studio, he explains further: “With pottery there isn't any narrative assistance – you simply have line in relation to line, color in relation to color. It's something purely intuitive, almost spiritual.”
Cannon's studio is filled with his creations. Plates and pots and bowls sit quietly upon shelves, their austere beauty infusing the room with a sense of calm. Some bear minimalist motifs that could either be impressions of leaves and branches or simply abstract lines. One is hesitant to lavish words upon Cannon's ceramic works, as in some way that would defeat their purpose.
While his pottery exists in a world of non-verbal meaning, recent global developments impelled Cannon to speak more directly, even politically, through his art. He became deeply concerned with environmental and sustainability issues, and credits the title of Jim Merkel's book, Radical Simplicity, with inspiring him to begin approaching these issues through the medium of film. For Cannon, the jump from pottery to film was a logical one – before becoming a potter, he had worked for fifteen years in filmmaking in Florida and Boston as a cameraperson and film editor.
“In addition to expressing beauty you can also inspire and inform people through film,” Cannon says. “It's more down-to-Earth than pottery; it has a little more breadth, though not the depth.” After reading Merkel's book, Cannon was inspired to inform people about the man behind it. Merkel's mission is to teach folks how to live a simpler lifestyle that doesn't deplete the earth's resources at a wildly unsustainable pace. In creating the documentary, Cannon employed a radically simple filmmaking style: there are no fades, dissolves, fancy transitions, or flashy effects.
“I bring a different sensibility to making films,” says Cannon. “The trend nowadays is a lot of jumpiness, a lot of noise. I'm not comfortable with that. The elegant beauty of Eastern art was very formative for me – in film, maybe I'll linger on a shot longer. I'm quite patient; I want people to have time to absorb. I don't mind being slow.”
The opening minutes of RADICALLY Simple show Jim Merkel walking down to a stream, buckets in hand, to collect the day's drinking water. The sequence is a beautiful illustration of Cannon's technique. The ambient sound of the woods provides the backdrop as Merkel goes about his morning routine through a series of static camera frames. He dips his buckets into the stream, fills them, and hangs them off a yolk draped across his shoulders.
Cannon devotes several seconds' time to shots of water striders skimming across the stream. As he explains it, these shots are the key to the entire sequence. “These bugs are so critical to telling the story – they tell you that the water is alive, that it is part of a larger system.” The presence of the striders was entirely unanticipated – Cannon had a few minutes of downtime after the unexpectedly brisk air chilled Merkel's feet, causing him to run back to his house for a pair of shoes. It wasn't until then that Cannon noticed the insects and filmed them. “That's the serendipity of art,” he says. “You try to anticipate, try to plan, but you've got to be receptive to the opportunities that come up.”
Cannon is an independent filmmaker in the truest sense of the word: he employs no assistants and outsources nothing, nor is he attached to any film studio. His is strictly a one-man show, which has its benefits: “I can achieve an intimacy with my subjects in a way that larger productions can't,” he says. The greatest challenge to such an operation, however, is distribution and financing. He'd like to distribute Marching for Action on Climate Change for free on the Internet, in part because he believes so strongly in the call to environmental action put forth by people like Jim Merkel and Bill McKibben. But the costs of bandwidth, hosting, and other logistical requirements are daunting. “One of the real struggles of independent film making is the economics of it,” Cannon says. “This is an experiment – it's not certain I'll be able to continue doing it.”
It is certain, however, that the loss of Cannon's film making would be an unfortunate loss for Vermont's cultural landscape. He's currently wrapping up shooting on a film about children's author/illustrator William Accorsi, and is putting the finishing touches on Health & the Hive, a film about beekeeping at Honey Gardens Apiaries.
Cannon says he may return to pottery at some point in the future, but for right now his documentary work is too time-consuming and, quite frankly, too urgent to divert his attention anywhere else. Pottery remains in the back of his mind, however. In his studio sits a desk dominated by a wide-screen computer monitor surrounded by external hard drives, technical books, and boxes of editing software: the raw materials of film making in the digital age. Cannon chuckles as he points out that several years ago, his potter's wheel stood in precisely the same spot.
You can view trailers and clips for several of Cannon's documentaries at www.jancannonfilms.com