Lyon's Share

David Velasco on the films of Danny Lyon

Left: Danny Lyon, Willie, 1985, still from a color film in 16 mm, 82 minutes. Michael Guzman. Right: Danny Lyon, Media Man, 1994, still from a color video, 60 minutes. Nancy Lyon.

“WHEN THE PRISONERS began to speak,” Michel Foucault told Gilles Deleuze during a 1972 conversation on power, “they possessed an individual theory of prisons, the penal system, and justice. It is this form of discourse which ultimately matters, a discourse against power, the counter-discourse of prisoners and those we call delinquents—and not a theory about delinquency.”

To watch certain of Danny Lyon’s films is to read Discipline and Punish through the aperture of a camera. Lyon’s figures are more than just delinquents, though, more than subjects of an academic study (such that either of these terms is anemic, attenuated by emotional distance and sterility). Most of the people featured in Lyon’s films are, in fact, friends, men (almost always men) encountered during his sojourns and projects, while shooting his numerous photo essays and making other films. There is Willie Jaramillo, the eponymous lead of Lyon’s 1985 movie, who originally appeared in Llanito (1971), the first of Lyon’s many films set in New Mexico. Another, Michael Guzman, whom Lyon met while shooting Willie, is a protagonist of Murderers, a half-hour documentary made in 2006. And there is Eddie, the undocumented migrant worker who stars in both El Chivo (ca. 1970s) and El Mojado (1974). Lyon sticks with people.

Futility is a running theme: In one scene of Willie, a man comically, desperately chops firewood with a hammer. In Media Man (1994), a stadium of fans at a bumper-car derby cheers as junkers haltingly crash into one another. Security fences, punching bags, graveyards, beat-up cars: These are Lyon’s tropes. Bleak Beauty, he calls his production company. The journeys he charts (and sometimes facilitates) are those across borders, those into and out of prison, those, often, to nowhere in particular. It’s the peculiarly American, desperate aimlessness of the underclass—our country, riven with roads, none of which take you where you want to go.

Left: Danny Lyon, Willie, 1985, still from a color film in 16 mm, 82 minutes. Willie Jaramillo. Right: Danny Lyon, Media Man, 1994, still from a color video, 60 minutes.

Lyon’s sympathies lie with those who are hard up against said borders, who are contained and who ultimately break past them only, perhaps, to be broken by them all the same. “Freedom is what I’m doin’ right now. Sittin’ down and talkin’ to you,” says Jesse Ruiz, one subject of Murderers, a man who had just spent eight and a half years in penitentiary for beating another man to death in Alphabet City with a Louisville Slugger. “Outside prison; this is freedom.” Freedom has perhaps never been so succinctly, convincingly, defined.

Rare are films that hew so closely to the vaunted spirit of “independent media.” In Lyon’s cinema, there is no studio support, little in the way of a “crew.” His unflappable wife, Nancy, often appears in the frame, smirking and hoisting a boom mic in one hand as she lugs a suitcase filled with sound equipment in the other. Credits are brief and include notes such as CHILDCARE: GABRIELLE LYON. Rare, too, are films so honest, so clear in their intentions and sympathies, yet largely free of didactic impulses. Lyon’s only agenda is to get people to talk and to get us to listen; the concerns of policy think tanks seem abstract and beyond the pale. His practice is simply the implementation of an instinct for people.

“What you guys doin’?” a man in Willie asks Lyon from behind bars.

“Uh . . . that’s a good question,” Lyon replies.

“Are you with a publication?”

“Nah, no, no. I’m makin’ a film, you know. Makin’ my own film.”

“Born to Film: The Cinema of Danny Lyon,” a retrospective of features and shorts the artist made between 1969 and 2006, runs June 20–26 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Concurrent with this retrospective, Edwynn Houk Gallery is presenting an exhibition of Lyon’s photographs.