Since it was produced in 1978, Final Marks has become a classic documentary about lettercutting, in both monumental inscriptions and on gravestones. The filmmakers were given complete access over a two year period to the work of the craftsmen of the John Stevens Shop in Newport, Rhode Island, the oldest business in the United States still in continuous operation in the same colonial building. It chronicles the work of John ‘Fud’ Benson, then the owner and principal designer, and, arguably, one of the most accomplished letter cutters in the world, as he and his colleagues lay out and then execute the inscriptions on the then unfinished East Building of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., designed by I.M. Pei.
While in Washington, Benson and the filmmakers revisit one of the John Stevens Shop’s most visible and demanding commissions….President Kennedy’s gravesite in Arlington Cemetery—a simple, evocative slate gravestone, and, nearby, the technically demanding series of inscriptions from his inaugural address on a dramatic, curving bench of Deer Island granite.
The second half of the film is given over to a step by step creation of an alphabet stone, commissioned by Michael Bixler, a celebrated typographer. We watch Benson design and lay out on a piece of black slate…..in pencil, then ink, then paint….the basic vocabulary of any lettercutter’s life: the Roman alphabet. The actual hand cutting of the letters is depicted in great detail, with Benson commenting throughout, the camera moving slightly closer as Benson works his way through the letters, culminating in an extended sequence, almost in ‘real time’ as he cuts an “R”, one of the more difficult of the letters. Then he and his associates finish the piece, gilding the cut letters, and polishing the stone.
Finally, the last section of the film follows Benson as he walks through the Common Burying Ground in Newport, with its wealth of beautifully lettered and decorated 18th century stones. Through his eyes, the visit becomes a surprisingly moving evocation of the beauty and power of gravestone carving in New England, and the ability of inscribed stones to record forever what should not be lost: the essential outline of an individual life.
Final Marks is available on DVD from filmmaker Frank Muhly, tel: 401-421-8836, frankmuhly(AT)yahoo.com.
More About This Film
- CINE Golden Eagle; a Silver Plaque from the Chicago International Film Festival; Red Ribbon from the American Film Festival; Best of Festival, New England Film Festival.