A cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, of England, waited until age 95 to leave us. He had a story of 70 years of defining and designing how the light looks in movies – chiefly British ones. His reputation across the pond was so eminent that independent filmmaker Craig McCall (not a household name in American movies) just had to make a film about his talents, his contributions and ambitious & zealous artistry. That’s “Cameraman: the Life and Work of Jack Cardiff.”
When was the last time you went to a movie and considered who was in-charge of its look or visual attitude? Cardiff and others talk about how he was inspired by painters, particularly impressionists, such as Vincent Van Gogh and Johannes Vermeer, to light for drama and emphasis. In fact Christopher Callis, one Mr. Cardiff’s peers, said that he helped to found the British movie look.
In the late 1940s his work founded his reputation as a go-to cameraman, and as a man who was game for artistic risks. His big break came with 1946′s “Matter of Life and Death” aka “Stairway to Heaven” in America. His work on 1947′s “Black Narcissus” helped to forge his reputation; the lighting and look of it are extraordinary, bold and evocative. It showed new ways to see and understand how artistic a film could be. In addition, he worked on the first ever documentary that wasn’t a travelogue: 1945′s “Western Approaches.”
Martin Scorsese, a renowned American movie icon, whose voice seems to out weigh several of the others in this film, described Mr Cardiff’s work as “painting in-motion.” To that point, Orson Welles once called movies “an enormously expensive paint box,” which is another way to say just how Cardiff expressed his talents when directors gave him the led-way.
In a couple of books about Mr. Scorsese, he describes how he reveres English filmmakers, especially Michael Powell, and the degree to which they inspired his own work. “Cameraman” uses a brilliant split screen that briefly illustrates point-by-point, on how Mr. Powell’s “The Red Shoes,” from 1948, showed a daring new way to show point of view: from the mind’s eye of a performer. Rewatch in boxing scenes in 1980′s “Raging Bull” after watching “Red Shoes’” dance scenes – you’ll get it.
This is a niche movie; there aren’t a lot of people who watch documentaries. And this isn’t the first documentary about a director of photography, or a group of them.
During an audience Q & A with the filmmaker, Craig McCall, after the first screening, at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, he said that this, which he spent 13 years making independently, was inspired at least in part by the American Film Institute’s (AFI) 1992 documentary “Visions of Light.”
That’s an extraordinary documentary about American movie aesthetics, and specifically about movie lighting and those men – mostly – who made movies like how they do. McCall had wanted to make a version about cinematographers from the United Kingdom, but… he hadn’t the AFI’s wallet.
McCall calls this a conversation with Mr. Cardiff – that’s the style. Movie’s usually summarize some part of our world, and how we understand or want to understand it. Maybe cinematography summarizes how freely we might use our imaginations, or how open it is, when watching movies.
If you’re the kind of movie-goer who goes to film festivals or habitually checks out the special features on DVDs, which are barely and rarely special these days, then “Cameraman” is great. Even if you’re not…You’ll have a lot of fun while learning fascinating details about movies and how they’re made.