For Better and Worse, Two Films Highlight the Cinematographer’s Craft

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Dream of
by Victor Erice

The Last
by Deborah Warner

Here’s Erice’s fascinating
definition: "Throughout the twentieth century, painters and filmmakers
have constantly observed each other, perhaps because they have had, and continue
to have, more than one dream in common–among them the perfect capturing
of light–but above all, because their work obeys–as Andre Bazin so
rightly pointed out–the same mythical impulse: the ingrained need to conquer
time through the perpetuity of forms; the desire to replace the external world
with its double…At a time like this, when the expansion in audiovisual production
has reached unimaginable proportions, the question that more than ever demands
an answer is: How do we make an image visible? How do we film it or paint it?"

Fans of movies like Independence
, Titanic or even the new, lousy Gladiator aren’t
much concerned with such questions. Most recent hit films are devoid of visual
imagination. Despite their ironic spilling-over with computer-generated imagery,
these films have no sense of light–to be more precise, they offer no illumination.
Erice concentrates on Garcia’s painstaking technique to reveal the importance
artists place on perception–a duty then transferred to how viewers regard
life. (That’s why Ridley Scott’s tv-commercial compositions and flash-cutting
won’t do.) Marking tree leaves with white dabs in relation to their balance
with the ripe, pendulous quinces (also marked white), Garcia observes his subject
through the effects of light at different times of day, position of the sun.
His is an art of patience as well as thoughtfulness and Erice clarifies that
those traits are indispensable to the creation of art. His film is structured
as though telling a story and revealing Garcia’s character (and his family
and friends) through quotidian events, but this allusion to documentarian honesty
comes from careful observation. Erice is immensely attentive to light as an
expressive medium.

This is distinct from the facile
celebration of light that was famously made by the 1992 documentary on cinematographers
Visions of Light. While that film appealed to the cult of moviemaking,
its various cinematographers’ anecdotes didn’t quite make the case
for the art of cinematography the way Erice does vicariously, implicitly. Visions
of Light
popularized the profession of movie photography for a new generation
but did not affect the general appreciation of how films look. While celebrating
famous films, it didn’t raise the cinematographer’s skill to the level
that Erice immediately recognizes in Garcia–the exacting visual concentration
that, to sentient viewers, can also be meaningful.

It is during Erice’s study of
Garcia’s craft–hand-stretching his canvas, drawing a plumb line to
create the balance for his painting from the eye–that you feel the director-to-painter’s
one-to-one correlation. Observing Garcia maintain line and structure–even
putting his nose to a quince to appreciate its ripe essence–Erice produces
a meditation on the senses. This portrait of how sight, smell and sound affect
artistic creation goes beyond painting’s two dimensions to become purely
cinematic. Occasionally widening his view beyond Garcia’s solitary work,
Erice looks at a group of Polish contractors building a wall in Garcia’s
home, the painter’s wife doing her own piecework, the music, radio and
tv broadcasts that fill out the artist’s world. (One such sequence makes
the profound suggestion that while news and politics fluctuate, art lasts.)
He dissolves from robust conversations to still lifes of the settings where
they took place. This celebrates modern experience, social exchange and family
intimacy, along with the sensuousness of the world–a legacy of Flaherty
and Joris Ivens. Dream of Light attests to the art of cinematography
by opening up Garcia’s private processes and speculating on his environmental

Jacques Rivette’s La Belle
sexily demystified artistic creation and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s
1956 The Mystery of Picasso teased esthetic revelation through a rare,
celebrated collaboration-with-the-master. But Erice pursues similar poetic insights
though his own alternately dramatic, playful and cerebral technique. The most
charming moments are Garcia’s reminiscences with an art school classmate,
the painter Enrique Gran, who stops by to pass time. (Their mutual recall and
wary friendship–Garcia in rapt concentration, Gran making eccentric nervous
movements–suggests a platonic version of the seductions in the great atelier
segment of Eric Rohmer’s Rendezvous in Paris.) Through all this
Erice explores a more up-to-date issue than Rivette and Clouzot needed to address:
How does one look at–understand–visual art, thus life? Erice makes
an issue of media. Crossing from one century to the next, he questions the meaning
of technology and work that the cinematographers in Visions of Light
(technocrats, all) left out. You can admire Dream of Light as a poetic
treatment of classical craft–and it’s special as that–but you
can take Erice’s observations further and understand how they reflect our
current, visually obtuse film culture.

At Lincoln Center’s recent Young
Friends of Film screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 Band of Outsiders,
Richard Jameson introduced the film, singling out the contribution of Raoul
Coutard, one of the French New Wave’s greatest cinematographers. "Coutard’s
ideas about light licked the guys in Dogma 95 about 30 or 40 years before they
got the notion," Jameson said. Indeed there was an era when moviegoers
paid as much attention to light as Erice and Garcia. They not only had reason
to when seeing films like Jules and Jim, Lola, Vivre Sa Vie,
Shame, Pierrot le Fou, The Wild Child but their attention
to light–to cinematography that illuminated the world and human experience–was
rewarded by the next wave of filmmaking in the 70s. It’s almost impossible
to convey to a generation wowed by The Matrix or The Blair Witch Project
how exciting it was to watch new visions of the world appear in close succession:
The Conformist, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Godfather,
Cries and Whispers, American Graffiti.

Like Coutard, photographers Vittorio
Storaro, Vilmos Zsigmond, Gordon Willis, Sven Nykvist and Haskell Wexler imparted
their own dreams of light with a sense of discovery and conscientiousness that
made them artists in league with genius-directors. Ironically, their innovations
are now regarded as quaint, like Garcia marvelously mixing colors on his palette.
On the second day of his quince tree project, Erice shows Garcia cleaning his
brushes but, pointedly, shoots the task in video. The grain of the image is
canvaslike yet ugly, marring the film’s otherwise limpid visual texture.
It’s the new way. Dream of Light makes one long for the fastidiousness
of the photographic (celluloid) method, once the technological successor to
painting. Erice’s diary of Garcia’s craft shows that everything in
art (and life) is trial and effort–even Garcia trying on shoes. But he
also, poignantly, shows Garcia and Gran still fascinated by the art in their
hands, remembering with fresh enthusiasm a teacher’s echoing instructions:
"Let’s see those hopes." "Fuller, fuller."

Slawomir Idziak, the remarkable Polish
cinematographer who worked with Krzysztof Kieslowski, imposes his own esthetic
on the films he shoots. In The Last September, Idziak’s customary
penumbral look turns the adaptation of Elizabeth Bowen’s Anglo-Irish novel
into a kaleidoscope. Lois (Keeley Hawes), the 19-year-old niece of Anglo-Irish
aristocrats the Naylors (Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon), begins her awareness
of desire and politics. Her sensitivity is contrasted with the Naylors realizing
that their comfort eroding, during a 1920s rebellion in Southern Ireland. Lois’
conflicted consciousness is conveyed through telescopes, mirrors–points
of view that change according to Lois’ personal perception. The film is
so visually extraordinary it’s not quite sensible. Idziak apparently doesn’t
share Garcia’s concern about "avoid[ing] esthetic games." He
only gets away with his folly because in the Merchant-Ivory market that The
Last September
seeks, any kind of visual luxe is regarded on a par with
the ornate estates and white linen clothes. Crazy thing is, Idziak’s style
is so suggestive of otherworldly perceptions that it cranks up Bowen’s
complexities from political, emotional concerns into cosmic speculations like
he produced for The Double Life of Veronique and his American film
The Commandments
. Yet the film doesn’t get more intense–like the
cultural revolution films Senso or 1900 or Temptress Moon–it
becomes opaque.

Where Erice used a plain visual style
to convey Garcia’s ideas on "feeling and order, reason and intuition
go[ing] hand in hand," Idziak shoots the works. Despite striking images–a
woman in a red dress crossing a blazing green field; a conversation viewed through
stained glass on the left and a clear pane on the right; or a landscape with
blue sky and black trees–Bowen’s story gets lost in a haze of esthetic
mannerisms and Kiewslowskian refracted imagery. It would take an Aleksandr Sokurov,
much less Kieslowski, to justify it.

Idziak’s style features the
point at which light and shade are blended together. In most scenes, only an
irislike center is bright, the rest is shadowed or obscure. When a worldly friend
(Fiona Shaw) tells naive Lois "Have you had a Proustian moment" the
joke isn’t just on the friend’s pretenses, but Idziak’s too.
(Although you may stifle your laugh at the sheer beauty of a later shot: a face
poking from behind an ivy-covered window and brick casement.) Idziak’s
photographic style is akin to literary descriptiveness much like Bowen’s;
it admirably suspends the narrative to emphasize the physical world, creating
emotional effect through visual sensation. But Idziak’s undisciplined ingenuity
also reminds one of this artistically callow cinema age in which flashy spectacles
like Gladiator pass for grandeur or John Alcott’s Barry Lyndon
is hailed for its beauty rather than for its thematic coherence–what Garcia
stated as respecting "the boundaries of shape."

Director Deborah Warner (a stage
veteran in her film debut) seems unable to make visual richness emotionally
direct–not always a predictable skill, as her producer, Neil Jordan, originally
a novelist, demonstrates in his own visually astute movies. In The Last September
it’s obvious that because of the cinematographer taking over, the film’s
visual expression lacks the emotional specificity Dream of Light shows
is necessary. I don’t expect most contemporary filmgoers will notice this
problem (those who see The Last September will likely go to see Maggie
Smith doing Maggie Smith anyway). But this artistic dilemma predominates in
movies in the current technological revolution. That’s why there’s
the foolishness of Dogma 95, that’s why Bean, Travail and
Mission to Mars are no longer playing, that’s why Gladiator’s
so deficient, that’s why The Matrix won the visual effects Oscar
over The Phantom Menace. The general confusion of tv misperception with
movie appreciation means we have lost the dream of light.

Next time you’re at the movies
you should ask yourself, What am I looking at?