Gordon Willis, ASC, in 1994.

Gordon Willis, ASC, “On Film,” 1994. (Photo by Douglas Kirkland.)


It is an irony worthy of the cinematographer who was dubbed “The Prince of Darkness” by Conrad Hall that one of his most controversial lighting schemes was for a set bathed in bright, shadowless, fluorescent light. Since Gordon Willis’ death from cancer on May 18 in his home in North Falmouth, Mass., critics and filmmakers have evoked his lighting of Marlon Brando and the many murky interiors in The Godfather as his signature style, and this technique has certainly been influential on several generations of younger cinematographers. But it was his lighting of the Washington Post newsroom set in All the President’s Men that was, in 1975, just as large a gauntlet thrown down in front of the Hollywood cinematography establishment.

Continue reading ‘‘Gordy’’

Michelle Stafford: From Network ‘Soap’ to Webisode Comedy



When Phyllis Summers fell down a flight of stairs on August 2, 2013, her millions of fans at first were shocked, and then lost in grief. She went into a coma and has remained so since. Family visitors to her Georgia Island bedside, including her husband, her lover, her son, and her rival, Sharon Newman, never see her face, except when Sharon does so in a fevered dream. There are some who feel that the highly sexualized Phyllis finally has gotten her due.

On October 17, 1994, then 29 year old actress Michelle Stafford debuted in the role of Phyllis Summers on the daytime television soap opera The Young and the Restless, a show that had already been airing for over twenty years on CBS. Originally conceived as a short time new character, Stafford’s Phyllis became unexpectedly popular; Stafford remained with the program for fifteen years, though she took a two-year hiatus in the late 1990s.  She was nominated for daytime Emmys ten times and has won twice. Continue reading ‘Michelle Stafford: From Network ‘Soap’ to Webisode Comedy’

Willard Van Dyke and His Mentor Edward Weston


This low angle portrait of photographer Edward Weston was taken by filmmaker/photographer Willard Van Dyke in 1932. Weston was in the full flush of his creative years. A few years earlier, Van Dyke, a young photographer, had met Weston at the opening of an exhibition of Weston’s work at San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor; shortly after, Van Dyke became his apprentice. He introduced Weston to Ansel Adams and in 1932 the three and four other local photographers formed Group f.64. Van Dyke opened a small gallery in his home, calling it “683,” his street address on Brockhurst in Oakland, a backhand reference to the famous Alfred Stieglitz Manhattan gallery “291.” In November of 1932, the De Young Museum gave the group its first show. For the next decade Weston traveled widely through California and the Southwest, part of the time under a Guggenheim Grant. He also received a commission to illustrate an edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Weston had many lovers and models during the 1920s and 1930s, especially Marguerite Mather and Tina Modotti, but when he met Charis Wilson at a concert in 1934, he knew right off that he had found the love of his life. He was still living with fellow Group f.64 founding member Sonia Noskowiak but they soon parted. He and Wilson spent the next decade traveling and working together. She was also his muse and model. Shortly after they began their relationship, Weston photographed her in a series of nude studies on the coastal dunes of Oceano near Santa Barbara. Continue reading ‘Willard Van Dyke and His Mentor Edward Weston’

‘A House Like Me': Curzio Malaparte and Jean Luc Godard

The Casa Malaparte " A House Like Me."

The Casa Malaparte “A House Like Me.”

In Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film Contempt, starring Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, Michel Piccoli, and director Fritz Lang, the house is first seen from above. Piccoli and Lang are making their way down a densely overgrown path toward the dark red edifice framed at the end of a steep promontory overlooking the Gulf of Salerno. They have been discussing the script of “Odysseus,” the film that Lang is shooting on the island of Capri.

From this point forward, up to the movie’s final right to left panning shot across the flat rooftop to the open sea beyond, the house becomes the fifth character in the movie’s drama, with  Lang directing the film within a film, quietly enduring the rants of Palance’s Joseph Levine-like producer: a vulgarian interested only in Bardot’s body and protecting his money. Palance’s Jeremy Prokosch proclaims histrionically, “Every time I hear the word ‘culture’ I bring out my checkbook.” Continue reading ‘‘A House Like Me': Curzio Malaparte and Jean Luc Godard’

Sergey Maximishin: In the Russian Tradition


Sergey Maximishin, photo by Tatiana Kuznetsova.

Sergey Maximishin, photo by Tatiana Kuznetsova.

There has long been, to my mind, a schizophrenic strain in Russian photography. It may be consequent of the still-brooding legacy from the seismic shift in all the Russian arts after Joseph Stalin came to power in the mid 1920s. The heady formalist experimentation of the previous Lenin years, with its shared aesthetic of the German Bauhaus, fell victim to the “Iron Fist” of the Georgian born dictator and his fantasies of a heroic proletariat embodied in the rubric “Soviet Realism.” It teeters even in the uneasy balance of formalism and propaganda in the films of Sergei Eisenstein. This decades long face-off between Formalism and Soviet Realism during the Stalinist years, and even through the darker years of the Cold War era, has found an unlikely coming together, a surprising synthesis, in the work of Sergey Maximishin, a contemporary photojournalist whose newsworthy images are filled with the composition, color, light, and action that are hallmarks of Russian art: formalist photography, and the dramatic humanity of Socialist Realism. A quick look back at 20th century Soviet photography gives some context for Maximishin’s stylistic integration. Continue reading ‘Sergey Maximishin: In the Russian Tradition’

Oskar Schlemmer: The Bauhaus Stairway and the Triadic Ballet

The Bauhaustreppe

The Bauhaustreppe

Until the 1983 expansion of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, with its airy escalator ride and open view to the sculpture garden below, access to the painting galleries was via a simple staircase. On the landing, midway up to the second floor, hung the above canvas. It is Oskar Schlemmer’s painting of students on the stairway of the Bauhaus, the experimental multi-disciplinary art school of 1920s Weimar Germany. It was difficult to enter MoMA’s painting galleries without a close encounter with this seminal work. It was a beacon, signaling to every MoMA visitor just how much the museum’s modernist aesthetic was tied to the Bauhaus and of MoMA’s founding director Alfred Barr’s “life-altering” 1927 visit to the school’s Dessau campus. Continue reading ‘Oskar Schlemmer: The Bauhaus Stairway and the Triadic Ballet’

For Sarah: Sept. 22, 1986–Feb. 20, 2014

01_Sarah and slate


There is a magic bubble of invulnerability that can seem to enclose a movie crew filming out on the streets, more so than on the artifice of a stage set. For just a few moments, as the cameras turn over, there exists a kind of parallel reality that lives inside that bubble. It burst on February 20 above a 100 year old, single-track railroad trestle over the Altamaha River near Doctortown, Georgia. The fallout injured half a dozen crew members of a feature film on its first day of shooting; it also killed the 27-year-old camera assistant, Sarah Jones.

No more details are needed here; we already know them. The ongoing revelations about this totally preventable incident have swept social media and trade press on an international scale—a cry of support to Sarah’s memory, but also a cri de coeur, a recognition by frontline filmmakers around the world, of our shared vulnerability— this, ironically, at a time when cutting edge digital artists are creating ever more spectacular visual effects and stunts, not in the streets, but in darkened rooms on computer work stations far removed from the hazards of physical production.

The struggle to create a cinematic illusion of reality, side by side with the all too real world, with the chaos of people living their lives indifferent or even hostile to the presence of the film crew, can create a sensory experience that is schizophrenic. Controlling that illusory reality out to the very edges of the frame constitutes a brief triumph of movie artifice. During the course of a day’s production, filmmakers move in an out of that artifice/reality bubble dozens of times. The sheer volume of the filmmaking equipment employed, the often very vocal demarcation of the shooting space by a harried assistant director or PA, easily creates a sense of magical, even mandarin-like power. “WTF, get that guy out of there. Doesn’t he know we’re trying to make a movie,” blares out of a bullhorn as some hapless gent stumbles out of a bar or a soccer mom exits a Starbucks juggling her soy latte. Continue reading ‘For Sarah: Sept. 22, 1986–Feb. 20, 2014′

Nick Brandt’s Journey ‘Across the Ravaged Land’

Elephant Footprints, Amboseli, 2012 (final image of Brandt's photo trilogy).

Elephant Footprints, Amboseli, 2012 (final image of Brandt’s photo trilogy).

It’s an unlikely starting point for Nick Brandt’s nature photography and trilogy of books on the endangered wildlife of East Africa: directing a 1995 Michael Jackson music video “Earth Song.” A plangent cry against a human and environmental apocalypse set against the still haunting images of the then recent Bosnian war—the video prompted the director/photographer to begin a more than decade long mission to record the quickly vanishing animals inhabiting the immense game parks of Kenya—especially the greatest pachyderms, elephants, whose ivory tusks are the lucrative cash crop for high tech international poachers.

Brandt’s three books, the last one published in September of 2013, document a looming tragedy—that these great beasts of the African wilderness could soon be found only in zoos and private reserves. Continue reading ‘Nick Brandt’s Journey ‘Across the Ravaged Land’’

Shintaro Katsu and the Return of Zatoichi


Shintaro Katsu

Shintaro Katsu as Zatoichi

In the mid 1960s, with the support of a large ethnic community, several of the major Japanese film studios sponsored flagship cinema screens in Los Angeles. Pre-eminent among them was the powerhouse Toho Co. home to the marauding, cinematic money machine, that supreme of all the DaikaijuGodzilla. Toho was also the studio of the films of Akira Kurosawa: Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Red Beard, and High and Low, all starring Toshiro Mifune — a relationship of director to studio reaching back to his debut, Sanshiro Sugata, in 1943. Toho’s Los Angeles movie house (now a Korean church) on La Brea Blvd. below Wilshire was a necessary weekly stop for a generation of film students from USC and UCLA. The Toho La Brea films were projected on an enormous screen, mostly in the studio’s proprietary anamorphic format, Tohoscope. Even the non-subtitled Japanese newsreels that preceded the evening’s feature were shot in anamorphic aspect ratio in a proto shaky-cam mode. Continue reading ‘Shintaro Katsu and the Return of Zatoichi’

The AMPAS Foreign Film Short List

Danis Tanovic, flanked by John Travolta and Sharon Stone with his Oscar for "No Man's Land," 2001.

Danis Tanovic, flanked by John Travolta and Sharon Stone with his Oscar for “No Man’s Land,” 2001.

From mid-October to mid-December a committee of several hundred members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences views feature film entries for the Academy Award for Foreign Language Film. Most of the entries are fictional features, but animation and documentaries are also eligible, and  in 2013 there were submissions in all three categories. The number of countries submitting varies from year to year but is on an upward arc. Last year 76 countries entered; one film was deemed ineligible.  Two countries, Saudi Arabia and Moldava entered for the first time.

The general screening committee breaks down into three groups: red, blue, and white. Members register for one of the groups,  seeing at least 16 of their group’s entries to be eligible to vote. They also receive credit on a 2 for 3 basis for films seen outside their chosen group. Members are encouraged to see as many films as possible. Some see over 50; many view more than 30. Double bill screenings are held on most weeknights and Saturday mornings. Continue reading ‘The AMPAS Foreign Film Short List’