In a much-contested field, he was the original “Prince of Darkness.” Yet, his book on cinematography is titled Painting with Light. On the basis of his many Westerns and film noir features, you would imagine he’s a quintessentially American “guy,” but he was born in Hungary. His first dozen credits are Spanish language Latin American features and he was widely regarded by his Hollywood peers as a foppish elitist. He was a singular master of inky black and burning white lighting, yet his only Academy Award was for the stunning color palette of An American in Paris, a movie for which he photographed only a single dance sequence. His Imdb page lists over 100 pictures, yet all are features save one—and that’s the pilot for the TV series Mission Impossible which he photographed a half dozen years after his de facto retirement. Yes, John Alton was a cinematographer of contradictions.
Last year, Mary Francis, Executive Editor of Music and Film Studies at UC Press asked me to write a foreword to a new paperback edition of Alton’s book. The existing edition included a comprehensive biographical introduction of Alton’s career by critic Todd McCarthy, who had been a writer/producer on the 1992 documentary Visions of Light. That film had included a discussion of film noir and Alton’s work on The Big Combo, a late masterwork of the noir decade. Continue reading ‘John Alton: Cinematography’s Outlier, Part One’
The cathedral bells toll, signaling the end of the battle for the town of Cholula in the title sequence of the movie Enamorada, a passionate love story set during the Mexican War of Independence.
The film’s credits spill over the unfolding action. A single title card emerges through the thicket. The year is 1946; it is unusual, even here in Mexico, for a cinematographer to be allotted a separate card. But Gabriel Figueroa is a very unique cinematographer. This is the fifth film that he has photographed for the charismatic director/actor/ military hero Emilio Fernández, but still an early leg of the long journey the two have begun.
More than two dozen features together are their cinematic legacy; many of them will become key markers in the Época de Oro of Mexican cinema.
Fernandez was nicknamed “El Indio.” He was not only of a volatile temperament, but was widely feared as a “pistolero.” According to Bunuel biographer John Baxter, Fernandez “killed four men, including an extra on one of his films, and was jailed for shooting a journalist in a trivial argument over a Cannes festival prize.”
Later on, in the 50s, Fernández fell out of favor with a younger generation, and retreated back into acting, ending his career playing the Mexican heavy in American studio films like The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. Like the equally colorful Surrealist director Luis Buñuel, with whom Figueroa made seven films, Fernández cut a wide swath through the lore of film culture; it is even said that he was Cedric Gibbon’s nude male model for the famed Oscar statuette. Continue reading ‘Fotographía de Gabriel Figueroa’
Richard Leacock and his converted Auricon.
Michel Brault and his Eclair NPR.
During four days of early April 1960, four documentary cameramen photographed a young politician’s presidential primary campaign in Wisconsin. The man was 43 year-old John F. Kennedy. The cameramen were a team working with ex-Life magazine producer Robert Drew. They were: veteran Flaherty cameraman Richard Leacock, Don Pennebaker, Al Maysles, and Terry McCartney Filgate.
Don Pennebaker with Bob Dylan.
Al Maysles with his Aaton, successor to the NPR. HIs brother David is in the background.
Terry McCartney Filgate.
Kennedy was soon to become the 35th President of the United States; the five filmmakers were soon to become major figures in a new era of documentaries labeled direct cinema or cinéma vérité. Continue reading ‘The Camera(s) That Changed the World’
If there is anything axiomatic in the motion picture business, it is this: the only constant is change. It’s present in many guises: aesthetic and formal change– even in the embedded grammar and structure of movies, eruptive technological change, driven by intersecting equipment and information transformations, but most ominously for those trying to stay “ahead of the curve,” it is the unpredictable, disruptive change in distribution and exhibition models—the very how and why our movies are shown. It is the last of these, the how and why, that author Lynda Obst addresses in her new book, Sleepless in Hollywood, subtitled Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business. Continue reading ‘“Casino Cinema” and “The New Abnormal”: Lynda Obst’
If a film historian/archivist were tasked to tell the story of the United Sates of America through motion pictures, there is only one director who could answer the call: John Ford. From the Revolutionary War tale of Drums Along the Mohawk, and the legendary decades of the “Winning of the West” with his signature Westerns and his trilogy of the U.S. Cavalry, the 1930′s Dust Bowl of The Grapes of Wrath, to the 1950s mayoral contest of The Last Hurrah, the saga of American growth and triumphalism is told in his more than 140 films, most of which address the “American Experience.” Ford’s six Academy Awards, four for feature film direction, two for documentaries, remain the greatest of any filmmaker. His career spans six decades, from his earliest employment in Hollywood by his brother Francis in 1914, and his uncredited bit role the next year in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation as a hooded clansmen, to his final film, a documentary about U. S. Marine General Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, released several years after Ford’s death in 1973 at age 79. Continue reading ‘My Morning with John Ford: Through a Pilsner Glass’
Steinmetz in his 100 lb. “flying lawn chair.”
His view to the desert below, hanging from the Kevlar lines of his motorized paraglider, can be so ethereally beautiful in early morning light that photographer George Steinmetz may for just a second forget that his life hangs on the whim of an uncertain gust of wind.
Steimetz after paraglider crash in China.
The above photo, a bandage covering seventeen facial stitches, is the record of Steinmetz’s encounter with a few trees at the edge of the Gobi Desert. Continue reading ‘George Steinmetz: Up in the Air’
Escape from the Prophecy
Many years ago, when I was a girl and had just fallen in love with the boy I was going to marry, I fell asleep one night and dreamed that I was approaching a strange silo-shaped building. Before it, a frail gray man stood smiling. Behind him, on steps that spiraled into the building, bigger-than-life figurative sculptures were mounted, one after the other. Intrigued, I picked one up and found it light as a feather. I asked the old man if he knew whose sculptures these were. He answered, “they’re yours, if you want to claim them.”
Patricia’s Knop’s recounting of this dream epiphany, rich in allusive depth and metaphor, was a guide into her future life as an artist. Continue reading ‘Patricia Knop: Dreams of Flying, in Clay and on Canvas’
Director Haskell Wexler at one of his beloved Eclair CM3s.
Less than three months after releasing a new DVD of Jean Rouch’s and Edgar Morin’s landmark 1961 cinèma verité documentary, Chronicle of a Summer, the film-loving folks over at The Criterion Collection have unleashed standard-def and Blu-Ray DVDs of Haskell Wexler’s 1969 maverick feature, Medium Cool, newly remastered at 4K under the filmmaker’s supervision.
Like Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop, also re-mastered by Criterion, Medium Cool has been canonized by the National Film Preservation Board’s National Film Registry. Unlike the more accessible youth movie Easy Rider of the same period, these two maverick films have hovered for decades in a low key but persistent way in the center of consciousness of that era’s cultural and political Zeitgeist. Robert Forster’s Chicago TV news cameraman and James Taylor’s rootless “Driver” are bookends of the existentially disengaged man in a time of smoldering discontent, a time soon to erupt in the Wexler film into the chaos of the 1968 Democratic Convention. The election of 1968 yielded Richard Nixon’s Imperial Presidency and with it a polarized youth movement part of which abandoned urban streets for Weather Underground bunkers and another to the Hippie dropouts of America’s back roads and communes hinted at in the Hellman film. Continue reading ‘MEDIUM COOL: “To Preserve Disorder”’
The evening performance had begun quietly enough with Les Sylphides, a ballet set to music of Chopin. Though only four years in the repertoire of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, it was a reliable crowd-pleaser.
The audience of Parisians filling the orchestra seats, boxes and stalls had every reason to anticipate a conventional program, with leggy ballerinas in tutus and pointe shoes, fantasies of femininity, a world famously rendered in pastel by Edgar Degas.
“Blue Dancers,” Edgar Degas
Formally dressed gentlemen peering through opera glasses looked forward to post-curtain erotic rendezvous with dancers from the corps de ballet: dinner, perhaps followed by late night dalliance. Continue reading ‘“The Rite of Spring” at 100′
Winogrand on Hollywood Blvd near Las Palmas, photo by David Fahey. c. 1982
I don’t have anything to say in any picture. My only interest in photography is to see what something looks like as a photograph. I have no preconceptions.
Los Angeles, 1980-83
If you take Garry Winogrand at his word, you are left with an odd conundrum. If the act of photography is to him essentially a question in search of an answer that is found only in the photographic print—why was he so indifferent to the darkroom, and even odder, so indifferent to seeing what a print from his negatives looked like? The Leica M4 that was his stock in trade was a venerable non-reflex camera; he certainly never had the ability to see the actual image via screen check right after exposure; had he been able to shoot digitally, you have to wonder if he’d have bothered to look —being so eager to get on to that next exposure.
Los Angeles, 1980-83
Continue reading ‘On the Streets: Garry Winogrand at SFMOMA, Part Two’