Sunday, September 4, 2011

Pictures that move the viewer

About 20 years ago, the Japanese network NHK co-produced a great documentary about the history of cinematography called Visions of Light, primarily to demonstrate the quality of the high-definition television system NHK was developing. (Ironically, this film is not available in a high-def format, at least not in the US.) That film did more to change me from a movie fan to an analytical viewer of film than any book or college course. It was a powerful wake-up as to how important the actual images that make up a film are to the impact of the film and the significance of the cinematographer in the history of not just film style, but narrative itself.

Another film that performs a similar function IS available in high definition (which is the way I saw it on Netflix) is Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010). As the photographer of Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and African Queen, Cardiff is probably the first consistently great photographer in Technicolo(u)r. US studio technicians such as Leon Shamroy and Harold Rosson were very good, but they were primarily decorative. Cardiff's work is deeply expressive, and he became an indispensable collaborator with his directors (most famously Michael Powell).

I don't have a good clip to post for Cameraman with its marvelous mix of clips and interviews and especially Cardiff's incredible work as a painter. But here is an excerpt from Black Narcissus that demonstrates why his work with color as a storyteller has never been equaled to this day:

And if you want to see all of Black Narcissus or Camerman, they're both on Netflix streaming, so you could go there right now (as well as The Red Shoes and Cardiff's best film as a director, Sons and Lovers).

If they don't open your eyes as to what color CAN mean to film storytelling when it's not taken for granted, then you probably knew already.

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