Sunday, May 22, 2011

SIFF — Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

Three more SIFF screenings, this time with Elizabeth. (That image to the right there? She made that on her iPhone while we waited for Cameraman to begin.)

The other two from the day were Another Earth and LOVE.

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff
U.K., 2010
SIFF's page
Official site

Some people say they want their lives narrated by Morgan Freeman. I say I want mine photographed by Jack Cardiff. It'd look so much better that way.

Cardiff was a renowned cinematographer whose work spans 73 films, documentaries, and TV series between 1935 and 2007. A key innovator in the early use of color in motion pictures, particularly the first Technicolor cameras as big as refrigerators, his nine-decade career (that's not a typo) began in 1918 as a four-year-old actor, the son of performers who occasionally worked as movie extras. Largely unschooled but a reader and autodidact, he found the first inspiration toward his life's success in a cheap porn novel -- take that, moral arbiters — and went on to acclaim working with the great Powell and Pressburger on A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus (for which he won an Oscar), and The Red Shoes. Soon he attracted the likes of Hitchcock, Orson Welles, King Vidor (on War and Peace), John Huston (on The African Queen), Laurence Olivier (The Prince and the Showgirl with Marilyn Monroe), and others well into the current century. For a while he also tried his hand at directing, his most significant film being 1960's Sons and Lovers, which earned seven Oscar nominations and won Cardiff a Golden Globe for directing. In 2001 he became the first director of photography in the history of the Academy Awards to win an Honorary Oscar. His full IMDb filmography — including "special effects camera operator (uncredited)" on H.G. Wells' Things to Come — reads like a film-school course curriculum. He died in 2009 at age 94.

That's just the raw data. To add a personal point of view, director Craig McCall followed Cardiff around for twelve years, interviewing the man at his home, at work, and at the 1998 Cannes festival where Cardiff was Guest of Honor.

Cardiff is welcoming and affable, offering up stories of being on-set with the likes of Powell and Pressburger, Marlene Dietrich (who possessed such a natural expertise for lighting that Cardiff says she could have been a fine cinematographer), Hitchcock, and other legends. Ample film clips and Cardiff's own home movies take us behind the scenes and illustrate the influence on Cardiff (also a self-taught painter) of the Impressionists as well as light-shadow-color masters such as Vermeer, Van Gogh, and Turner to make a film's photography integral to its communication of story, emotion, and psychology.

On hand for testimonials are Martin Scorsese, Lauren Bacall, Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas, Kathleen Byron, Kim Hunter, Moira Shearer, John Mills, film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and others.

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff doesn't try to be fancy or overly slick or a gushing fanboy hagiography. It's entertaining and revealing, but hardly intimate as it maintains a respectful journalistic distance. Little is revealed about Cardiff's personal life and relationships, and the most scandalous thing here is his early throw-away mention of the industry's "hypocrisy and hyperbole." Cameraman is, however, quite well made as it pulls back the curtain on Cardiff's inventive pioneering work and on an essential but too often slighted filmmaking art. Next time I watch any of his films (I really do just need to finally buy the Criterion Blu-ray of Black Narcissus), I'll be seeing them with newly aware eyes, which makes this doc a success in all the ways that count with me.

It says something about SIFF audiences that this niche documentary packed the house at 11:00 on a gray, drizzly Saturday morning, and received enthusiastic applause at the end.

Music: Joe Sample and Randy Crawford
Near at hand: Little tin of NASA SEMAA mints