Monday, October 25, 2010
NYFF 2010: Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff
Let's say you've just had a nasty personal shock, and whoever happens to be with you at the moment wants to console you. A New Yorker will keep you company on a subway platform as you stand in a fog, patiently waiting as you let three trains pass. One of the Siren's fellow Southerners will offer you a Coca-Cola or, as they say in Alabama, Co-Cola, and that means the kind with sugar, hon, you need the sugar to perk you up. An Arab will make you coffee and make sure your cup is poured from the top so you get the foam. A French person usually offers the Siren a pastis, one of the many things that endears that country to her.
A cinephile, probably, would offer you Jack Cardiff, and that was what the Siren got the first day she went to the New York Film Festival, a day that already had announced itself as the rotten climax of a personally trying September. And she sat and drank every image to the dregs and felt a bit better, at least until the lights came up. So it feels churlish to say, as the Siren must, that the film is a rather pedestrian affair that will give a Cardiff fan little fresh insight. It's like telling the consolatory Frenchman there's too much ice in the pastis. All the same, despite its having provided much balm for the Siren, it's an odd duck of a documentary.
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff gives you the work with Powell and Pressburger, zips back around to cover the Hollywood period with The African Queen, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, The Barefoot Contessa, War and Peace, The Vikings and Errol Flynn's hell-raising. It then goes into Cardiff's work as a director, giving pride of place to Sons and Lovers and a bit of Young Cassidy before trailing off at the end with the likes of Rambo: First Blood Part II.
The film sticks almost entirely to the professional aspects of Cardiff's life; the one personal revelation is a brief discussion of his actor parents and his stint as a child actor. The Siren confesses to disappointment with this approach, although she knows she's supposed to pretend not to care. Cinematography is, to the Siren, the sexiest job on a set, and plenty of stills attest to the fact that Cardiff was a handsome devil. There must be more to tell than the old story about Ava Gardner wanting to be well-lit when she had her period. Oh well; Magic Hour didn't have much of the off-set life either.
Over at The House Next Door, Aaron Cutler goes into how the film was digitally projected. This the Siren, with her vast technical knowledge, registered as "hmm, the Powell-Pressburger stuff looked better at MOMA;" but with Cardiff it's an important point. The movies are represented mostly by rather brief clips, too brief for a Technicolor worshipper like the Siren. There's a great deal of Cardiff's musings on the artists that influenced his imagery; a painter himself, Cardiff loved Vermeer, Turner, the Impressionists. You also spend a lot of time with the still photos Cardiff made of actresses over the years, portraits that didn't give you much of the ladies' psychology but did show an unbelievable eye for their beauty. There are plenty of interviews--the Siren is pleased to report that Lauren Bacall looks great--but not much depth to the discussion. Cardiff talks a lot on camera but much that he says will already be familiar to anyone who's read Magic Hour.
The fundamental problem with Cameraman is that it concerns a figure who's a god to movie hounds, but (much as it pains the Siren to say this) is barely known to the general public. The director, Craig McCall, chose to pitch the movie to an audience only vaguely familiar with Cardiff. But the Siren suspects such people might not be watching a movie about a cinematographer in the first place, so why not get more daring? In another documentary screened at the NYFF, A Letter to Elia, Kent Jones and Martin Scorsese took a personal approach. So while A Face in the Crowd might be the consensus blogger vote for Best Kazan at the moment, it gets scant screen time compared with East of Eden, for which Scorsese feels a deep personal attachment. And the Siren didn't feel cheated at all. She felt like she needed to see East of Eden again.
So the Siren feels gratitude for the 86 minutes she spent with Cameraman, as she feels gratitude for the coffee, the pastis and the friend who finally waved her onto an F train. But if someone were to ask her which Cardiff scenes she'd like to see screened and discussed, in defiance of an audience wondering "hey, where's Black Narcissus," here are just three:
1. The love scene on the pier between Horst Buchholz and Leslie Caron in Fanny. The Siren would have loved to ask Cardiff about working with a director like Josh Logan, whose sense of cinematic visuals was, to put it charitably, nowhere near the level of Cardiff's own. Cardiff did say in his memoirs that he thought Logan's film had more heart than the original Pagnol trilogy.
2. The closing of King Vidor's War and Peace, with Audrey Hepburn in her red velvet dress standing out like a torch amidst the blanched ruins of her Moscow home. This movie could use some sprucing up, too, judging by the Siren's anemic-looking DVD.
3. Edmond O'Brien's telephone scene in The Barefoot Contessa, the one where he's trying to prevent a torrent of bad publicity from the title character's father having committed a murder. Shooting Ava Gardner beautifully is a wonderful thing, but getting the light just right on Edmond O'Brien's nerve-sweat is art, too.
Marilyn Ferdinand on Cameraman.
For balance, the delightful Amber Wilkinson at Eyeforfilm.co.uk, who liked Cameraman more than either Aaron, Marilyn or the Siren.
Glenn Kenny on Cardiff, here, here, here, here and here.