For Better and Worse, Two Films Highlight the Cinematographer's Craft

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:54

    Dream of Light directed by Victor Erice

    The Last September directed by Deborah Warner Here's Erice's fascinating definition: "Throughout the twentieth century, painters and filmmakers have constantly observed each other, perhaps because they have had, and continue to have, more than one dream in common?among them the perfect capturing of light?but above all, because their work obeys?as Andre Bazin so rightly pointed out?the same mythical impulse: the ingrained need to conquer time through the perpetuity of forms; the desire to replace the external world with its double...At a time like this, when the expansion in audiovisual production has reached unimaginable proportions, the question that more than ever demands an answer is: How do we make an image visible? How do we film it or paint it?"

    Fans of movies like Independence Day, Titanic or even the new, lousy Gladiator aren't much concerned with such questions. Most recent hit films are devoid of visual imagination. Despite their ironic spilling-over with computer-generated imagery, these films have no sense of light?to be more precise, they offer no illumination. Erice concentrates on Garcia's painstaking technique to reveal the importance artists place on perception?a duty then transferred to how viewers regard life. (That's why Ridley Scott's tv-commercial compositions and flash-cutting won't do.) Marking tree leaves with white dabs in relation to their balance with the ripe, pendulous quinces (also marked white), Garcia observes his subject through the effects of light at different times of day, position of the sun. His is an art of patience as well as thoughtfulness and Erice clarifies that those traits are indispensable to the creation of art. His film is structured as though telling a story and revealing Garcia's character (and his family and friends) through quotidian events, but this allusion to documentarian honesty comes from careful observation. Erice is immensely attentive to light as an expressive medium.

    This is distinct from the facile celebration of light that was famously made by the 1992 documentary on cinematographers Visions of Light. While that film appealed to the cult of moviemaking, its various cinematographers' anecdotes didn't quite make the case for the art of cinematography the way Erice does vicariously, implicitly. Visions of Light popularized the profession of movie photography for a new generation but did not affect the general appreciation of how films look. While celebrating famous films, it didn't raise the cinematographer's skill to the level that Erice immediately recognizes in Garcia?the exacting visual concentration that, to sentient viewers, can also be meaningful.

    It is during Erice's study of Garcia's craft?hand-stretching his canvas, drawing a plumb line to create the balance for his painting from the eye?that you feel the director-to-painter's one-to-one correlation. Observing Garcia maintain line and structure?even putting his nose to a quince to appreciate its ripe essence?Erice produces a meditation on the senses. This portrait of how sight, smell and sound affect artistic creation goes beyond painting's two dimensions to become purely cinematic. Occasionally widening his view beyond Garcia's solitary work, Erice looks at a group of Polish contractors building a wall in Garcia's home, the painter's wife doing her own piecework, the music, radio and tv broadcasts that fill out the artist's world. (One such sequence makes the profound suggestion that while news and politics fluctuate, art lasts.) He dissolves from robust conversations to still lifes of the settings where they took place. This celebrates modern experience, social exchange and family intimacy, along with the sensuousness of the world?a legacy of Flaherty and Joris Ivens. Dream of Light attests to the art of cinematography by opening up Garcia's private processes and speculating on his environmental muse.

    Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse sexily demystified artistic creation and Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1956 The Mystery of Picasso teased esthetic revelation through a rare, celebrated collaboration-with-the-master. But Erice pursues similar poetic insights though his own alternately dramatic, playful and cerebral technique. The most charming moments are Garcia's reminiscences with an art school classmate, the painter Enrique Gran, who stops by to pass time. (Their mutual recall and wary friendship?Garcia in rapt concentration, Gran making eccentric nervous movements?suggests a platonic version of the seductions in the great atelier segment of Eric Rohmer's Rendezvous in Paris.) Through all this Erice explores a more up-to-date issue than Rivette and Clouzot needed to address: How does one look at?understand?visual art, thus life? Erice makes an issue of media. Crossing from one century to the next, he questions the meaning of technology and work that the cinematographers in Visions of Light (technocrats, all) left out. You can admire Dream of Light as a poetic treatment of classical craft?and it's special as that?but you can take Erice's observations further and understand how they reflect our current, visually obtuse film culture.

    At Lincoln Center's recent Young Friends of Film screening of Jean-Luc Godard's 1964 Band of Outsiders, Richard Jameson introduced the film, singling out the contribution of Raoul Coutard, one of the French New Wave's greatest cinematographers. "Coutard's ideas about light licked the guys in Dogma 95 about 30 or 40 years before they got the notion," Jameson said. Indeed there was an era when moviegoers paid as much attention to light as Erice and Garcia. They not only had reason to when seeing films like Jules and Jim, Lola, Vivre Sa Vie, Shame, Pierrot le Fou, The Wild Child but their attention to light?to cinematography that illuminated the world and human experience?was rewarded by the next wave of filmmaking in the 70s. It's almost impossible to convey to a generation wowed by The Matrix or The Blair Witch Project how exciting it was to watch new visions of the world appear in close succession: The Conformist, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Godfather, Cries and Whispers, American Graffiti.

    Like Coutard, photographers Vittorio Storaro, Vilmos Zsigmond, Gordon Willis, Sven Nykvist and Haskell Wexler imparted their own dreams of light with a sense of discovery and conscientiousness that made them artists in league with genius-directors. Ironically, their innovations are now regarded as quaint, like Garcia marvelously mixing colors on his palette. On the second day of his quince tree project, Erice shows Garcia cleaning his brushes but, pointedly, shoots the task in video. The grain of the image is canvaslike yet ugly, marring the film's otherwise limpid visual texture. It's the new way. Dream of Light makes one long for the fastidiousness of the photographic (celluloid) method, once the technological successor to painting. Erice's diary of Garcia's craft shows that everything in art (and life) is trial and effort?even Garcia trying on shoes. But he also, poignantly, shows Garcia and Gran still fascinated by the art in their hands, remembering with fresh enthusiasm a teacher's echoing instructions: "Let's see those hopes." "Fuller, fuller."

    Slawomir Idziak, the remarkable Polish cinematographer who worked with Krzysztof Kieslowski, imposes his own esthetic on the films he shoots. In The Last September, Idziak's customary penumbral look turns the adaptation of Elizabeth Bowen's Anglo-Irish novel into a kaleidoscope. Lois (Keeley Hawes), the 19-year-old niece of Anglo-Irish aristocrats the Naylors (Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon), begins her awareness of desire and politics. Her sensitivity is contrasted with the Naylors realizing that their comfort eroding, during a 1920s rebellion in Southern Ireland. Lois' conflicted consciousness is conveyed through telescopes, mirrors?points of view that change according to Lois' personal perception. The film is so visually extraordinary it's not quite sensible. Idziak apparently doesn't share Garcia's concern about "avoid[ing] esthetic games." He only gets away with his folly because in the Merchant-Ivory market that The Last September seeks, any kind of visual luxe is regarded on a par with the ornate estates and white linen clothes. Crazy thing is, Idziak's style is so suggestive of otherworldly perceptions that it cranks up Bowen's complexities from political, emotional concerns into cosmic speculations like he produced for The Double Life of Veronique and his American film The Commandments. Yet the film doesn't get more intense?like the cultural revolution films Senso or 1900 or Temptress Moon?it becomes opaque.

    Where Erice used a plain visual style to convey Garcia's ideas on "feeling and order, reason and intuition go[ing] hand in hand," Idziak shoots the works. Despite striking images?a woman in a red dress crossing a blazing green field; a conversation viewed through stained glass on the left and a clear pane on the right; or a landscape with blue sky and black trees?Bowen's story gets lost in a haze of esthetic mannerisms and Kiewslowskian refracted imagery. It would take an Aleksandr Sokurov, much less Kieslowski, to justify it.

    Idziak's style features the point at which light and shade are blended together. In most scenes, only an irislike center is bright, the rest is shadowed or obscure. When a worldly friend (Fiona Shaw) tells naive Lois "Have you had a Proustian moment" the joke isn't just on the friend's pretenses, but Idziak's too. (Although you may stifle your laugh at the sheer beauty of a later shot: a face poking from behind an ivy-covered window and brick casement.) Idziak's photographic style is akin to literary descriptiveness much like Bowen's; it admirably suspends the narrative to emphasize the physical world, creating emotional effect through visual sensation. But Idziak's undisciplined ingenuity also reminds one of this artistically callow cinema age in which flashy spectacles like Gladiator pass for grandeur or John Alcott's Barry Lyndon is hailed for its beauty rather than for its thematic coherence?what Garcia stated as respecting "the boundaries of shape."

    Director Deborah Warner (a stage veteran in her film debut) seems unable to make visual richness emotionally direct?not always a predictable skill, as her producer, Neil Jordan, originally a novelist, demonstrates in his own visually astute movies. In The Last September it's obvious that because of the cinematographer taking over, the film's visual expression lacks the emotional specificity Dream of Light shows is necessary. I don't expect most contemporary filmgoers will notice this problem (those who see The Last September will likely go to see Maggie Smith doing Maggie Smith anyway). But this artistic dilemma predominates in movies in the current technological revolution. That's why there's the foolishness of Dogma 95, that's why Bean, Travail and Mission to Mars are no longer playing, that's why Gladiator's so deficient, that's why The Matrix won the visual effects Oscar over The Phantom Menace. The general confusion of tv misperception with movie appreciation means we have lost the dream of light.

    Next time you're at the movies you should ask yourself, What am I looking at?