Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Just a Little Inspiration

I've been in a bit of a funk lately when it comes to writing on my blog. It's not the fault of the movies (a quick browse of my favourites from 2011 show plenty of titles about which one can be excited - in particular the about-to-be-released magnificent Cafe De Flore), but for whatever reason I haven't felt the urge to post about random titles I've been watching. The "inspiration" just hasn't been there.

And then the other night I finally got around to watching "Cameraman: The Life And Work Of Jack Cardiff". Though a fairly straight-ahead documentary mixing talking head interviews, scenes from his movies and archival clips and photos, it was a bit of the tonic I needed. Shortly after covering the stunning cinematography of Cardiff's work on "A Matter Of Life And Death" (aka "Stairway To Heaven"), "Black Narcissus" and "The Red Shoes" (a 1-2-3 punch he did with directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), I paused the film and went upstairs to babble incomprehensibly to my wife. Just that single scene from "Black Narcissus" of Sister Ruth - out of her frock and now dressed in deep crimson with everything except a single deadly look drained from her face - should be enough to kick start any film lovers heart, but seeing it bookended with the glorious staircase from heaven in "A Matter Of Life And Death" and any of the random scenes from the ballet section of "The Red Shoes" is almost too much to process at one time. It's an overload of luminous creativity. I failed miserably in conveying this to my wife, but it was right there in front of me - inspiration.

Delving into the rest of the film, it only deepened as I listened to Cardiff talk about where he receives his own inspiration. His love of art covers several realms, but the biggest influence for him is work by some of the master painters. He gathered ideas for lighting from Turner and Degas and many others and incorporated them all into his shots. If you've heard the term "painting with light" to describe what cinematographers do, then you'll instantly recognize that it's wholly and completely applicable to Cardiff's style. It's also unmistakable in the numerous photos of the stars he took like the portrait of Audrey Hepburn which he uses to demonstrate a good example of chiaroscuro (though I suspect he selected it solely to stare at her gorgeous face - can you blame him?). Cardiff also paints and regularly creates his own copies of masterworks that inspire him in order to get an even better appreciation of how lighting is used.

It's not just the pretty pictures though - like the best designers, Cardiff creates environments that encourage great work and add to it. Actors loved him for that since they believed their performances came out much stronger due to his involvement. Throughout the film Cardiff relates stories about some of the actors with whom he's worked: Hepburn, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe (who he believed wanted to work with him simply because everyone else did) and Marlene Dietrich among many others. Dietrich gets the most interesting and illuminating anecdotes as Cardiff relates how she knew just as much about properly lighting scenes and faces (particularly her own) as he did. "She was always right".

Cardiff also eventually tried his hand at directing for quite awhile (14 films according to IMDB) and though he received some recognition, was pretty much forced back to cinematography when the market didn't allow for as many pictures to be made. Some of his late career film work was, to say the least, surprising since he has cinematography credits for "Conan The Destroyer" and "Rambo: First Blood Part II". Not that those films don't necessarily deserve the craftmanship, but I certainly wouldn't have guessed he would have been involved. It's great to see an artist who doesn't restrict himself to his sphere of expertise and who truly appears to take pleasure from the simple act of creating art. Particularly as he describes some of the very creative techniques he used to solve the problems posed to him - like the way he created the fading mist that gives way to ocean waves (he breathed on the lens and let the moisture dissipate) or how he doubled the frame rate at the height of a dancer's jump in order to give them just a bit extra hang time. Scorsese gives credit where credit is due (though it probably sits with Powell & Pressburger in addition to Cardiff) when he tells of taking ideas from "The Red Shoes" for the way he provides the viewpoint from the boxing ring in "Raging Bull".

The biggest compliment I can give the film (and Cardiff himself) is that it's encouraged me to get back to trying to be creative. For how long and to what extent is an unresolved question, but the inspiration itself is enough for me right now and that's a start. Thanks Jack.


Ryan McNeil said...

I sense a montage comin' on!

Bob Turnbull said...

In fact, I have started gathering clips...B-) It's a long process and it just ends up in a goofy video, but it's really enjoyable. I have no real idea where this one is heading though...

Courtney Small said...

As I am still on a high from both Black Narcissus and the Red Shoes, this film has immediately been added to my must see list. I will have to see if the library has a copy.

Bob Turnbull said...

Let me know when you see it Courtney - lik I said, the film itself is straightforward, but Cardiff's artistic career is fascinating.