Posted by Susan Doll on February 4, 2013
Over the years, I have listened to many cinematographers speak about film. Whether describing their role in the making of a specific movie or talking about classics from previous eras, I have never been disappointed. Cinematographers are the best source for explaining how a film imparts meaning through its visual language.
Last week cinematographer Steven Fierberg (Love and Other Drugs; Secretary; Entourage) visited Ringling College of Art and Design to offer his insight and expertise to students. Part of his visit included a presentation to Ringling students and faculty on the art of visual storytelling. My History of Film students attended, and several wrote about the positive impression that Fierberg made on them for a class assignment. Instead of lecturing, Fierberg offered his ideas through a series of clips from well-known films, which made for a dynamic demonstration. I learned so much from his presentation that I wanted to share some of his comments and insights. The films that Fierberg used as examples should be familiar to most TCM viewers; looking at them again from a different perspective reveals their craftsmanship and artistry.
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on January 17, 2013
William Edward Cronenweth photographing Rita Hayworth (1947)
In my ongoing quest to learn more about the talented men and women who were responsible for taking the imaginative studio portraits and set photos we all love but too often take for granted, I recently became fascinated with the work of William Edward Cronenweth. Trying to compile information about the man was difficult and I often ran into obstacles while attempting to learn more about his life and work. Cronenwerth’s name is rarely mentioned in the various books I’ve read about studio photography and if it is, the information tends to be sparse and inconsistent. Hopefully this brief portrait I’ve compiled will shine some light on Cronenweth’s considerable contributions to Hollywood’s glamorous history.
Posted by highhurdler on October 28, 2012
Have you ever gone to the theater expecting to see a movie (or play) about one thing but, once there, were then completely surprised – pleasantly or unpleasantly – with what transpired on the screen (or stage). For me, it used to happen more frequently before the explosion of the Internet (where spoilers abound), but it can still happen today when I adopt an intentional approach to such entertainment. For instance, when I watch a classic film, it happens more often because I tend to seek, find and view lesser known films on TCM or, in this case, the Fox Movie Channel.
Posted by Susan Doll on October 22, 2012
What’s better than listening to a behind-the-scenes DVD commentary and discovering something new about a favorite film? It’s listening to a live commentary while watching the film on a big screen! Last week, I attended a “sound-down” of the sci-fi blockbuster Inception presented by cinematographer Wally Pfister. A sound-down is exactly what the term implies: The film is screened with the sound so low that it cannot be heard while a person of note—in this case, Pfister—provides an expert commentary. A sound-down offers an opportunity to fully understand the art behind the illusion that is Hollywood movie-making without destroying the magic.
A free event open to all film students and movie-lovers, the sound-down of Inception ended a week of workshops, master classes, and screenings at Ringling College of Art and Design in which Pfister generously gave his time and expertise to the students. Located in my new hometown of Sarasota, Florida, Ringling is the college where I now teach film and art history to a talented student body of future illustrators, fine artists, animators, and filmmakers. I was lucky to squeeze into a class in which Pfister provided an insider’s view of production design by explaining the interrelationship between the director, the production designer, and the cinematographer. Informal yet informative, Pfister painted a clear picture of the process of production, emphasizing that story needs to drive the choice of visual techniques—not the other way around.
Posted by Susan Doll on September 3, 2012
Visions of Light never fails to impress me. Produced in 1993 through the AFI, this documentary covers the history of film through the eyes of cinematographers. The film has many strengths, but two stand out: It makes watching classic films seem infectious, as though you can’t wait to see some of the movies mentioned; and it will forever change the way you look at films.
While actors get the adoration of fans, and directors get critical acclaim from reviewers, cinematographers are rarely acknowledged. Visions of Light not only explores the role of the cinematographer, it also explains film history through the major changes in camera technology, including the impact of sound, the adoption of color, and the introduction of widescreen. Most importantly, it reveals how filmmaking techniques such as lighting, angle, and camera movement help tell the story in a film.
The documentary is structured chronologically. It brushes past the dawn of cinema with a few clips from the films of the Lumiere Brothers, Georges Melies, and D.W. Griffith, among others. The German Expressionists are given their due because of their advances in lighting effects and camera movement, but it is the discussion of the classic films from the Golden Age of Hollywood that will fascinate movie-lovers. Until Visions of Light, I did not realize the vital connection between movie stars and cinematographers. Unlike today’s stars who form intimate relationships with their plastic surgeons (who make them all look alike), stars from the 1930s and 1940s advocated for certain cameramen because these men knew how to light actors to their best advantage. Whether it was Charles Lang favoring Claudette Colbert’s good side or William Daniels collaborating with Garbo on her signature look, the cameramen of this period understood that audiences went to the movies to see the stars look their best.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on February 28, 2012
As the 1960s ended, so did Robert Mulligan’s collaboration with producer Alan Pakula. After seven films together, Pakula embarked upon a successful directing career of his own, beginning with the college romance of The Sterile Cuckoo in 1969 (which would earn Liza Minnelli her first Oscar nomination). Mulligan also tried his hand at courting the youth market, starting production on The Pursuit of Happiness late that same year, although it was not released until 1971. It was the first coming-of-age story that Mulligan directed since To Kill A Mockingbird, and its melancholic sense of lost innocence pervades all of his work in the early 1970s.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on February 14, 2012
On February 4th, the last living veteran of WW1 passed away in King’s Lynn, England. Florence Green was 110 years old, and had joined up with the Women’s Royal Air Force in September 1918, two months before the armistice. The last surviving combat veteran, Briton Claude Choles, died in Australia in 2011. The Great War is no longer part of the world’s living memory, and so drifts slowly from history and into myth (see: War Horse). This process will accelerate in 2014-2018, the 100th Anniversary of the conflict. But no images, not even Spielberg’s, have defined the war more than those in All Quiet On the Western Front, Universal’s grim gamble of 1930. Banned in Poland, reviled in Germany, and a tough sell to studios, this adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s landmark novel is one of the bleakest films ever made in Hollywood. Universal is releasing it on Blu-Ray today in a pristine restoration, in a nearly-complete 133 minute version, while also including the rare silent edition, which was made for theaters not yet equipped for sound (For background on all the edits inflicted on the film, please read Lou Lumenick’s article in the NY Post).
Posted by davidkalat on January 14, 2012
The inventor steps aboard the train, and loads the packing crates that contain his most wondrous device. It will revolutionize the world. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this is the very birth of the modern age. The inventor takes his seat—it will be a few hours from Leeds to Paris, his old homeland. Although the inventor has been living and working in England, he is French in his blood, and it is in France that he must tie up some last loose ends.
The competition has been fierce. He has not been alone in working on such a device. His is still embryonic and needs improvement—and the idiots at the patent office have fundamentally misunderstood his creation. Sorting out that mess will take time and tact, he thinks to himself. But he can content himself with the knowledge that he is first. He will be rich and famous. The future belongs to him.
But he never gets off the train.
Instead, it arrives in Paris without him, and he will never be seen again. The authorities will search high and low for clues, but the mystery will never be solved. And in the confusion following his disappearance, much of his equipment will also disappear. His legacy will go to others, with more money and power, and his name will fade from the history books altogether.
It is the kind of sensational tragedy that filmmakers like Louis Feuillade will make their names depicting. Pulp films for generations hereafter would find inventors, bankers, and other keepers of valuable prizes attacked on trains. Why, this will be the bread and butter of the nascent film industry in just a couple of decades. But not yet. We are only in 1890 at this point, five years before the first public screening of a motion picture show—the movies don’t yet really exist, and Feuillade is just a pimply teenager. What we have just seen is no fiction, because whatever it is that happened to Louis Le Prince actually happened. Ironically, his invention… well, it was the movies.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on August 30, 2011
“In true travel, what matters are the magical accidents, the discoveries, the inexplicable wonders and the wasted time.” -Raúl Ruiz, paraphrasing Serge Daney in Poetics of Cinema
No director wasted time more spectacularly than Raúl Ruiz, who passed away last week at the age of 70. The restively prolific Chilean, who fled to Paris after Augusto Pinochet’s rise to power, made over 100 films, and was working on two at the time of his death (the Australian film journal Rouge compiled an invaluable annotated filmography through 2005). Obsessed with the multiplicative nature of storytelling, his work branched narratives, opened up parallel worlds and rendered dreams more real than reality. They often feel like a serial drama happening all at once, the plot twists layered one on top of the other in a dissolve or superimposition. Raised on robust American trash like Flash Gordon, Ruiz’s films are overflowing with wild incident (he later wrote scripts for the brash anti-realism of Mexican telenovelas). He embraced their irruptions of logical narrative order, and also found delight in the “mistakes” of higher-budgeted productions :
Ruiz always followed the plane, that is, he let the image determine the story, rather than vice versa. If a plane entered the frame, that dictated that a new tale had to be written: “It [the image-situation] serves as a bridge, an airport, for the multiple films that will coexist in the film that is finally seen.”
Posted by Susan Doll on February 21, 2011
The independent film Winter’s Bone received four Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture, which illustrates one reason why the Oscars matter. Oscar recognition ensures increased publicity and therefore a wider audience for this film in contrast to other well-done indies not lucky enough to catch the spotlight.
Set in southern Missouri, Winter’s Bone captures contemporary life in the Ozarks, where the remnants of a rural-based, traditional lifestyle clash against the vices of the modern world. Jennifer Lawrence earned her Best Actress nomination as 17-year-old Ree Dolly, who tends to her family, including a psychologically disturbed mother and two younger siblings. When their father is arrested for producing methamphetamine, he puts their house and land up for his bail bond and then disappears. Ree sets out to find him before the Dollys are kicked off the land that has been in their family for generations. Based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone authentically depicts the dark side of the contemporary rural South without resorting to the ugly stereotyping that marks so many films set below the Mason-Dixon line.
Director Debra Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough took great pains to ensure authenticity by shooting on location in southern Missouri, noting in the DVD commentary, “We toyed with the idea of filming in other states, but ultimately came to the conclusion that shooting in Missouri was crucial, more important even than the aspect of winter. . southern Missouri is a muse for the author, Daniel Woodrell, and there’s no way that this story could be detached from its home turf.” The commentary is filled with statements about the way the locale and landscape shaped the characters and material, with McDonough declaring, “The landscape is a character.” While location shooting is often crucial to the atmosphere, authenticity, and sense of character in films, the characters in Winter’s Bone are defined by it, their motivations drawn from it, and the drama shaped by it. The same could be said of the actual residents of southern Missouri who—despite poverty, hardships, and exploitation—still live in the rural hill country of their ancestors.
The use of locale and landscape in Winter’s Bone reminded me of a long-forgotten Civil War drama shot in Tyler and Doddridge Counties in West Virginia, where my extended family still live. No Drums, No Bugles starred a young Martin Sheen as Ashby Gatrell, a soldier who deserted both the Confederate and Union armies. He spent three years in the hills, living off the land and avoiding human contact less he be captured by either side. No Drums, No Bugles was directed as an independent production in 1972 by Clyde Ware, who hailed from West Union in Doddridge County. Ware, who was a respected director of tv westerns, such as Gunsmoke and Bonanza, died last year. With his death, it is unlikely that No Drums, No Bugles will ever see a DVD release. I have an old VHS copy of the film that is so worn, the image drops out in several scenes. When I watched the film recently, I noticed that the content reflected the issues and politics of the Vietnam era, but the low-budget indie style—with its emphasis on authentic locations—seemed remarkably contemporary.
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