The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents September 2009 Return to Table of Contents
The Baader Meinhof Complex
Presidents Desk
Production Slate
CAS Part 2
ASC Close-Up
DVD Playback

Since being elected president of the ASC, I’ve been asked by a number of people what my favorite movies are and what I believe in. I don’t intend for this column to be about me, but in the interest of helping the filmmaking community get to know me better, I offer these admittedly random insights. My favorite films are an eclectic bunch, a baker’s dozen that have all imparted some pearl of inspiration in just the right way.

The Graduate (1967) – My favorite film. I’ve seen it more than 120 times in theaters since I was 8. The cinematography by Robert Surtees, ASC, taught me the emotional value of shadow and widescreen composition. And then there was Katharine Ross.

L’avventura (1960) – I fell asleep the first two times I tried to watch Antonioni’s examination of the idle Italian rich because I kept waiting for him to get back to the plot about the missing girl. It wasn’t until I realized what he was saying about emotional disconnection through architectural composition that I felt the characters’ plight acutely; Anna may be physically lost, but all of us are emotionally lost as well.

Winged Migration (2001) – Yes, it’s 90 minutes of birds flying, but this film made me feel like I knew what it was like to fly with them. It’s rare that a movie can change my perspective on something I see every day. This one did.

The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1968) – Eli Wallach’s search for the grave with the gold is still one of the greatest moments in movie history. As he frantically scans all the graves, the combination of photography, editing and music is so overwhelming that you completely forget his character cannot read.

Spirited Away (2001) – Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece created an amazing world of fantastic creatures and unusual events and made it all seem real through the eyes of a child. I still want to take a ride on that train skimming the surface of the lake.

C'était un rendez-vous (1976) – Claude Lelouch mounted a 35mm camera on the front of a Mercedes and tore through the streets of Paris at 6 a.m. at 85 mph, blowing past red lights and driving up on sidewalks in one unbroken nine-minute take. Pure cinema. Watch it on the big screen and sit in the front row.

King Kong (1933) – A big movie in the best sense of the word. This gets down to the core of what makes movies magical.

All That Jazz (1979) – You can accuse Bob Fosse of ripping off Fellini’s 8 1/2 all you want, but I happen to like open-heart surgery with my musical comedy. A perfect partnership of dance, choreography, photography and editing, it was the natural successor to the unbroken-take, MGM style of dance on film that Vincente Minnelli did so well in the 1940s and 1950s.

Cemetery of The Elephants (1975) – Armando Robles Godoy manages to tell the story of a man’s life from boyhood optimism to old age and disillusionment in the space of 15 minutes and makes it emotionally devastating and unbearably poignant.

The Creeping Terror (1964) – Hideously awful and enormously entertaining movie about a space creature that looks like a big, walking carpet with an orifice that swallows women whole. You will not be able to get the dance-hall music out of your head no matter how hard you try.

Pandora’s Box (1929) – It was a tossup between this and Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. for my favorite silent film. Pabst’s examination of the morality of an immoral girl was one of the pinnacle film achievements in early cinema. You cannot watch the ending without wanting to step into the story and take Louise Brooks away.

Day for Night (1973) – François Truffaut shows all the problems that happen when you make a movie and still manages to make it seem like the most fun you could ever have. Like real life.

L.A. Story (1991) – It took a lot for me to move to Los Angeles, and I had a hard time even tolerating the place, but Steve Martin showed me I was taking everything a bit too seriously. Thank you, Steve.

In terms of my beliefs: I believe working in the motion-picture industry is the best job in the world, and anyone working in the business who doesn’t feel that way should get out of it and do something else.

I believe we will be using film until we no longer feel compelled to compare every new digital medium to film, and when I hold a roll of film in my hands and look at the individual frames through a light bulb, I’m looking at the greatest wonder in the world.

I believe I was never complete until I met my wife, Gina, and even though my son calls everything “Daddy” — the cat, his toy truck, his breakfast — the first time he said it, he was saying it only to me.

I believe I will always remember Mary Carlisle’s cameo as Impy the secretary in the 1932 Technicolor short film The Devil’s Cabaret, but I will never remember what I had for dinner the night before.

I believe new technology is great and valuable and will be replaced by newer technology as soon as I learn the previous version.

I believe daydreaming is not only worthwhile, but an important artistic activity to be encouraged and nurtured — but not if you work on the electric crew.

I believe William A. Fraker, ASC, BSC is no mere mortal, but a benevolent angel sent to earth to remind us that we work in a magical, romantic industry.

I believe I will never get over being accepted as a member of the ASC. Never. Don’t even get me started on the whole president thing.

I believe that as phenomenal as the 1930s and the 1970s were in the history of cinema, the best is yet to come. The craft of cinematography is a living, breathing and constantly evolving art form. Visual storytellers are what we are in any media. There are young filmmakers out there who have absorbed the best of the past and have a vision for the future. You ain’t seen nothing yet.


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