Second Year Blogging: A Salmagundi, Part 1

ONE

On September 9, The Boston Globe featured this photograph on page one above the fold:

At first glance, it reads as a quasi-abstract geometric painting hiding behind a streaked, scumbled surface. As soon as you reflect on the date, two days after the publication of the newspaper story, the horror that  the painting documents becomes all too evident. The painter, Gerhard Richter, has throughout his career alternated many styles of 20th century abstraction with his own brand of soft-focus photorealism.

This painting, “September,” serves as an entry point for Globe staff writer Mark Feeney’s discussion of a canvas that critic Robert Storr has called “the ghost of a ghost.” Feeney’s meditation on the events of “9-11” on the eve of its tenth anniversary, analyses how the patterns of our daily lives have been changed forever:

boston.com: The Presence of Abscence

My own thoughts about this painting and how it fits into the greater genre of historical painting was the subject of an essay I wrote in February of 2010.

John’s Bailiwick: Gerhard Richter’s and Robert Storr’ “September”

There is a hotlink in the essay to an engrossing twenty-minute discussion by Storr about Richter and historical painting:

Gerhard Richter video link

Although the essay is not one that I wrote this past year, its relevance to the recent tenth “anniversary” of 9-11 (what an odd word to use for such a traumatic event in our history) compels me to open this review of the past year’s work with another look at a work of art that has come to define that calamity, a work by a German artist who has himself lived in the shadow of his own nation’s apocalypse.

TWO

It’s difficult for me to realize that I have just concluded two years of writing this blog, something that I undertook rather casually at the behest of Martha Winterhalter, publisher of AC Magazine; our original intent was for me to provide occasional content for the ASC website. Somehow, despite photographing feature films and continuing educational work, I have managed to write over 120 of these pieces, mostly on a weekly publishing schedule, each one exploring a subject that has grabbed my attention, gnawing at me to consider something more than a quick posting about a current topic. All of these essays are archived by a link below the “recent comments” section on the right side of the blog page:

John’s Bailiwick: All Posts by Date

Below that is a box to subscribe for email notice each time a new essay appears. Please do subscribe. It takes just a few seconds. We have so many demands for our online time that it’s easy to lose track of yet another site. Subscribing will give you a reminder of new material.

Some friends and readers have asked me why I don’t write exclusively about filmmaking issues since this is a blog hosted by the ASC. My response is that as important and as vital as our photographic work is to our professional identities, it is not the sum total of our selves, either in our work or personal lives. I came to filmmaking, and cinematography, not through a direct door as a tyro Super 8 adolescent, or even as a compulsive Hollywood movie buff, but as someone who discovered “Cinema, “ aka European art films of the 50s and 60s, well before I had any idea who Ford, Hawks, Sturges, and Hitchcock were. And American postwar “B” movies loomed into my narrow ken only through the lens of the French term “film noir.” I knew the films of Bergman and Bresson before I knew those of Ray, Mann, Aldrich, or Fuller. Kind of upside down, I know, but that’s how it happened. I am still playing catch-up toward many of the beloved works of American cinema. In short, my perspective on film has been as erratic and as eclectic as my interests in the other arts. It’s that eclectic bent that informs what I write about.

THREE

Photography does lie at the core of what I feel compelled to write. It is, after all, the daily manna of my own creative diet and that of my fellow cinematographers. But we do not live by emulsions and digits alone. Nothing causes my eyes to glaze over faster than a presentation of some new digital workflow: necessary information, to be sure, the arcana of which can be tossed about like a can of newly opened tennis balls—but that’s not the game itself. But when I want to talk about cinematography I think of no more inspiring artist than this man:

This photo of the young Jack Cardiff as a camera operator, was taken at the time that Technicolor trained him as the go-to point man in England for the introduction in the mid-30s of their new three-strip color camera system. Cardiff went on to have a distinguished career, being honored with two Oscars, the second one in 2000 for his entire body of work, as well as a directorial nomination in 1960 for Sons and Lovers. I never met Cardiff, though I feel I have come to know him through the marvelous feature documentary on his life and work, Cameraman, directed by Craig McCall. I have spoken about Cardiff and this film often, introducing it at an ASC dinner meeting screening, as well as programs at a TIFF Toronto retrospective and a recent AFI screening. The film, as well as Cardiff’s autobiography, Magic Hour, is the impetus for a four part blog I wrote in October while on location in Anchorage. It contains many embedded videos, the one of the Red Shoes ballet unfortunately being recently disabled; but many are still active and give a full perspective into the richness of his work.

John’s Bailiwick: Jack Cardiff’s Magic Life: Part One

Even if you have seen McCall’s film, Cameraman, I think you will find intriguing insights to Cardiff’s aesthetic life in this series of essays.

Although my four-part profile of cinematographer Karl Struss appeared the previous year, it is a companion piece to that of Cardiff. Struss began as a Photo-Secessionist photographer, a student of Clarence White in New York City. C.B de Mille gave Struss his first real break in Hollywood as a set photographer. In short order, Struss bought a 35 mm B&H camera, affixed a “KS” plate to the camera door (and in those heady, wild days) was a “cameraman.” That free-for-all time has a current re-evocation: today, it is possible to buy an affordable Canon 5D, print up a business card, and declare yourself a director of photography. For good or bad (and you will find passionate exponents on both sides in a digital flip-screen world of image capture), the sightlines are shifting. Struss’s career is not only a window into a great period of art photography but one into the ever-shifting technology of Hollywood: from the silent era’s still developing film grammar; the introduction of sound; 3-strip Technicolor, and even up to the so-called golden age of 50s 3-D films. Struss’ last decade of cinematography included TV commercials, a still nascent form.  I encourage you to review these essays if you’ve not done so, and to revisit them if you have.

John’s Bailiwick: Karl Struss, A Tripod in Two Worlds: Part One–New York

The jury seems to be still out as to whether we are entering a game-changing shift in filmmaking with the current pack of 3-D movies, and whether 3-D is finally going to stick to the screen, or whether it will shoot out the rear exit of the theater--- as it has done before. Many of the most recent crop of 3-D offerings, some Pixar animation excepted, have not been unequivocally embraced by audiences; many viewers seem to be wavering on whether to fork out extra cash to see a current release in 3-D, or choose an adjacent screen showing the film in 2-D at a significantly lower price. Many of the erratic, CGI impacted summer tent pole movies such as Transformer 3-D are edited at such a fast pace that the human eye can barely follow the flow of images, much less discern any aesthetic evaluation of what the experience of depth adds. Werner Herzog’s entry into 3-D, the Cave of Forgotten Dreams, on the other hand, brings a sense of poetic immersion into the mysterious Chauvet Caves in a way that is not possible on a flat screen. But here’s the 2-D trailer anyway:

The most engaging 3-D films I have seen are dance films, from the ballet company exercise that Vince Pace has used as a 3-D demo, to one of a Chinese company of deaf dancers (My Dream) that I saw at the recent Big Bear Film Festival as part of Ray Zone and friends’ presentation of almost two dozen 3-D shorts hosted by the Stereo Club of Southern California. Without a doubt, the most eagerly awaited 3-D dance film is Wim Wender’s tribute to his late friend, choreographer Pina Bausch.

The film played at the Berlin Film Festival in February, has screened commercially in Europe and was featured at the recent Telluride Film Festival. It will open soon in the United States. I discuss the film and embed a video of the trailer in a longer essay about Pina Bausch and her company from last January:

John’s Bailiwick: Pina Bausch: “Dance, Dance or We Are Lost”

One of the vicissitudes of embedding video is not knowing how long any single video will stay posted. Several of the Pina clips are now disabled but many are still active.

From Paris, my friend Benjamin Bergery also writes a blog hosted by the ASC website. A recent piece is an interview with Wim Wenders about the director’s friendship with Bausch, and the technique and aesthetics of shooting a film about her work in 3-D.

the film book: Wim Wenders About Pina & 3-D

This essay is a companion piece to Bergery’s article in the September 2011 issue of American Cinematographer magazine. When queried about the future of 3-D Wenders says simply:

There is no future if the new medium isn’t done more justice soon! If the studios keep producing trash with it, strictly action-based roller-coaster rides, the medium will collapse.

FOUR

Dance, painting, architecture. Cinema embraces the other plastic arts, as well as music. Silent films always soared on the crescendo of music, often a commissioned score for full symphony orchestra for films like Murnau’s Sunrise and Gance’s Napoleon. Classical music has often had an uneasy rapport with movies, its ill fit often being a measure of its stand-alone structure, not subject to the demands of the flow of images. But exceptions seem to abound as many composers have written for the concert hall as well as for the cinema. This tradition does go back to French silent films and the group known as “Les Six,” several of whom had careers at least as distinguished in movies as in live performance. Also, the Russians, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Schnittke, are prime examples of composers best known for their symphonic work but who had major, if uneven, success in films. Today, many composers of the so-called “minimalist” style have inherited that cinematic lineage, the most noted being Philip Glass who scored the Godfrey Reggio Katsi trilogy and the Paul Schrader film, Mishima. The Gus van Sant film Gerry used a haunting piece by Aarvo Pärt, the Estonian composer whose concert music has graced several recent films. A composer often linked with Pärt is the recently deceased Pole, Henryk Gorecki, whose “Third Symphony” became an unlikely CD international best seller.

Gorecki’s death late last year prompted me to write a tribute that embedded several deeply moving videos reflecting the symphony’s themes of the Jewish Holocaust. The two principal videos are still active. If you missed this essay the first time round, I think you will find the juxtaposition of music and image deeply affecting.

John’s Bailiwick: Henryk Górecki’s Sorrowful Song

FIVE

Last Spring I saw a new 35mm print of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest at Manhattan’s Film Forum. A few days later, a friend, Bill Wilson, gave me a copy of Bresson’s little book of aphorisms, Notes on the Cinematographer. For the next few days, it became my subway read. I had not well remembered how simple yet true the director’s thoughts were about the nature of the cinematic image. His carefully crafted sentences echoed the dense, restrained images of his films. I highlighted some of these thoughts, and listed them in an essay about Bresson and his “transcendental” style. Much to my surprise, I received more emails and comments on this piece than on most of the ones I expected to be more popular. If you happened to miss the essay here is the link:

John’s Bailiwick: Robert Bresson: Notes on the Cinematographer

If you did read it, consider looking again. Bresson’s reflections on the nature of the cinematographic image, as well as on movie sound, transcend any technology that records those images. Aristotle’s “Poetics” still speaks loudly to us down the ages in its clarity of definition of drama, but Bresson’s Notes whisper to us about the abiding essence of cinema.

Robert Bresson

Next week: Part 2 of the second year review, with a look at the burgeoning internet coverage of "Occupy Wall Street" as a manifestation of a new form of public, non-professional photojournalism, and an homage to some of our greatest and most daring artists of conflict photography.

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