Vertigo Café: Illuminating Cinematography

By Cathy Greenhalgh

Vittorio Storaro (DP Apocalypse Now, Last Emperor) recently complained ‘Critics assure technology removes emotion, spirit, intelligence. If they wrote in an informed manner, they could help us improve. Our best efforts are trivialised by ignorant evaluations like “great scenery”.’ Storaro is one of few in the industry who speaks of cinematographers as artists and cinematography as an art. Trade magazines, the only place where cinematographers are regularly quoted, give the impression of a bunch of hard-nosed machos, technical boffins. Keeping an eye on their next job, it would seem they’d rather leave the discussion of aesthetics, philosophy or anything ‘arty’ to their directors. The hierarchy and appearance of the crew on the average set would also seem to support this notion.

What a revelation it was then attending ‘Camerimage’ the 3rd International Festival of the Art of Cinematography (December 1995, Torun, Poland) to find exactly the opposite. I returned revitalised in faith and passion and with a re-discovered dialogue. Here were world-class cinematographers mixing with younger compadres, chatting avidly about good films, good storytelling, about what makes good cinematography, the artistic rights of cinematographers, the widescreen TV debate, etc. ‘Camerimage’ is still a small, intimate festival with a wonderful atmosphere, though it desperately needs more sponsors to continue. Out of 200-odd festivals operating world-wide; only this one is dedicated to cinematography. Directors and actors normally receive the most attention at film festivals. It was fascinating to hear cinematographers in a freer environment. Poland has a history of criticism of cinematography as an art and an understanding of the nature of the collaboration between ‘operator’ and director. Festival directors Kazimierz Parucki and Marek Zydowicz were surprised, however, by the overwhelming response and support from cinematographers for this festival, particularly from the States.

They awarded their 1995 ‘Lifetime Achievement’ award to Conrad Hall (previous winners Sven Nykvist and Vittorio Storaro) and showed a retrospective of his work. Hall apologised that he could not get good copies of some of his best work on film; but it was a joy to watch the retrospective of eight of his films on the big screen again. His inventive shots, use of long lenses and risks with exposure can clearly be seen in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Cool Hand Luke, for example. Forty films were shown, about 20 in competition. These were from 17 different countries, and chosen by cinematography organisations, other festivals and critics. The jurors were Walter Lassally, Ronnie Taylor (Britain), Conrad Hall, Bob Fisher (USA), Witold Sobocinski, Jerzy Wocjik (Poland), Jost Vacano (Germany), Jaromir Sofr (Czech) and Jonas Gricius (Lithuania).

Watching so many films together made one realise just how important (and fortuitous) the collaboration between director and cinematographer can be. It also revealed just how dull too much smoke, rain, gratuitous movement and general tricks can be, especially at the expense of story and actors. (All films shown were feature-length fiction.) So what is good cinematography and what are the judging criteria, when films have been shot under such utterly different economic, cultural and aesthetic conditions? ‘We are talking about technique of course; use of filmstocks, lighting, composition etc.; but we talking more about the art’, said Bob Fisher (journalist, American Cinematographer). ‘People think it’s all about beautiful pictures, but what a cinematographer does is tell stories. It’s what the image “feels” rather than what you actually see.’ Not in contrast, but with a more Eastern European attitude, Jerzy Wocjik (who shot, amongst many films, Wajda’s Kanal) thought, ‘The film should be very individual, and have very good composition and light, that has some insight and harmony with the structures played in the film, the thing that can’t be told in words.

Cinematography is the humanisation of all things technical in the art of making pictures, also all things mystical and philosophical. The most important thing in cinematography is the concept.’

Well, conceptually, of all the films shown, Shanghai Triad (Zhang Yimou, Lü Yue) was about the most confusing. A mish-mash, sort of Ozu spatial sense meets Boyz ’n’ the Hood Steadicam chase sequences. ‘This film does not know itself,’ lamented Witold Sobocinski; and of The Secret of Roan Inish (John Sayles, Haskell Wexler), ‘No concept, absolutely the wrong form.’ True, Wexler’s camerawork was quite loose, floating, drifting frames, and beautiful natural, but not romanticised Western Irish light. This was for Fisher ‘some of Wexler’s best work, absolutely stunning.’ So cultural background and taste are surely factors here? I noted that a significant proportion of the Eastern Europeans walked out during Legends of the Fall (1995 Oscar Cinematography winner, Edward Zwick, John Toll), while few Westerners could stomach the full-length of Maborosi no Hikari (Hirokazu Koreda, Masao Nakabori), which Andrzej Bukowiecki, a Polish film and cinematography historian, described as having ‘Amazing composition, absolutely Zen.’ My own favourite was Cyclo (Tranh Anh Hung, Benoit Delhomme). I will never feel the same about the colour blue again. The use of wide angles in the Shanghai locations gave a strong visceral sense of the movement and vitality of the city and main characters. This film was voted ‘best cinematography’ by Polish students, but was ‘too tricksy and violent’ for juror Walter Lassally. He preferred Vilko Filacs’ work on Emir Kusturica’s Underground (‘a wonderful imagination’), though he feared ‘it might not be linear enough for the American jurists.’ Lassally was adamant that if we are going to make a European cinema again, we must emphasise the image ‘because if we don’t we’ll all be sitting in multiplexes watching videotape in a few years time. This discussion is essential. This medium was designed to speak to the senses and this festival has the ability to reaffirm the importance of cinematography in film art.’

First prize went to Piotr Sobocinski for The Seventh Room (Marta Mezsaros, Hungary). He recently won prizes for his work on Kieslowski’s Three Colours Red). Second prize went to Goert Giltaj for The Flying Dutchman (Jos Stelling, Holland). Neither of these have been seen in Britain or the USA. Third prize went to Roger Deakins for The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, USA).

Simplicity, it seems, is the desire of cinematographers who know and have invented many of the techniques. I was most struck by Conrad Hall’s comments as he left Il Postino (Michael Radford, Franco di Giacomo, not in competition). Hall has long desired to direct, as he’s found so few films in recent years he can believe in. ‘What a beautiful film’, he said, ‘very few dialogue-led shots, and room on the screen for the actors to breathe. If I could make one film like that in my life I’d be happy.’ There’s something for those obsessed with state of the art technology to dwell on.

Cathy Greenhalgh, is a cinematographer. She teaches at the London College of Printing.