This is a frame grab from the last shot of Russian experimental filmmaker Dziga Verov’s 1929 homage to the cinematographer, Man with a Camera. The film is a metaphor for the cinematographer as voyeur and documenter of the world at large, the Kino-Eye, the artist who observes life's passing parade and transforms it through his alchemy into entertainment.
When I began film studies at USC, it was not my intention to become a cameraman, an editor, a director, or any of the hands-on jobs of movies' creators. My cinematic heroes would not have been Gregg Toland, Sam O’Steen or David Lean—but Andre Bazin, French film theorist and scholar, a veritable godfather to the New Wave. Bazin died at age forty on November 11, 1958, the day after Francois Truffaut began filming The 400 Blows. Truffaut dedicated the film to him.
I first learned Bazin’s name while watching The 400 Blows. An ever-growing interest in film history led me to read the dominant scholarly film magazine of the time, Film Quarterly, where I found Bazin’s ideas discussed endlessly. After exploring his sometimes arcane theories in whatever English translations were available, I became intoxicated with art (foreign) cinema. Here is one of Bazin’s memorable quotes:
The fantastic in the cinema is possible only because of the irresistible realism of the photographic image. It is the image that can bring us face to face with the unreal that can introduce the unreal into the world of the visible.
Such a seeming linguistic paradox is stock in trade of Bazin’s writing style. (After posting this essay I received a note from my friend the photographer Raymond Cauchetier, the subject of a multi-part essay I wrote some months ago. Raymond has spent much of the past several decades photographing the sculptures of Romanesque churches. He informed me that Bazin had all but given up film writing near the end of his short life-- and had dedicated himself to a film proposal on the Romanesque churches of Saintoge. The article was published in Cahiers du Cinema. I will soon be writing of this period of Cauchetier's work.)
When, several years later I entered film school it was with the intention to write about film, not as a film reviewer, a mere regurgitator of plotlines and performances, but as someone who would study film images and "critique" them. I aspired to be for an embryonic American New Wave what Bazin had been for the French (ah, such youthful presumptions). Well, not only were Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, and Manny Farber already harvesting that not yet ripe fruit, but when I took one of the entry level film courses it changed my life: Introduction to Cinematography. That’s when my fanciful notions of “cinema” ran smack up against the hard work of actually creating images. I soon found out how much more challenging yet absorbing it is to make images rather than write about them.
A little more than a year ago Martha Winterhalter, publisher of American Cinematographer magazine asked me if I would help provide content for the ASC website by writing a blog. I had written for AC magazine in the past, as well as for other publications, but I had never considered writing to a schedule---that it would be nothing but an onerous task. But Martha agreed to let me write about whatever I wanted to in the arts—not just cinematography, not even just film, but whatever topic pulled my sometimes eclectic musings into focus.
Thus, John’s Bailiwick was begun on September 19 of last year; it was so dubbed by Martha and AC editor Stephen Pizzello. So far, I have made about 75 entries. You can access any of them by clicking “All Posts by Date," just above my thumbnail photo:
Recently, I looked back at part of the first posting, a declaration of intent. Here is what I first wrote:
So, while this modest blog will not presume to define any statement of principles or be a platform for semi-emetic jeremiads about how the industry is going to hell in a hand basket, I do hope to discuss some of the issues that face us all as filmmakers as an ever accelerating cycle of development, praxis, and obsolescence nudges at our backs with the force of a runaway SUV.
What I did not realize at the time was just how far this personal reach would go, especially into photojournalism, an abiding interest. Nor did I have then any inkling of what crucial issues for cinematography would emerge with 3-D feature films and the emergence of DSLRs for movies. And it has been an amazingly rich year for photography exhibitions, none as emotionally moving as the current one at the Getty Museum, Engaged Observers, the subject of a recent essay.
If you have started only recently to read these weekly essays or if there are some you have missed that may be of interest, I am taking the next two weeks to highlight some that have been more popular, as well as ones that have permitted me to focus the passion I have for certain artists. I will list these articles only by their dates of appearance, and not by any personal predilection. There will be a short introduction to each, with the link to the full essay, and with a photo or a video embedded.
1. (September, 16) Director Roy Andersson’s work has fascinated me since I saw Songs from the Second Floor at an AMPAS screening at the Goldwyn Theater. It was Sweden’s official entry for Oscar consideration in 2000. Just this last fall I was able to meet and interview Andersson at a MOMA retrospective of his work.
2. (September 23) An impromptu concert by famed violinist Joshua Bell in a Washington, D.C. subway station was the subject of a thoughtful article in the Washington Post, and on NPR, about how our manic rush to and fro makes us often immune to beauty around us. Journalist Gene Weingarten wrote the story behind the story. The essay also includes a link to his complete article.
3. (October 2) Steve McCurry, famous for his photograph of the Afghan girl with green eyes that first appeared in National Geographic magazine discussed the demise of Kodachrome. Several months ago, he made national news again as his was the last roll of Kodachome to be processed.
4. (October 9) Irving Penn, legendary photojournlist and fashion photographer, died at age 92, a few days before this essay appeared about an exhibition of early work, Small Trades, at the Getty Museum.
5. (October 23) An exhibition of recent acquisitions by New York City’s Morgan Library prompted me to write about the vulnerability of our paper history in the great libraries and archives of the world. It suggests that these same issues are applicable to our film and video history as we move deeper and deeper into digital acquisition and storage systems.
6. (November 2 and 5) A fall visit that I made to the toxic and abandoned mining town of Picher, Oklahoma prompted a two part (with a later third one) examination of the history of mining in a small community, and of the human cost of our indifference to the environmental consequences.
7. (November 9 and 12) An exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art of Johannes Vermeer’s paintings, highlighting a loan of The Milkmaid from the Rijksmuseum, gave me an opportunity to examine in detail The Sphinx of Delft in a two part essay.
8. (Nov.30) Roots singer Iris DeMent has long had an avid base of knowing admirers; but she continues to elude pop mainstream country/western fans. Every musician in Nashville, to whom I mentioned her while we were filming Country Strong last winter, knew and loved her music. The essay I wrote about her elicited some of the most heartfelt response of anything I have done. She continues (according to her posted schedule) to make appearances at smaller venues around the country, even as fans await a long anticipated new CD.
(Next week, I will continue this review of a year’s essays with a look at the four part study of Karl Struss, who began a career in photography as the last of Stieglitz’ Photo-Secessionists. After WWI he moved to Hollywood where he became along with Charles Rosher the recipient of the first ever Oscar for cinematography for Murnau’s Sunrise. In the fifth decade of his career Struss went to Italy to photograph films in 3-D.)
There will also be a look back at Frank Hurley's Endurance photography, Manny Farber's film criticism, Elliott Carter's 101st birthday, Monet's Haystack paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago--- and more.