This is the first posting I am making on a blog for American Cinematographer Magazine. I am doing this at the invitation of publisher Martha Winterhalter and executive editor Steven Pizzello, good friends, who have so far played Ariadne helping me thread through the labyrinth of many, I am sad to say, irregular pieces for the AC Magazine’s “Filmmakers Forum”. They have asked me to attempt less formal but more frequent postings on topics that interest and concern me. I can’t promise you that any of what I say will conform to the tenets of Cartesian logic, or much less, have any immediate relevance to your daily concerns as cinematographers. What I will try to do is draw out what I know as a person interested in the arts and how it intersects my work as a cinematographer. What fascinates me about the few blogs I follow is just how discursive they can be, a window into the eclectic or even erratic musings of its host. I can’t promise you that there will be linearity to any of this but I will share with you some of the topics that come my way and how and why they intrigue me. I’ll track anything you want to add or comment on but I don’t envision this blog as an interactive space for me to continue a dialogue but, rather, a space for you to make comments and expand the topic at hand. For good or indifferent, I will hang out my preoccupations and just let them dangle like a piñata — in cyberspace. I’ll also post thoughts on seemingly unrelated topics and try to connect them from posting to posting. I may simply direct you to some offbeat news items about the arts or visual media, a Youtube video or a critic’s review, that will send you off in your own direction. I hope you will want to run with this wherever it will take you
There is a scene in Citizen Kane, a film crammed full of iconic images, which occurs slightly past the half hour mark. It is a scene that in its prescient irony bores to the heart of the film. Up until now there has been a rush of montage and fragmented scenes replete with overlapping dialogue, trying to piece together the jigsaw of a life frozen by the single enigmatic word “Rosebud”. As the scene starts, Charles Foster Kane has recently taken control of a newspaper, The New York Inquirer, the first of what will become a coast-to-coast newspaper empire. In today’s terms, think Rupert Murdoch.
The sequence I want to reference begins with Kane at the window writing on a piece of paper held against the glass pane. Finishing, he crosses to a table, puts the paper down, hovers over it like a proud mother hen, and then reads it to his longtime friend Jedediah Leland and to Mr. Bernstein. The paper is a lofty declaration of principles that Kane says will be his contract with his readership — to be honest and accurate. He will print it on the front page of today’s edition. As he leans forward to read, his body slides into semi-silhouette, a foreboding by the adroit use of lighting in which Welles and Gregg Toland hint at the future spiritual darkness that will soon inhabit Kane’s tormented soul.
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.
Recently, ASC associate member Rob Hummel and I spent a morning with Vince Pace at his facility for 3-D filmmaking, Pace HD, on Empire St. near the Burbank airport. The main room is chock-a-block with many digital cameras set up to showcase Mr. Pace’s 3-D camera systems. At this moment the place of honor seems to be devoted to dual Sony F35s configured so that the inter-ocular distance of the two cameras can be aligned as they shoot through a beam-splitting semi-silvered mirror. It is a most impressive if not intimidating “sculpture.” On the other side of the room reside a number of current workhorse cameras such as the Sony 950 as well as a number of “also-rans”, still much in use but with none of the cachet of the solitary star mounted regally on its tripod opposite. The Sony F35 in its full setup clocks in at a near million-dollar price tag when fully rigged with lenses, accessories, etc. It struck me that this is a perfect metaphor for the whole nature of how the “film” business is changing. A 35 mm Arri or Panavision film camera is a pretty stable system that matures over decades — not months. In the world of HD—well, let’s talk about sticker shock married to obsolescence.
I am not a techno nerd and cannot even suggest that I can be a source for any technical or scientific information, if that is your bailiwick. My whole frame of reference for motion pictures is not even especially visual. I was not a picture taker as a child and came to movies as a graduate student at USC only after an undergrad literature major at Loyola LA. I hoped to learn film “grammar” in order to be able to write about filmmaking. It was hoped by many of my generation that a New Wave of filmmaking would break on the shores of Malibu and Hollywood, cresting as high as the French, Italian and Swedish ones, which at that time were re-inventing “cinema”. The critical mouthpiece of the French new wave was Andre Bazin.
It was my dream to become the American Andre Bazin, though I had no desire to die prematurely like him at age 40.
So, for this blog I will try to write about some of the issues of concern to us all in the immediate and evolving world of film. But for me that is really a small factor in the whole equation. I came to film with the baggage of a liberal arts education and I have dragged it like a character out of Beckett through the last four decades of my life and work. For good or indifferent, I will be opening some of it out into the light as I write here, examining how deeply intertwined aesthetics and the arts must be with our technical work. I hope I can give you some window into my aesthetic ramblings as I stumble across the pitfalls of technology.
Also, I will not confine my subject matter to motion pictures. There are many ideas and issues in the arts that are relevant to our work as cinematographers if we choose to engage them. A broad based and fertile immersion in the arts and literature enriches the work and enlightens our lives. I don’t know how often I will be able to post but I will make best efforts to be regular. It will be a process, an experiment actually.
One person who has so enriched my own aesthetic life is the great scholar Jacques Barzun. As a college student I carried a tattered copy of his seminal book “Darwin, Marx, Wagner” with me at all times, my own Linus’ blanket. Barzun recently celebrated his centennial year. He is infirm; he walks with a cane but his thought and writing is that of a young scholar. In an article in the New Yorker written by a colleague, Arthur Krystal talks about what Barzun’s friends call the “Jacques moment”, a flash of insight and knowledge that would stupefy you or me with its erudition, but which is casual to him. I quote from the conclusion of this wonderful profile, which I recommend to you. It is on the web at:
“Two years ago while working on a piece for this magazine, I called Barzun to find out whether Lord Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary during the First World War, had said that the lights were going out all over Europe before hostilities had actually begun. Barzun asked if I was referring to him in my article as “Lord Grey”. I said I was, since the attribution was always the same. Barzun cleared his throat. ‘Well, you know he wasn’t a lord when he said it. He didn’t become Viscount of Fallodon until 1916’. For the first time in thirty-odd years of conversation, I exclaimed, ‘Why would you know that?’ He replied, mildly. ‘It’s my business to know such things.’ ”
I’m not at all certain what it IS my business to know. As I get older I become more aware of limitations, of just how much I do not know, how much I want to know and how little time there is to know anything — this being true life anxiety in a world of bloviators.
I’ll end this first posting by pointing you to my reading obsession of the past two months. This is an indicator of just how rangy this blog may get. Across the country there is an online community of readers that is attempting through a website of mutual support (kind of like AA for readers) to tackle the ambitious novel “Infinite Jest”, a near 1100 page tome published in 1996 as the “big novel” of the 90s. The “read” started in late June and sets as a goal to read 75 pages a week. Four “guides,” who Vergil-like are trying to lead us Dante-esque readers through the Inferno of the novel, administer the site. The goal is to finish this ambitious and seemingly endless “masterpiece” by David Foster Wallace at the first anniversary of his untimely death by suicide at age 46. Here is a link to the site, the most recent posting being at the top: http://infinitesummer.org/
What can an 1100 page, putatively “unreadable” novel, obsessed with the strategy of tennis and the rituals of AA meetings, have to do with film? You’ll just have to stay tuned.