August 23, 2011

Cameraman: The Life And Work Of Jack Cardiff

Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Rating (out of five): ****1/2

"How do you get an idea that hits you here," Martin Scorsese asks, jabbing a finger at the center of his forehead, " an image that hits you here, and then translate it through this… this… piece of equipment?"

The piece of equipment Scorsese is referring to, of course, is the movie camera. No one knew better how to translate the thoughts of directors through the unwieldy workings of a camera than Jack Cardiff, the subject of Cameraman.

A fifteen-year labor of love, Craig McCall’s documentary mines the career of Cardiff, the pioneering cinematographer known best for his three collaborations with "The Archers" (Micheal Powell and Emeric Pressburger). Those films – A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes – remain benchmarks of cinematic innovation.

The audience for this thing seems to me a little pre-sold. You’re either into film history or you aren’t and dilettantes aren’t going to be swayed by a documentary on a 90-year-old cameraman. However, for anyone who cares about the making of films and the innovative work of Cardiff, Cameraman is just about perfect. Cardiff is a consummate raconteur and his career has intersected with so many of cinema’s legendary figures, from Marlene Dietrich to Sylvester Stallone. Adding insights(and not just effusive praise) are Scorsese, Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, etc. etc. Perhaps due to the relaxed nature of the production schedule, McCall seems to have ingratiated himself to his interview subjects, mining plenty of anecdotal gems.

The only criticism I might have with the film is its lack of extra-cinematic revelations about Cardiff. I’m always curious about how someone like Cardiff managed to balance a paradigm-shifting career and a family life, but the film limits itself (appropriately enough) to Jack Cardiff: Cameraman, eschewing any of the other hats he might have worn (aside from a brief discussion of his decade-plus stint as a director). There’s nary a word about Cardiff’s personal life and its successes or failures relative to his career. When Cardiff passed on in 2009, he was survived by four children and a third wife but there’s nothing here to indicate who they were and what they thought of their pater familias.

Strand Releasing’s disc comes generously appointed with extra interviews that significantly enhance the enjoyment of the film. Watching Cardiff share his home movies shot while on location for The African Queen or listening to Cardiff, Scorsese, Freddie Francis, etc. discuss the intricacies of the director-cameraman relationship offers an inspiring look into these filmmakers processes. Not to be missed.

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Posted by maian at August 23, 2011 4:18 PM
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