Friday night's New York Film Festival special event screening offered the perfect pairing with a double feature of Cameraman, followed by A Matter of Life and Death, a Powell/Pressburger film, shot by Mr. Cardiff in his Technicolor prime.
Filmmaker, Mr. McCall, wisely looked outside a more traditional historical bio-pic documentary structure in a variety of ways. One was to allow Mr. Cardiff to be more than a talking head interspersed with historical photographs. Mr. Cardiff (in this film, a handsome 91 year old with startling blue eyes and terrific wit) is active. We see him as he takes us through his wall of paintings, while he gives us a tour of a Technicolor camera (a mammoth of a contraption that made both color its own film genre and Mr. Cardiff's handling and interpretation of it legendary), and during his appearances at Cannes. It gives us a feeling of movement and present day that takes this piece many steps above your average retrospective.
Mr. Cardiff's paintings play a major role in this film, as they are a direct line to his cinematography. He describes his early discovery of great painters and their techniques. His love of impressionists and post-impressionists, in particular Van Gogh and of course techniques such as chiaroscuro. The director highlights these influences beautifully by literally offering stills of Mr. Cardiff's cinematography along side the works of painters that are his inspiration. There is also a terrific like comparison between The Red Shoes (another Powell/Pressburger and Cardiff teaming) and Raging Bull. Martin Scorsese, who appears in the film (interesting lighting in this interview) speaks of Mr. Cardiff's influence on his own films by explaining how The Red Shoes depicts the ballerina's internal performing experience, which inspired Mr. Scorsese to do the same in the fight scenes of Raging Bull. Later in the Cameraman, Mr. Cardiff walks us along a wall of some paintings he has done over the years. He talks about copying master painters by literally creating a likeness of their work (Mr. Cardiff is a talented painter in his own right) and how the exercise of duplicating an artist's work whom you admire is really a study of the art itself and develops skill and discovery.
Inside the artistic insights into Mr. Cardiff's great life, were fun antidotes here and there too. This provided a nice rhythm and showed off Mr. Cardiff's great humor and a look at his self-perception. When asked if Marilyn Monroe really did request him for a film, his response was that yes she had. When asked if he knew why she did, he simply stated with a matter-of-fact smile, "I was in vogue". He was also a photographer (makes sense, right?) and shows a gorgeous collection of beautiful actresses, including Sofia Loren and Audrey Hepburn. In fact he references more than a handful of experiences with some of the most famous screen sirens of our time, all are pretty funny. Mr. Cardiff tells us tales of shooting a Marlene Dietrich bathtub scene and his first meeting with Ava Gardner for Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. And the way Mr. Cardiff delivers these stories, it doesn't feel gossipy. I guess because these are actually first person recollections.
There is much to see and experience in Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff. I can't cover it all here and shouldn't because it's worth seeing and not just reading a little blurb about it. Not only do you get inside the mind of a awe-inspiring artist, but you get to see a few Hollywood legends, some of who are now gone, such as the lovely screen and theater actress, Kim Hunter and also Charleton Heston.
Other golden age of Hollywood actors who gave homage to Cardiff's talents were Lauren Bacall and Kirk Douglas both make appearances. All interviewees are lighted incredibly. Mr. Cardiff, no doubt, would be proud. Mr. McCall began the project in 1997 and said in his post-screening discussion that Mr. Cardiff was able to see a version of it before he passed in 2009.
On a side note, Mr. Douglas's appearance was due to his teaming with Mr. Cardiff on the late 50's film The Vikings, starring Mr. Douglas and Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine and Janet Leigh. The leads were anything but Vikings, but I recently watched this film and the cinematography was beautiful, partially because it was shot in the actual Fjords of Norway, but also because it was shot by Jack Cardiff. I didn't even notice his credit when I watched it, but there are great snippets and antidotes of this Richard Fleischer picture (another great who is now deceased but makes an appearance in this documentary) in Cameraman.
The filmmaker talk-back that took place between Cameraman and A Matter of Life and Death was interesting as well. The discussion, like the film, wasn't typical post-screening fare. Mr. McCall talked about how he had met Mr. Cardiff and his attraction to him was in part because of his youthful exuberance over creative expression. Mr. McCall said that although Mr. Cardiff appreciated the praise and admiration he received over his Technicolor work, he thought modern cinematography technology was marvelous and loved High Definition. He found the Technicolor camera terribly restraining and really didn't miss it. The one thing he did miss was the creative freedom his was once allowed in creating effects. He told McCall that the Effects Department will take care of much of what he once delighted in doing himself with simple tools. Effects were as much a part of Mr. Cardiff's work as wielding the camera. At times he would literally paint filters or even paint the lens itself to create effects that would administer incredible results, such as the fog in The Vikings or his snow scenes for War and Peace (beautifully illustrated in Cameraman).
Something I found rather interesting is when an audience member mentioned the fact that Mr. Cardiff's personal life was absent from this picture. Craig McCall responded by saying he always finds it's strange when watching a documentary on someone how a random daughter or cousin shows up. Isn't that so true? In addition, he said when considering to include Mr. Cardiff's family life, he thought about whether it would add anything to the film and his work. He felt it wouldn't, and although he wondered if it's absence might imply there was something to hide, he stuck with his gut feeling on this. Personally I did notice the personal life section to be missing but found it utterly refreshing. Even the audience member who initially commented on this, told Mr. McCall it was a compliment. Indeed focusing on the man and his work, without wandering off into marriages, alleged affairs or other scandals, gave the film an added touch of class and that was something that Mr. Cardiff embodied, so it seemed more than appropriate.
Craig McCall devoted this New York Film Festival Screening (the festival closes tonight) to the very talented actor and New Yorker, Kim Hunter. Ms. Hunter starred in the follow up screening to Cameraman in A Matter of Life and Death.