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Sumbmitted by Bob Keser
Jack Cardiff: Cinema's Vermeer
By Bill Desowitz
New York Times, Sunday March 25th (Oscar Night)
It's fitting that when the Academy Awards are bestowed tonight, Jack Cardiff will receive the first honorary Oscar ever given to a cinematographer for artistic achievement rather than technical merit. This 86-year-old Briton has always relied more on art than technology, and he likes to tell how the rapt hours he had spent in museums as a child served to propel his career later when he least expected it.
It was 1936 and he was a rising young camera operator working with Marlene Dietrich on Knight Without Armor. He was called at home one evening and told to return at once to Denham Studios in London: Technicolor was starting a local operation and wanted to meet with all the camera operators before selecting one to be taught its exclusive color system.
Awaiting his turn, he watched his colleagues emerge from their interviews bemoaning the difficulty of the technical questions. Well, Mr. Cardiff began his session by confessing his own ignorance of film technology - and there was stunned silence. He then proceeded to engage the interviewers in an analysis of lighting in painting, describing in passionate detail how his favorite old masters - Rembrandt, Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch - played with light to capture the subtleties of human emotion.
The Technicolor officials went along for a little while. Mr. Cardiff was even asked which side of the face Rembrandt preferred to light; he confidently replied that it was the left. Chatting about chiaroscuro, he wrote in his 1996 autobiography, "Magic Hour", took him back to the revelatory visits he had made to art museums when his parents, who were music hall performers, played London. But the arty conversation was cut short and Mr. Cardiff dismissed. He figured he didn't have a chance.
Later, to his utter surprise, he learned he had been selected. After an invaluable apprenticeship photographing everything from coronation ceremonies to wars, and working as a cameraman on British films like The Four Feathers (1939), he had mastered the glorious Technicolor system and also become known as the company's enfant terrible.
Once, while making a travelog atop Mount Vesuvius, Mr. Cardiff wasn't content with the oozing flow of dull red lava. To make it more dramatic, he slowed down the film to make the flow appear faster and tweaked the color to make it a fiery orange. Such manipulation was frowned on at Technicolor, but Mr. Cardiff got away with it because he was the company's best color specialist.
In 1945 the great director Michael Powell - a bold visual stylist himself - asked Mr. Cardiff to be the cinematographer on A Matter of Life and Death. The film, Mr. Cardiff's first feature as cinematographer, was to be a fantasy about a downed World War II pilot who must persuade a heavenly court to allow him to survive.
Mr. Cardiff rendered its scenes of everyday English life as a Technicolor heaven on earth, and he created a compellingly celestial hereafter in cool, luminous tones of black and white. Released in this country as Stairway to Heaven, the film established Mr. Cardiff as a master of painting with light. His next collaboration with Powell, the luridly emotional melodrama Black Narcissus, won Mr. Cardiff the 1947 Oscar for cinematography.
The pair outdid themselves the next year, with the romantic ballet classic The Red Shoes. And in the ensuing decades, Mr. Cardiff photographed visually arresting movies for many other directors in England and Hollywood, including John Huston, who took him along on an arduous shoot in the Congo for The African Queen (1951). In the 50's he began a parallel career as a director, and his 1960 adaptation of D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, starring Trevor Howard and Dean Stockwell, was well received.
But it is as a cinematographer that he has had his greatest impact, and he still talks about his craft as if he were auditioning for Technicolor. "The most interesting lesson in painting is clean-looking light and dramatic emphasis, whether it stands out in a countryside or in a bowl of fruit," he said recently by telephone from his home in Kent, England. "Economy and simplicity - that was Caravaggio. Drama and organization - that was Turner. This is what I think about when lighting a scene."
It all sounds so simple, so innocent. Which brings to mind that enchanting moment in John Boulting's 1951 film The Magic Box when the 19th-century British inventor William Friese-Greene (Robert Donat) summons a bobby (Laurence Olivier) from the street to witness the birth of cinema. Mr. Cardiff depicts the flickering light and ephemeral imagery from the world's first film projector as if they were heaven sent. And when Olivier peers behind the screen in wonder, we are all reduced to wide-eyed children along with him.
Indeed, to experience Mr. Cardiff's cinematography is to glimpse the transcendent. With painterly precision and an iridescent imagination, he enlists any source of light, any trick of reflection, to extract emotional depth from the faces of the passionate dreamers, obsessive loners and tormented lovers who people his films. And not one of his films is more spiritually infused than Black Narcissus. An eerie psychological thriller about a convent in the Himalayas, the film hinges on the conflict between two nuns, one repressed (Deborah Kerr), the other overwrought (Kathleen Byron).
Memory and madness, the exotic and the erotic - the film's themes are choreographed to a mystical, musical rhythm that finds expression in Mr. Cardiff's cinematography. Using oatmeal-colored tones and chaste-looking light, Mr. Cardiff evokes Vermeer in the early scenes of somber introspection. At the film's climax, as the charged atmosphere of the mountains drives Ms. Byron's character into a frenzy of sexual desire, the palette suddenly shifts into the wild hues of Expressionism. Dressed in crimson, wearing red lipstick and looking possessed, the nun surrenders completely to the wind and otherworldly surroundings and charges her colleague in the bell tower.
Mr. Cardiff used a fog filter to enhance the surreal tragedy of this final struggle and, inspired by the work of van Gogh, filled the shadows with a cool green to clash with the overpowering red. In those days, Technicolor never permitted the use of devices to cloud the film, and the lab was going to junk this uncanny scene until Powell intervened. Mr. Cardiff's work has never been more haunting.
But his greatest artistic triumph is probably the 15-minute ballet sequence in The Red Shoes, a film for which he should have won a second Oscar. (What a swindle that was. Mr. Cardiff contends he was deprived even of a nomination because his American colleagues felt they would be disgraced if a foreigner were to win twice in a row.)
With its plethora of color, light and movement, the ballet sequence is positively phantasmal - a surreal carnival by Marc Chagall or a dancer's orgy by Edgar Degas that takes us into the mind of a dancer (Moira Shearer) as she performs a ballet that parallels her own life story. The real and the imaginary merge as she is torn between love and art.
To display the artifice of both the dance and the cinema, Mr. Cardiff used every available gimmick. In one instance, he rigged a special motor so that the camera could alter the speed of a dance, slowing a leap at its highest point to make it appear that the dancer was lingering in midair before descending. During the magical moment when Ms. Shearer dances with a newspaper that morphs into a man, Mr. Cardiff changed the speed from 24 frames a second to four frames, so the man could melt back into a newspaper while whirling.
His work is all a matter of making beauty more palpable and sensual by heightening reality. Which includes bringing out the best in such screen goddesses as Ingrid Bergman (in Alfred Hitchcock's 1949 Under Capricorn), Sophia Loren (in Legend of the Lost in 1957), Ava Gardner (in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman in 1951 and The Barefoot Contessa in 1954) and Marilyn Monroe (in The Prince and the Showgirl in 1957).
In the case of Gardner, Mr. Cardiff captured both her lustful spirit and sad aloofness. In Dutchman, which retells the legend of the immortal seaman and his lover, Gardner first appears singing about despair while playing the piano in a dreary nightclub. Copying Rembrandt, Mr. Cardiff lighted her face ever so slightly, giving it an aspect both iconic and tragic.
As for Monroe, the cinematographer saw her as a tremulous cherub in the company of her co-star, the commanding Olivier, and he photographed her with the soft warmth Renoir usedfor women and children.
Mr. Cardiff isn't through yet. He embarks next month on what he says will be his final film, Sabina Anima. It's based on the life of the woman who inspired Carl Jung and indirectly came between him and Sigmund Freud. Mr. Cardiff is already thinking about the strange light he will use to capture all the psychological ramifications of the story. Somewhere in London, no doubt, there's a painting that will help him figure it out.