CO-FINANCED BY: KUJAWSKO-POMORSKIE REGION, MINISTRY OF CULTURE AND NATIONAL HERITAGE FROM PROMOTION OF CULTURE FUND AND POLISH FILM INSTITUTE
KATARZYNA TARAS' COLUMN: ABOUT THE ART OF CINEMATOGRAPHY
Friday September 2nd, 2011
Alchemy. About the art of cinematography
The hereafter cycle was inspired, among other things, by the conversation after having watched the film which I had been enraptured by, but my interlocutor was rather not. “Instead of repeating “good images, good imageses" prove they are good". I heard just after a brilliant and stormy exchange of thoughts. I did prove it, and in the meantime I realized that I had just touched the problem which many people who are interested in film even experts in this business deal or used to deal with.
What does it really mean that the images are good? Especially today in the era of DI, 3D or Alexa which drives RED out of business. Fortunately, all of us got used to making films with digital cameras. However, you could hear that this kind of equipment is only used by the amateur not long ago. The amateur will use this medium completely differently than the professional after all. I have just mentioned it was not long ago but it happened in 2002 during Plus Camerimage edition in Łódź when Sam Mendes's "Road to Perdition" with the unhumanly perfect cinematography of Conrad L. Hall, where the Master paid tribute to “film noir" which creates the essence of American film. I always feel a little thrill when I remind myslef the composition of the frame corresponding to "The Asphalt Jungle" and modest and intense and how much thought over "Edi" directed by Piotr Trzaskalski and photographed by Krzysztof Ptak made with the digital camera actually. "The digital camera" became much more respected and accepted, in film-making. Thanks to such a film as "Pina" but not "Avatar" it will be the same with 3D technology. (After being deluded by Wenders's movie I will take back in public and being witnessed all the bad words I said about 3D.)
"Road to Perdition"
The festival of art of cinematography was evoked consciously and voluntarily because it was in Toruń during the first edition when the subject of images had appeared in Polish professional film literature for good. That subject had been certainly raised long before but the case studies concerning films touched more theoretical aspects of the visual value of films.(let's not mention books for the film school students as I do not read them myself). Exceptionally Aleksander Jackiewicz one of the creators of Polish film literature in his cycle "Birth of film work" in "Cinema" magazine ( I am quoting it by heart so I can be a little bit "unfaithful") whetted our appetite by describing film alchemy. There was even a special piece of "Film Quarterly Magazine" (7-8/1994) where you could find interviews, analysis and first of all the handy dictionary of art of cinematography which revealed that cinematographers' work must be magic or just alchemy. So it is as broad as it is long. We realized that if we want to write about or to study films not only should we focus on the subject matter but also admire light and justify our appreciation. The most beautiful light was certainly created by Sven Nykvist (possibly one of the first if not the very first one who limited the usage of the artificial light to minimum, as he preferred the natural one. Generally the history of art of cinematography means the history of choosing light) the Master, the Wizard, the person whose charisma and peace of the Philosopher could be felt just after a few minutes of conversation. I was that lucky to experience it. Let's mention just his light effects in the adaptation of "Kristine Lavransdatter" directed by Liv Ullman and that shot when after possibly the first night which the main characters spent together and are sitting in the shed and the light invades through the cracks of the wooden walls. In this shot we could see what was the most important in Sigrid Undset novel - the disappointment of fulfillment I will mention something that is strictly connected with Plus Camerimage to stop this nostalgic thinking , to stop coming back to memories and talking with magniloqentliness. People swank that they know the cinematographers' names and films they made. If you hear that someone just after the name of the director of the film adds who photographed it you can be sure you are talking to somebody who had been to Plus Camerimage festival in his/her youth in Toruń, in Łódź (now he/she will have this chance in Bydgoszcz). However, the educational value of the festival can be the subject of a completely different story.
People were trying to define the film cinematographer's work with all possible sorts of comparisons (its worth looking into above mentioned sketch by Aleksander Jackiewicz) I remember Jackiewicz comparing a cinematographer by him to a wizard, to a surgeon who penetrates the reality with his/her lancet, to a portrait-painter and to an alchemist. The last one seems to truly inform what the cinematographer's work deals with while he/she has light at his/her disposal. (However, one cinematographer that I made friends with claims perversely that they operate more with shade than with light.) Anyway, either it is light or it is shade there is no more fleeting matter. Surely there is colour, the frame composition , the dramaturgy of the shot- let's remember that the film image differs from the static picture as far as the time duration is concerned. Film is the art of narration. First we see the light then we see the shade. Mastering the workshop- cinematographers keep talking they are craftsmen first of all.. Sensibility. Talent.
Though, Grzegorz Kędzierski a long term co-operator of Wojciech Jerzy Has ( I quoted him in this column before) was possibly the one who defined what a cinematographer does on set most beautifully and completely. During one of the editions of Plus Camerimage in Łódź I heard such an answer - "The cinematographer dreams a dream which was assigned to him/her by the director." That sounds as if Has had said it himself.
Fine, but I was to write about images, about the good images. Good images tell us a story. That's just it. They tell it because a film is the art of narration, the most linked to literature, but not to painting or theatre. However, they cannot distract the viewer, cannot deceive him/her, cannot flirt with him/her..
Good images (let me mention a few examples from last year) are the images created by Paweł Flis in "The Christening" directed by Marcin Wrona (I have no doubt to consider this shooting as the most brilliant visual film from last year). The cinematographer was not frightened to use whiteness which is not favoured by most cinematographers, what is more, he used this whiteness masterly (in the film which was inspired very much by the gangster's movies as far as its dramaturgy is concerned- let's mention even the shot when the hero cries about his city) thanks to this the ending is almost unreal- so is the main character. It seems that the ending takes place in other world.
The images created by Piotr Wojtowicz in "Little Rose" directed by Jan Kidawa-Błoński are the next example. Intelligent, discreet, awarded with a Golden Frog in Polish Film Competition of Plus Camerimage 2010 for the perfect combination of archival materials showing what really happened at Krakowskie Przedmieście (the street in Warsaw) in March in 1968 and the staged shots.where the colours and kinds of light alternate exactly the same way as the lives of the main characters and suggest that it can happen even if it really hadn't.
Good images are also the ones created by Roger Deakins in "True Grit" directed by Coen brothers thanks to which the whole story is mythologized. They organize the narration from the very first moment. If we deal with the memories of the woman who is in love, whose man of her life , even though she had been a little girl at that time, is generally a drunk hero, the upholder of the Wild West legend so the myth and nostalgy are very wellgrounded. (During the projection I envied Americans... their western movies).
"Fear of Falling" photographed by Piotr Niemyjski and directed by Bartek Konopka is next on my list. Both men decided to tell their story by being detailed and using nuance. They took us backstage of the native drama. The images in “Fear of Falling" soothe the viewer with their calm. It would be impossible to watch this film if it had been told more dynamically even just a little bit. The authors gave us so many emotions.
"Fear of Falling"
Finally "El Premio" directed by Paula Markovitch with cinematography by Wojciech Staroń. If I were to define the visual aspect of this film with only one word I would say - moderation. Moderation in dosing the colour - reaching the limits of monochromatic character. The camera that is led moderately tells about a dramatic moment in the history of Argentina but all is recollected by the woman who had experienced it as a child so she got her life in order. And that inaggressive but clear inspiration by Argentinian flag national colours.
Agnieszka Holland, who was the President of the Jury at one edition of the festival of cinematography, expressed the good images matter as follows: ( I quote it by heart again )- "There is no good film with bad images, and there is no bad film with good ones". I am not even going to start any dispute.
Agnieszka Holland with Diane Krüger. Taken from Plus Camerimage archives