Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

11 Jan

Title: Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff
Year: 2011
Director: Craig McCall
Writer: –
Starring: Jack Cardiff, Martin Scorsese, Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Runtime: 86 min
IMDb Rating: 7.6
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Metacritic: 71


Jack Cardiff’s status in cinematic history is legendary. He started as a child actor in silent films as early as 1918. But, most importantly, he was a cinematographer in over eighty titles, his first project being made in the mid-thirties and his last in 2007, two years before his death in 2009. A four-time Oscar nominee (and one time winner, for Black Narcissus) as well as the winner of an honorary Oscar in 2001 (the first cinematographer to receive one). The man’s career spanned so many cinematic moments, from the silent era, to his early experiments in Technicolor photography that altered the look of films from there on; a truly legendary man. Craig McCall’s film takes a look at the man’s great body of work, with interviews with many great contemporaries of him that help examine how he became such an influential figure in filmmaking, revolutionizing much of it with his mastery of the Technicolor process.

Even though Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff doesn’t really give us all that much insight into the “life” part of the title, since we don’t really learn all that much outside his life outside of the “work” environment, this is still a truly terrific film to watch, and by the end of it the stuff he did in the movies will be really awesome for you to watch, truly required viewing for any movie-lover. And it’s awesome that we have these documentaries about a cinematographer, because, other than real cinephiles, people don’t know the names of cinematographers, not even the Roger Deakins and Conrad L. Hall’s, they just see them as names rolling by in the credits and as people accepting awards at the Oscars they have to go through to get to the real movie stars. It’s awesome that there’s a film to give a look at the life of one of the greatest ever.

It’s awesome, too, that Jack Cardiff was such a quiet man in a business full of egomaniacs so ready to boast about their accomplishments, even as Mr. McCall approaches his subject with such obvious, and deserved, admiration, the man in the spotlight takes it all with a modesty that only makes you like him more. The man is a master, a true genius in knowing how to work with lighting and color and just at capturing some truly memorable images on film. And even if his work wasn’t as majestic as it is, the sheer longevity of his career would be awe-inspiring enough; like Dustin Hoffman said when presenting him the honorary Oscar, for anyone in attendance that night who was under seventy, the honoree had been working since before they were born. Such a thing is amazing enough, that he was able to be a first-hand witness to the transition from silent film to sound, from black-and-white to Technicolor; that he was such an important figure in those moments in history just makes it all the better.

I guess as a documentary this isn’t that mind-blowing, it’s not groundbreaking or innovative in any way, but you get the sense that Mr. McCall was just making this as a huge fan, and as such made the right decision of leaving his hand pretty much out of this one, letting the images crafted by the man he was homaging speak for themselves, aided by a who’s-who of interviewees including Martin Scorsese, Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall. The interviews with Mr. Scorsese are great, he’s my favorite director ever and to see him like we do in here, just riffing on with his trademark speedy chatty voice about film history and his overall love about the medium is awesome. We also get Thelma Schoonmaker, the long-time editor of Mr. Scorsese (and three-time Oscar winner as such), and who was married for six years with Michael Powell, until his death in 1990. It was as the house cinematographer for Mr. Powell’s and Eric Pressburger’s company that he helped hone such films as Narcissus and, of course, The Red Shoes, and define the look of films of the time.

Maybe there wasn’t so much time dedicated to the “life” part because for Jack Cardiff his life as was his work, the guy was always doing something, either working on his films, shooting some of the best actors to have ever lived, or going to museums to study how the best painters used lighting in their compositions, which explains why his style is often described as a painter working on film, and why his eye for color was the best one to guide filmmaking through the transition into color. I really loved this look at the work of a master, and I loved how the master himself looked at the great work he made, with a sense of confident humility, not making such a big deal about having made some of the greatest films with some of the greatest filmmakers. The man truly was an artist, this film will make that pretty clear, and may make you kind of resent the fact that nowadays so much is done with digital effects and not just with the camera like he did it. Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff lets the images speak for themselves, an homage to his work, and it’s all that we need.

Grade: B+


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