Lights, Camera, Magic

BAMPFA’s Film Series: 'The Art of Cinematography'

Adeline Belsby/Staff

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Editor’s Note

In the early age of movie-making, what fascinated filmmakers was less the medium’s artistic or narrative potential, but its innovation — moving images were a technological feat. There’s an age-old myth that says early film audiences were terrified of trains that railed toward them even as they sat safely in the theater, but now we know these crowds were less fearful than they were mesmerized. The magic of cinema, and cinematography in particular, still surprise and transfix us today — the camera can obscure a lurking killer in a horror movie, or soar over a crowded Los Angeles freeway in a musical.

The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive is celebrating artists’ mastery of lighting, framing and more with a film series entitled “The Art of Cinematography” from Nov. 5 to Dec. 29 this year. The screenings include films with feats and flourishes that astound and influence cinephiles and filmmakers to this day.

Sophie-Marie Prime

“Cléo from 5 to 7”

“Cléo from 5 to 7,” Agnès Varda’s 1962 film about a French pop star (Corinne Marchand) awaiting the results of her cancer diagnosis, remains one of the essential works of the French New Wave. Along with the period’s other magnum opi such as “Breathless” (Godard, 1960) and “The 400 Blows,” (Truffaut, 1959) “Cléo” has a youthful, experimental visual style — one characterized by constant camera movement, unusual editing techniques and a vivid portrayal of 1960s life in France.

The film is presented in real time, with its story beginning at 5 p.m. and ending at 6:30 p.m. During that period, Varda’s photography is seldom less than dazzling, as her camera follows Cléo walking and driving around the city.

Take, for example, a scene in which the characters perform a song on the piano. The camera bobs back and forth in rhythm with the tune while panning from person to person, allowing us to feel fully immersed in the scene.

Later in the film, Varda presents a montage of Cléo walking, spliced with images of characters in the film staring directly at the camera. Cléo feels watched, remarking at one point, “I always think everyone’s looking at me, but I only look at myself.”

Like other directors of the French New Wave, Varda’s visual style contains a kind of paradox. By employing unusual and jarring visual techniques such as quick camera pans and subtitles that tell us what time it is, we are made constantly aware that we’re watching a movie. And yet, despite this reflexivity, the film feels more ‘real’ than other pre-New-Wave French masterpieces like “The Rules of the Game.”

“Cléo from 5 to 7” is required watching for Francophiles and cineastes alike.

— Jack Wareham

“I am Cuba”

Mikhail Kalatozov’s “I am Cuba” (1964) is a beautiful meld of Soviet Union propaganda and dichotomous Cuban reality that unfolds through shots way ahead of their time. Reflecting on the connections between Russia and Cuba, this film exhibits glitz, glamour and raw depictions of Cuba in all in the same magically impressive cinematic vein.

At a time when steady cams and cranes were not so readily available, cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky accomplishes incredible shots even by today’s standards. The opening scene of the movie is a continuous pan over the island of Cuba that primes audiences for the vibrant pulse of life they are about to explore.

The film does not follow just one story, but is a hodgepodge of the different narratives that depict the Cuban Communist Revolution. Through thoughtful direction and under Urusevsky’s watchful eye, the cinematography plays a striking role in distinguishing each aspect of Cuban life.

The beginning of the film focuses on the Havana casino glamour of Cuba in the 1960s. One of the narratives explores the story of Maria, who has to work as a prostitute in the casinos. Her section is haunted with dutch-angles and bouncing, uninterrupted shots as she flies around the dance floor, being passed from one man to another.

The communist propaganda present in the film is born from scenes such as one in which American naval officers sing a song about the majesty and prowess of the United States. As they sing, they follow a Cuban girl around in an attempt to assault her and she takes refuge behind a Russian man. The song they sing about their country becomes a sinister anthem that seems like it acts to justify their actions against the girl and the bright white of their uniforms makes their presence incredibly terrifying.

The evocative scenes do not stop here. In one of the most poignant moments, a man is throwing papers about Fidel Castro from a balcony and gets shot. He falls to the ground, his black-suited body lying in a circle of people wearing white. The intensity of the black against the white in this scene was redolent evidence for the polarities of the revolution.

Urusevsky’s cinematic decisions make this film a gorgeous shrine to the Cuban Revolution. The twisting shots demonstrate the surrealist vision of Fidel Castro, the sequence shots paralleled to the intentionally shaky camera work draw a line between native and tourist lifestyles on the island. “I am Cuba” serves as an enticing marker for Cuba’s past life in a Russian-Cuban lens.

— Maisy Menzies

“Antonio Gaudi”

This ethereal documentary made in 1984 and directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara is a visual archive of famous Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi’s the incendiary works. Through a soft musical score accompanying the panning shots of Gaudi’s fantastical conceptions, the inspirations and details of his grand works are illuminated.

The film utilizes decisive style of cinematography to promote its purpose of examining Gaudi’s incredible buildings. Steady, long pans up the towering Casa Batlló in the center of Barcelona, the chimneys of Casa Mila, the overwhelming stained glass windows of La Sagrada Familia, helps establish the grandiosity of his works. The almost psychotropic music coupled with the slow tracking shots is awe-inspiring. The still shots of the undulating arches, vegetative styles and curling roofs – styles of the Art Nouveau movement – make Gaudi’s incredible focus on detail that much more impactful.

Between the tilts encompassing the glory of the buildings to the close-ups on spiraling staircases, clips of everyday life in Barcelona are interwoven. The bustling beaches, the farmers, a woman walking her dog, happenings at the fish market all spliced into the montages of his creations.

These clips serve as representations of Gaudi’s inspiration as well as his purpose. His work is a product of his Catalan lifestyle — it’s impressive to see how his ornate, florid architecture is naturally integrated into the Catalan people’s everyday environment.

Teshigahara’s skillfully crafted documentary relies on visuals to convey his message in the same way that his muse, Gaudi, did in his works. The documentary is without narration, with hardly any spoken words at all. Instead, it is a cinematic and visual history of his creations. With only thoughtfully chosen images, Teshigahara weaves together an evocative tale of these constructions and Gaudi’s passions.

“Antonio Gaudi” is not just a documentary. It is a poetic ode to Catalonia’s most famous architect and the transcendiary products he created in his life. The film is a fluent and lyrical demonstration of his importance to the Catalan people as well as his marking on the world of architecture today.

— Maisy Menzies

“Citizen Kane”

Many a cocktail party has been ruined by someone offhandedly mentioning their love of “Citizen Kane.” But it’s recognition is well deserved. Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” (1941) is an achievement in both story telling and visual complexity. Although filmmaking has undergone drastic technological advancements since the 1940s, Welles was undeniably a cinematic master and his innovations still deserve attention.

“Citizen Kane” centers its plot upon unraveling the mystery surrounding the death of tycoon Charles Kane and seeks to discover the enigmatic meaning behind the film’s most famous word: “Rosebud.” The film’s structure of constant flashbacks was extremely novel as was its use of deep focus to create more visually dynamic shots. Countless scenes in “Citizen Kane” synthesize these two elements of Welles’ filmmaking — and perhaps the most famed example of this occurs during a flashback to Charles’ youth.

The scene begins in an effectively innocuous way: by featuring a young Charles playing in the snow during his childhood. The camera slowly pulls away from Charles seemingly through an open window, and tracks Mrs. Kane as she walks towards the kitchen in the scene’s foreground. In this simple example, the cinematography brilliantly echoes and supports the overarching narrative of the scene. Adults sit together in and discuss Charles’ future. All the while, the boy is constantly framed within the square of the open window. Therefore, he takes a position of prominence — both visually and through the unraveling dialogue between the adults — even though he remains in the background. This elaborate camera movement is even more impressive when one notes the duration of the scene; actors don’t have the benefit of editing to cover up potential mistakes.

While perhaps a slightly dated film for modern audiences, “Citizen Kane” still holds remarkable appeal and remains a textbook example of groundbreaking cinematography for any aspiring filmmakers to follow.

— Sarah Alford

“The Seventh Seal”

A thematically dense and complex film, Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece “The Seventh Seal” (1957) has definitely stood the test of time. Although perhaps not as commonly well-known as Orson Welles, Bergman’s influence as a filmmaker is undeniable, as directors from Stanley Kubrick to Steven Spielberg have cited his films as inspiration. “The Seventh Seal” is well deserving of its accolades, but its most well-known scene hasn’t escaped loving parody in films such as “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.”

The film’s narrative follows a knight returning back home to Sweden after the Crusades to discover that the country has fallen prey to the black plague. The knight eventually ends up challenging Death to a chess match with keeping his life contingent as the game’s prize. Psychologically meditative and visually rich, Bergman’s film poses complex questions about humanity and yet may not entirely answer them. And this lack of concrete understanding is partially reflected in the film’s very cinematography.

While “Citizen Kane” paints a rather straightforward narrative, “The Seventh Seal” is more ambiguous with its intentions. At the crux of the film lies the protagonist’s search for meaning and the insufficient answers that religion provides. The emptiness of a plague-ravaged countryside echos the knight’s own personal sense of malaise and disillusionment. The famous chess match with Death operates like the rest of the film itself; deceptively simple on its surface, this scene is a point of departure for various interpretations. The beach as a meeting place with Death is highly suggestive — Bergman seems to be using a physical space between two opposites (land/water) as a comparison between two other opposites (death/life).

Although not a typical popcorn movie by any stretch of the imagination, “The Seventh Seal” serves as a quiet reflection on universal human questions and offers a portrait of a landscape both literally and figuratively cast in black and white.

— Sarah Alford

“Battleship Potemkin”

Sergei Eisenstein is acclaimed for his focus on montage editing — an aspect characteristic to his style, that distinguished him from other directors of his time. In “Strike,” Eisenstein’s adoration for montage is almost immediately identifiable. But in “Battleship Potemkin” (1925), there is so much more that is unique to Eisenstein’s art — his characters, his minimal but compelling dialogue, his choice of story.

The Russian Revolution of 1905 was seen by many artists — not just filmmakers — as the perfect setting for their art. Film was then used as a powerful tool for propaganda (as it continues to be), and Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” is considered a tribute to the Russian revolutionaries. That it begins with a quote by Lenin makes its trait of being propaganda distinct. Eisenstein, through his film, makes the fact that montage editing can work so beautifully against the background of war and revolution so clear.

The mutiny on the Potemkin in 1905 was a significant turning point for the the influence of the Russian navy on the revolution, and Eisenstein’s decision to fictionalize this event resulted in a film that, in every sense, perfectly captures the chaos of the revolution. His careful manipulation of speed and his constant intercuts — especially of the characters’ dramatic expressions — contributed immensely to the visual brilliance of this film.

His play with light is particularly fruitful, exemplified in the shots of the battleship at sea, which he took from a variety of different angles, allowing what was seemingly natural light to bounce off all sides of the ship, illuminating it and in turn, illuminating this exceedingly significant event in Russian history.  

— Anoushka Agrawal

“Pour la suite du monde”

In the United States, we remember the 1960s as a volatile decade of countless demonstrations, sit-ins, counterculture movements and war. But “Pour la suite du monde” (1963) portrays another side of history — where islanders on the small island of L’Isle-aux-Coudres (or the Island of Hazelnuts), four miles south of mainland Quebec, Canada, muse about old traditions.

Quebecois filmmakers Michel Brault and Pierre Perrault approach the film as a cinéma vérité (roughly translated as “truth cinema”) documentary, but it’s undeniably a docufiction — involving a mixture of fictional or controlled situations with improvisation and natural reactions.

Lightweight portable cameras and synchronous sound recording proffered by the postwar era allowed cinematographer Brault and Bernard Gosselin to capture close shots of men toiling in the offshore mud of the St. Lawrence River and driving 15 to 20 feet stakes into the ground in order to create a weir that will trap the snow-white porpoises.

Men talk of the moon the same way the natives once did when they occupied the land. Children play with tires and run through fruitful fields of dandelions and daisies. And the
women largely remain in the background at home.

In between these scenes, Brault and Perrault have recorded islanders’ freely celebrating the week of Lent. Then we cut to staged interviews with Léopold Tremblay, merchant and president of the New Co. for Whale-Trapping, leading the highly inconvenient expedition and Louis Harvey, an aged but energetic farmer and church cantor.

At the very same time the audience and the camera are relegated to observers veiled into the background unnoticed — our presence is only made known when the “actors” look directly into the lens during these interviews.

— Lloyd Lee

Contact the Daily Cal Arts Staff at [email protected].