Friday, January 2, 2015

#1,600. Cameraman: The Life and Works of Jack Cardiff (2010)

Directed By: Craig McCall

Starring: Jack Cardiff, Martin Scorsese, Kirk Douglas

Line from this Film: "For those of us who are 70 years old or younger, Jack Cardiff was shooting film before we were born"

Trivia: This movie was released almost exactly one year after Jack Cardiff's death

Even if Jack Cardiff’s name isn’t familiar to you, odds are you’ve seen his work. As a cinematographer, he shot some of the greatest motion pictures in cinema history, and even took the director’s chair on a number of occasions. The 2010 documentary Cameraman: The Life and Works of Jack Cardiff functions as a biopic of sorts, covering the 70+ years its subject spent toiling behind a camera, but more than this, it pays tribute to a unique artist whose eye for detail was second to none.

Featuring a series of interviews with Jack Cardiff (who was in his 90s when this documentary was made), Cameraman starts way back in 1918, when, as a 4-year-old, he played a key role in the film My Son, My Son. Yet despite the fact both of his parents were actors, Cardiff soon discovered his true talent lay behind the scenes, working as a camera operator on movies like the 1936 sci-fi classic Things to Come. Due to his keen eye, Cardiff was hand-picked to be the first British cameraman to shoot in Technicolor, a process he soon mastered thanks to a series of color travelogues as well as the wartime documentary Western Approaches, for which he tagged along with the Royal Merchant Navy.

His career finally took off in 1943 when, as a 2nd unit camera operator on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, he impressed director Michael Powell, who hired Cardiff to serve as the lead cinematographer on his next picture, A Matter of Life and Death. But it was his masterful work on 1947’s Black Narcissus that made the rest of the world to sit up and take notice, netting Cardiff both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. It wasn’t long before Jack Cardiff was in Hollywood, shooting movies for Alfred Hitchcock (Under Capricorn), John Huston (The African Queen), King Vidor (War and Peace), and Laurence Olivier (The Prince and the Showgirl). Using the experience he gained working with such talented filmmakers, Cardiff himself helmed a dozen or so pictures in the ‘60s and ‘70s, including Sons and Lovers (which was nominated for seven Oscars) and a few British exploitation movies (The Mutations, Girl on a Motorcycle). Cardiff continued working through the ‘80s (serving as cinematographer on action flicks like Conan the Destroyer and Rambo: First Blood Part 2), and, even though he sat out most of the ‘90s, was still shooting films in the new millennium. At one point in Cameraman, we join Jack Cardiff on the set of a 2005 movie, at which point he was 91 years old. “I can’t go much longer, though”, he quips. “Another 10 years and I’ll have to take it easy”.

A loving tribute to an exceptional talent, Cameraman: The Lives and Works of Jack Cardiff talks with a number of actors and filmmakers who either worked alongside Cardiff over the years (Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Kim Hunter) or were directly influenced by him (some of his most glowing praise comes courtesy of Martin Scorsese). Yet the movie’s best moments are when Cardiff himself takes center stage, discussing his career in candid detail and telling us what it is that inspires him, namely the works of such famous artists as Monet and Picasso, who taught him lessons about shadows and light that he carried with him at all times (among his many talents, Cardiff was a skilled painter, and over the course of the movie we’re shown a few of his prints).

With clips from many of Cardiff’s pictures as well as a handful of behind-the-scenes 16mm movies he himself shot, Cameraman not only pays homage to one of film’s true geniuses, it’s also a history course on the cinema itself, telling the story of a man who, by looking through a viewfinder for the better part of seven decades, left an indelible mark on what many consider the most influential art form of the 20th century.

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