BAMPFA Film Series Gives Cinematography Its Due

by Sura Wood

Cinematography—the marriage of artistic vision and technology—is perhaps the most underappreciated and least understood aspect of film-making.

Imagine David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” without the thrilling vistas, “The Godfather” minus the burnished sienna palette or “Citizen Kane” stripped of its chiaroscuro lighting and deep focus, and you understand the essential role of cinematography. Whether sweeping and heart-stopping or so subtle and integrated that it is barely noticeable, cinematography—the marriage of artistic vision and technology—is perhaps the most underappreciated and least understood aspect of film-making. The key contribution it has made, from the silent era through the modern age, gets its due in “The Art of Cinematography,” a series currently at BAMPFA. “We shine a light on films with exceptional camerawork, one of the cornerstones of film as an art form,” says BAMPFA senior film curator Susan Oxtoby. “Frame composition and movement, the choreography of camera with its subject, lighting and the use of black and white or color, are all part of the language of cinema and what give the medium its expressive and emotional power.”

That emotional power is conveyed in Danish director Carl Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928), a silent feature shot in France by Rudolph Mate. Maria Falconetti, delivering a bravura performance in her first and only film, channels the young Maid of Orleans. The austerity of the production, largely based on actual records of her trial, was achieved through striking compositions, a stark concrete set resembling a medieval prison and the actors’ lack of makeup. The work was pivotal in its use of extreme close-ups, especially of expressive faces that filled the entire frame. The technique ratchets up the intensity as Joan, sometimes bathed in beatific light, wrestles with the conflict between her deep faith and a desire to live, while the crude instruments of torture churn in the background. 

In two masterpieces, Akira Kurosawa translates Shakespeare through a Japanese aesthetic. “Throne of Blood” (1957), his adaptation of “Macbeth” with the superb Toshiro Mifune in the title role, references motifs of Noh theater, while Asakazu Nakai’s crisp black and white photography eloquently speaks to the play’s underlying themes of greed, guilt and destruction. Imagery of characters vanishing into misty enchanted forests or emerging from fog-shrouded landscapes exacerbates a sensation of dread and claustrophobia.
The besieged sovereign’s descent into self-delusion and paranoia culminates in a scene in his dank, dimly lit castle; a barrage of arrows coming from all directions makes him a prisoner both physically and inside his own troubled mind. (The terror on Mifune’s face may have been real; legend has it Kurosawa enlisted an archery squad to shoot real arrows at the actor and to narrowly miss him.) Kurosawa’s last epic, “Ran” (1985), an interpretation of “King Lear,” is a lavish production saturated in color and shot like an Expressionist painting in motion. Battling armies in blood-red, black and yellow, representing the warring sons of a 16th-century warlord, fight for their share of their aging father’s kingdom. Kurosawa worked with a trio of cinematographers—scenes were often filmed with three cameras operating simultaneously—choreographing complex sets, smoke and other special effects, 200 horses and a cast of thousands.

Sometimes the cinematography is the movie. Such is the case with Hiroshi Teshigahara’s virtually wordless “Antonio Gaudi,” in which Junichi Segawa’s artful, sensitive camera glides through the sculptural forms and seductive surfaces of the great Catalan architect’s astonishing buildings, including the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, his unfinished pièce de résistance. Teshigahara, an avant-garde Japanese director best known for “Woman in the Dunes,” supports the beautiful visuals with Toru Takemitsu’s elegiac score. 

Agnes Varda, a founding member—and the only female director—of the French New Wave, was a still photographer when, at 26, she started her film career with “La Pointe Courte” (1954), which many consider a forerunner of the loosely organized movement. The naturalistic, low-budget film, set in a Mediterranean fishing village where Varda had spent summers, was edited by Alain Resnais and shot on location in gorgeous, high contrast black and white with carefully composed images and Varda’s signature eye for detail. She captures the bright coastal sun, a pair of reuniting lovers and the pace of everyday life, paying special attention to residents and artisanal objects used in their work. Seven years later, Varda directed the melancholy “Cleo from 5 to 7,” about two hours in the life of a Parisian pop singer awaiting a potential cancer diagnosis. Innovative in its form and shot in widescreen on the streets of Paris with the aid of portable lightweight cameras, it’s an adventure in intimate meta portraiture: viewers watch a woman who’s simultaneously seeing her own image in mirrors and shop windows. Resnais’s classic, “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961), an odd, modernist work that explores the director’s preoccupation with time and memory, may be one of the strangest journeys ever committed to celluloid. Cinematographer Sacha Vierny’s surreal footage of the long corridors, salons, galleries and labyrinthine gardens of a baroque mansion, in conjunction with many long tracking shots, suspend reality in a world that resembles our own but isn’t; it suggests traveling through time to an uncertain destination—which some may find a fitting metaphor in BAMPFA’s final show of the year. 

Through Dec. 29


2155 Center St., Berkeley 642-0808