New Documentaries on Filmmakers

Two new documentaries about Hollywood craftsmen opened in Los Angeles this week: Something’s Gonna Live and Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (already on DVD in the UK). Both focus on likeable professionals and are brimming with movie clips, making them compulsive viewing, but I ultimately found the former much more compelling than the latter.

In some ways, Something’s Gonna Live is an expansion of director Daniel Raim’s 2001 Oscar-nominated short, The Man on Lincoln’s Nose, which focused on production designer Robert Boyle (who died last month). Raim’s new feature expands his focus to include Boyle’s associates: production designer Henry Bumstead, cinematographer Conrad Hall, illustrator Harold Michelson, production designer Albert Nozaki, and cinematographer Haskell Wexler.

The group of aging professionals–all of them octogenarians or older during the film’s ten-year production–meet together in living rooms, offices, and at movie screenings, and discuss their history, craft, and what they miss most about the studio system. (A sense of community and accessibility at all levels of production is a common refrain.) What sets the film apart are its tender sense of camaraderie (felt in many candid, informal conversations) and its thematic heft: these artists genuinely want to reflect the human condition, a value often lost in today’s technological extravaganzas.

“These were people who had a very strong appreciation of not only the human condition, but of their social obligation in portraying that condition,” says Boyle. Commenting on the way the original The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) explored different attitudes about money without pinpointing them, he says, “I think we look back on films which were searching for essential truths, sometimes in abstract means.” Wexler adds, “Films have always been commercial, you know….No one ever wanted to make a film and say, ‘I don’t want anybody to see it.’ But people did say, ‘I want to make this film. And I want to make this film because I believe in it.”

Boyle, Bumstead, and Nozaki were USC architecture students looking for work in the ’30s, and the only industry thriving in Los Angeles at the time was film. But while they may have entered the movie business for expediency, they stayed in it for passion. Bumstead designed his last films–Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima–at the age of 91. Raim also recounts one historical outrage: soft-spoken Nozaki was fired from the studio hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and forced to relocate to the Manzanar concentration camp. Paramount eventually rehired Nozaki, who suffered from a genetic eye condition that resulted in his blindness; he retired in 1969.

One of the highlights of the film is its section on Hitchcock’s 1963 The Birds (you can watch a clip on Hulu here). Boyle and Michelson revisit the schoolhouse location and marvel at the “new” trees looming over the landscape. Raim uses a four-way split screen to compare the present locations with movie clips, original storyboards, and designs. Michelson suggests today’s digital tools could easily generate birds at the press of a button, but today’s filmmakers wouldn’t leave anything to the imagination.

“I look back at the film,” says Boyle, “which had a lot of imperfections. Which, as I look back, didn’t matter. The imperfections were part of the film process. If you made it today it would be absolutely perfect. Every bird would be in place. And there would be millions of them. There would be nothing left to the imagination. I think in our version of The Birds you could imagine a lot of things. What wasn’t seen was as important as what was.” Michelson concurs, “It’s so sophisticated today that it almost doesn’t mean anything anymore. Now write me a good story.”

The elegiac tone was all the more poignant at last weekend’s public screening that attracted roughly a dozen viewers (including Wexler himself). The film is only playing for a week, and is still seeking a distributor even though its world premiere occurred at last year’s AFI FEST. At a time when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art still threatens to whittle away at its repertory film program due to a supposed “lack of funds” (although president Melody Kanschat admitted in print the program covered its costs last year), the under-the-radar feel of this tribute to titans in a company town raises the question, Why isn’t there major industry initiative to preserve its heritage?

Presumably, the industry is so focused on films opening on Friday they don’t stop to think about films from last week, let alone last century. But Something’s Gonna Live–a reference to artistic legacy–is a sensitive and important documentary, taking its time to observe and listen to its subjects, and uncover the creative values that underly their work. It’s a film the industry should cherish.

* * * *

Craig McCall’s Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff is a more slick–and conventional–biography than Raim’s film, and it begins to run out of steam about halfway through, as it plods through a laundry list of titles, clips, talking heads, and juicy but derivative anecdotes. In many ways, it seems like a movie version of Cardiff’s autobiography, Magic Hour: A Life in Movies (1997).

Cardiff, who passed away last year, was one of the first great color cinematographers (Powell and Pressburger films, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, The African Queen, and many more); he was also a director, photographer, and painter. Eloquent but earthy, Cardiff claims his adolescent reading of a pornographic book first inspired him to delve into the arts.

He first entered the film business as an actor in 1918, and began working as a clapper boy in the early days of sound production, eventually becoming a camera operator. Cardiff was selected by Technicolor as its resident technician in Europe, winning the position over countless interviewees by skipping over technical details and talking about Rembrandt and painting instead. The film provides ample evidence of Cardiff’s skill as a colorist, a quality Powell and Pressburger took advantage of in A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and subsequent pictures. (The film reverses expectations by shooting the heaven scenes in black-and-white and the earth scenes in color.)

Cardiff lensed countless films, and the documentary tries to cover as many as possible, padding material with unnecessary still-life arrangements of movie props, and sound bites by the likes of Ian Christie and Martin Scorsese (oddly lit devilishly from below), and Thelma Schoonmaker. On the plus side, its highlighting of Cardiff’s work on the quasi-documentary Western Approaches (1944) and Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn (1949), emphasizing its long takes by cleverly fast-forwarding through one of them, inspired me to add these titles to my viewing pile. Another highlight of the documentary is the clips it incorporates from Cardiff’s 8mm home movies he acquired on movie sets.

Cardiff is a major figure and this documentary is a decent tribute, but its form is so routine and the content so summary, it lacks conviction and ultimately seems too polished for its own good.

Upstream (1927)

Yesterday, I attended the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ preview of the world re-premiere of John Ford’s Upstream (1927), which screens for the public tonight. “Re-premiere” because the film was long believed to have been lost before it was rediscovered last year in the New Zealand Film Archive; the film is part of 75 American silent films that are currently being brought to the U.S. under the guidance of the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF).

In addition to the NFPF and the New Zealand Film Archive, the re-premiere is possible with the cooperation of the Academy Film Archive, which found the film and supervised its preservation, which was paid for by Fox, who owns the rights. The NFPF’s Annette Melville tells me an effort on this scale probably couldn’t have happened in previous decades, when rights holders and archives were more possessive with their materials; global communications and current technologies are helping facilitate new discoveries, and recent attitudes embrace this cooperation as a win/win cultural scenario.

Upstream is a big win for John Ford enthusiasts. It’s one of only about a dozen films that survive today from Ford’s silent period, which numbered over 60 titles. It was made in 1926 at a time when Fox was under great expansion, in large part under the creative inspiration of F.W. Murnau, who had been invited to the studio and given carte blanche to make Sunrise. I’ve written about Murnau’s influence on Frank Borzage before in conjunction with Janet Bergstrom’s excellent documentary on Edition Filmmuseum’s DVD of The River, but Murnau’s influence was widespread.

Sunrise was produced at Fox from August of ’26 to February of ’27, when Ford saw a rough cut and went on record proclaiming it the greatest film yet produced, and suggesting that he didn’t think it would be surpassed for a decade. Ford travelled to Germany to shoot some footage for upcoming works and to study Murnau’s craft. As Joseph McBride describes it in Searching for John Ford:

“During his month in Berlin, Ford gave himself a crash course in German filmmaking techniques. He screened several of the major expressionist films and spent time with Murnau, who graciously showed him some of the extensive preproduction designs for his pictures and explained his shooting methods.”

Ford’s next two films–Four Sons and Hangman’s House (both of which are available in the Ford at Fox DVD box set) where highly indebted to Murnau’s mobile camera, moody sets, and expressive acting. As Tag Gallagher describes it in John Ford: The Man and His Films:

Ford was enchanted by the intense stylization of Murnau’s painterly invention, in which a character’s conscious rapport with his physical world seemed suddenly palpable. Ford’s movies had been relatively unstylized. But henceforth lighting creates dramatic mood through emphatically contrasting black and whites, macabre shadows, shimmering shafts of light, chiaroscuro, and other abstractions.

Upstream is being touted as a late-’26, Murnau-influenced production, but having seen the film, I’m hard pressed to make a very strong case for that. Firstly, it’s a light drama with a lot of humor, so it doesn’t afford a lot of opportunities for brooding cinematography. Its plot revolves around a love triangle in a boarding house full of eccentric vaudeville performers, and an opening title card describes their lives as “burlesque.” An ostentatious actor goes to Europe to play Hamlet and is an unexpected success, and a lot of the film stresses the difference between passion and loyalty and earning respect versus caprices of fame and shallow pride.

There are a few moments in the film that evoke Murnau’s expressionism: a long traveling shot down a dinner table featuring various characters is unusual for Ford, who typically preferred stasis; a nervous actor imagines the spirit of his mentor in a shot that recalls the climax of Nosferatu; flashbulb explosions from news reporters precede a character’s entrance and emphasize the emotional potency of the moment in the eyes of his abandoned lover; and the stage decor of the Hamlet production compares to the grandeur and artificiality of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), with the play’s resounding applause doubly-exposed for intensity. But by and large, the film feels like an effective but fairly classically styled studio drama, and citing examples such as these can seem a bit reaching.

This may have to do with the fact that Upstream was made prior to Ford’s Berlin tour, which by all accounts seems to have been the decisive event for his evolution as an artist. Another lost film that exists in part is Ford’s Mother Machree, which was shot in September ’26 but not released until ’28 after it had been retooled for sound. Gallagher describes the surviving footage, writing that “pre-Murnau Ford–pretty and picturesque, just like The Shamrock Handicap–contrasts with post-Murnau expressionism,” and cites examples of the latter, such as “angled shots of a tenement staircase” and another shot’s “theatrically expanded perspective.” There isn’t anything so overt in Upstream, so I suspect it was made even before Mother Machree (I haven’t yet been able to track down production dates).

If that’s the case, it’s not really fair to judge the film in relation to the work of Murnau. Upstream is an entertaining film with very charming performances, good timing, and breezy humor; one scene involving foot play under the dining table and mistaken identities is particularly funny, largely from the way the scene is cut and the way the actors play against type. Any rediscovered Ford is a welcome turn of events, and this film helps flesh out the talents and aesthetic inclinations of the filmmaker on the brink of his artistic evolution.