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.

One thought on “New Documentaries on Filmmakers

  1. Folks living on the SF Peninsula will have the opportunity to see this educational and inspirational film on Saturday, May 7th, 7 pm, Menlo Atherton Performing Arts Center, 555 Middlefield Rd., Atherton. Admission is FREE, but reservations are required. Call 650.330.2512 or e-mail rlroth@menlopark.org. Director Daniel Raim will be on hand for a Q & A following the film.

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