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Myth-making With Natural Light

Myth-making With Natural Light

Articles - Directing

Almendros in Action.

When I think of cinematographer Nestor Almendros’s
work on Sophie’s Choice, I see Meryl Streep’s translucent skin.
I see a Brooklyn boarding house in the crisp afternoon sunlight,
the monochromed evil of a Nazi railyard, with searchlights scanning
the faces of the doomed. When I watched Sophie’s Choice again recently,
I saw something else: an attitude of gravity, a burnished intelligence
in the sets, the performance, and the photography that seems now,
when compared to the routine cacophony of crap that passes for
movies nowadays, to be some relic of a lost tribe, an example of
the kind of moviemaking that slowed down, reached high, and moved
us. I mourn that type of movie, and that depth of intelligence.
And I mourn the fading of Nestor Almendros’ light. He was an artist
of deep integrity, who believed the most beautiful light was natural
light.

"Since I lack imagination," Almendros wrote
in his marvelous book, A Man With A Camera, "I seek inspiration
in nature, which offers me an infinite variety of forms." Almendros,
who died in 1992, shot seven films for Eric Rohmer, nine for Francois
Truffaut, and four for Robert Benton. He worked with Alan Pakula
on Sophie’s Choice, Martin Scorsese on his Life Lessons episode
in New York Stories, and won his Oscar for Terence Malick’s Days
of Heaven. I can’t think of a single explosion in any of the films
he shot, not a single matte painting, not one special effect that
was not done "in the camera." Perhaps he was just lucky
to work in a time before digital enhancement, before the 12-second
attention span, before special effects became more interesting
to look at than the human face. But there is something more-he
was always true to a light’s source, true to the emotion evoked
by the cast and color of light as it changed through the day. He
rejected the typical lighting schemes of the ’40s and ’50s, which
called for key lights, backlight, fills and highlights. He preferred
to first capture or augment existing light, then shape and bend
it. He respected light’s truth-telling element, the way it can
expose and conceal.

It is in the films he shot for Rohmer that his veracity
is at its most simple and elegant. Almendros was one of the first
cinematographers to work exclusively with bounced light, which
merely complimented the daylight or reinforced incandescent lamps
one would normally have in an apartment. In Rohmer’s My Night at
Maud’s (1969), which he shot in black and white, he kept the lamps
in the frame and had white panels placed off-screen to reflect
additional light onto the actors. The apartment was painted white
with black furniture. For the night scenes he used the existing
street lamps, usually working at the widest possible lens aperture.
This approach, a simple rendering of character and setting, never
distracted from the purity of performance and theme that Rohmer
looked for.

Almendros was well-suited to the director’s moral
rigor, his delineation of the choices men and women must make to
live right. Born in Spain in 1930, Almendros fled Franco’s regime
18 years later and landed in Cuba, where he organized Havana’s
first film society. When Batista became dictator, he left to study
filmmaking in New York, where he made his first impressive short,
a direct cinema documentary on the last 10 minutes of 1958. Shot
in Times Square, he used the light of theater marquees to illuminate
faces, capturing figures in silhouette. When Castro staged his
coup, Almendros returned to Cuba to make documentaries.

Almendros tells how he used mirrors to illuminate
the interiors of peasants’ huts, how he caught the sun’s reflection
and bounced it off the white-washed walls. He shot film and watched
film, but he grew frustrated with the rigid and nationalized Cuban
film industry. In 1961 he was ostracized by colleagues for voting
Truffaut’s The 400 Blows as the year’s best film. Fed up, he exiled
himself to France where, eventually, he ended up working with the
very director he defended.

His first feature was La Collectionneuse, which he
shot in color for Rohmer and Barbet Schroeder. Working with five
photoflood lamps, the sun, and whatever practical lights they had,
he boldly pushed the limits of his film stock, at times shooting
with only a bedside lamp to illuminate a face. He intentionally
overexposed backgrounds, used his mirror idea for interiors, and
stayed true to the warmish skin tones created by incandescent bulbs
and sunsets. These were revolutionary techniques at the time.

Meryl Streep and Kevin Dline in Sophies Choice (1982).

The Wild Child (B&W/1969), his first film
for Truffaut, is remarkable for Almendros’s faithfulness to a light’s
source, whether it is a large picture window or candles. That fidelity
is pushed further in Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H. (1975), where
he worked at near underexposure to preserve the effect of the natural
light. "This was really a film about a human face" Almendros
wrote, referring to Isabelle Adjani’s engrossing portrayal of a woman
going mad. Set in Nova Scotia in 1863, he experimented with kerosene
lamps, and some of his interiors have the texture of oil paint.

Truffaut’s films were often about obsession, and
about the incessant writing and recording of one’s thoughts. Almendros,
obsessed with truth, was the perfect collaborator. In The Man Who
Loved Women (1977), his earth-toned palette gave the film-ostensibly
a comedy-an underlying edge of darkness, in which the protagonist’s
incessant memoir-keeping isolated him. In the claustrophobic world
of The Last Metro (1980), Almendros accentuated the dim interior
lighting of the 1940s by dipping the 25-watt bulbs in a yellow
bath, and he painted the street lamps blue because at the time
blue light could not be picked up by enemy radar. The light in
that film closes down the world of the characters.

Almendros shot three features for Bar-bet Schroeder
who, before he took his enormous bellyflop into the overcrowded
pool of Hollywood hacks, actually made some interesting films.
It is hard to believe that Schroeder, the director of Kiss of Death
and Desperate Measures-two artless disasters-was a founding producer
of films of the French New Wave. As the director of Maitresse (1975),
Schroeder unflinchingly told the story of a dominatrix (Bulle Ogier)
in love with a petty crook (Gerard Depardieu), complete with explicit
scenes of real flagellation. To solve the problem of shooting in
a windowless S & M chamber, Almendros placed lamp-shaped flourescents
in the frame and attached flourescent tubes to the walls, which
not only created an envelope of light, but also suited the bizarre
faux-deco set design of the underground lair.

Richard Gere and Brooke Adams in Days of Heaven (1978).

The final scene, in which Depardieu and Olier
screw in the driver’s seat of a speeding convertible, is notable
for the sunlight flickering on their faces as the car moved in and
out of the shadows of trees. Haskell Wexler, Almendros’ American
colleague, used the same shot six years earlier in Medium Cool.

Almendros’s first American film was Monte Hellman’s
Cockfighter (1974), which is one of the great forgotten films of
that rich movie dec. It’s an oddly sweet-natured depiction of an
anachronistic, backwoods Southern sport; illegal and violent, but
with a tent show code of conduct, and an idiosyncratic cabal of
itinerant characters that elevate it to the level of something
like a Sunday softball game. Almendros authentically rendered what
he called "the tacky but extraordinarily photogenic image
of contemporary America." There is an archetypal depth to
his compositions, an immediate sense of melancholy in the way the
sun glints off the roof of a Ford pick-up, or in the string of
trailers haphazardly littered around a Georgia barn, or in the
orange shag of a cheap motel carpet. Cockfighter is rural cinematic
anthropology, much like one of those Les Blank shorts, in the way
it authenticates and confers nobility on the eccentric.

Almendros was just two years away from Days of Heaven,
and he still adhered to his simple philosophies of light’s true
source, and to his disdain of technical gadgetry. Twenty years
ago, of course, even the gadgets were crude compared to the computer-generated
thrills of today. "Nothing is worse than the abuse of technical
devices: diffusers, telephoto lenses, slow motion," Almen-
dros wrote. "When they have nothing in- teresting in front
of the camera, many directors resort to tricks." Does this
sound like any of the movies you’ve seen lately?

Take a look at Cockfighter’s key scene, in which
Warren Oates shoots off his mouth, and then watches as his rooster
is killed in an impromptu match with a rival cock. Is there a more
truthful, more violent, more extreme slow-mo close-up of a single,
life-shifting moment in all of film? It copies Peckinpah in the
opening scene of Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973), where a chicken
gets its head blown off, but Hellman/Almendros’s scene is pure
cinema, not elegy. And it tells me that when Almendros uses a trick,
he makes it count. He pulled out all the stops for Days of Heaven
(1978).

David Thomson, in his Biographical Dictionary of
Film, calls Days of Heaven a movie "that is photographed to
death," and there is some truth to that. Whenever Malick’s
narrative grows thin, he cuts to another gorgeous shot: horses
framed against a moon blackened by smoke; the Victorian mansion
bobbing in a yellow ocean of wheat. But I’ve thought the film’s
strength was its elemental purity. It is a myth, and myths are
simple, but myth-making is a grand business, and must be rendered
like a force of nature.

"My job was to simplify the photography, to
purify it of all the artificial effects of the recent past," said
Almendros. To that end, he and Malick studied the silent films
of Griffith and Chaplin, they used real firelight to illuminate
faces, they recreated the arid loneliness of Andrew Wyeth and the
inviting interior warmth of Edward Hopper, they achieved all of
their special effects in the camera. For the stunning shot in the
locusts sequence where the insects ascend to the sky, they dropped
peanut shells from helicopters and had their actors walk backwards
while running the film in reverse through the camera. When it was
projected everything moved forward except the locusts!

Almendros tells of his struggles with his union crew,
of how he would walk through the sets turning off lights, of how
he would push the sensitivity of his negative, of how he went against
standard wisdom by shooting actors from below against a white,
burned-out sky. He and Malick must have been quite a sight, striding
through the wheat, crafting these issues/29/images of wrath and beauty, pushing
all known limits. "Nature’s most beautiful light," Almendros
wrote, "occurs at extreme moments, the very moments when filming
seems impossible." Days of Heaven was a movie made in those
precious minutes between sunset and nightfall.

Almendros continued working in America and France,
made more films for Truffaut, then a few for Robert Benton. Kramer
vs. Kramer (1978) secured his reputation as a great lighter of
faces; Places in the Heart (1984) was dense with atmosphere and
hope, and Sally Field has never looked more honest in a role. His
final film was Scorsese’s Life Lessons (1989). Hard- ly an appropriate
exit for Almendros, it is still a virtual Cliff’s Notes of his
proven techniques: the huge windows in the artist’s loft, the candles
in the birthday scene, the revolving spotlights on Steve Buscemi
and the audience in the subway station.

He will always be remembered as a cinematographer
of absolute truth. He discovered beauty in the sepulchral darkness
of the human face, and disquiet in the still life of a landscape.
The next time I have to sit through a Hollywood blockbuster (or,
let’s face it, even an indie with a budget) and endure that in-
evitable onslaught of pyrotechnics, blue strobes, noirish shafts
of hard light, overlit interiors and those dime-a-dozen smoke-filled
slow-motion establishing shots, I will close my eyes and mourn
the passing of Nestor Almendros, a true master of light. MM

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