Carol and Therese

Carol-rScreenshot from trailer for Carol, directed by Todd Hayne.

The new Todd Hayne movie Carol has arrived and I can state that it’s a photographer’s film.

The story is a love affair between two women in early 1950s New York, a time when gay and lesbian romance was seen as a moral lapse, or worse. The implications in this for danger and secrecy, and the teasing development of their attraction, finds its visual expression in the Oscar-nominated cinematography of Ed Lachman.

In preparing for the film’s visual style Hayne and Lachman studied early 1950s still photography, looking for the right colour palette and focal qualities. They looked at women photographers of the time including Esther Bubley, Vivian Maier, Helen Levitt and Ruth Orkin, but they found their principal reference in the work of Saul Leiter, an abstract painter and colleague of De Kooning, who had taken up photography and flourished.

Leiter’s beautiful Kodachromes captured the compression and layering of the Manhattan streetscape. He shot through shadows, blurs and reflections to capture the great cities ambiguity and mystery, and its poetry.

In the movie, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (both also Oscar-nominated for the film) are seen through a variety of obstacles, glimpsed in longshot, shrouded in shadow, and overlayed by reflections. It creates a rich visual texture which helps carry the film forward, rather like a writer’s literary style  creates the right atmosphere for the events in a novel. 

Lachman’s compositions as expert as Leiter’s, despite his assertion that he’s a cine photographer and not a still photographer. The movie was shot on film, in Super 16, not 35mm, to create “a certain emotional quality — you’re viewing the character through the texture of the grain but also feeling their emotions through the grain.”

One further pleasure for readers of blogs like this is that the character of Therese is a budding photographer herself, and we see her with cameras of the time and even in a picture conference at the New York Times where she works. Her interest in photography is not a casual plot point, it’s the perfect analogy for her character, discrete and watchful, her beautiful big eyes like camera lenses.

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Haskell Wexler cinematographer

America America, America, 1963

Two of the great cinematographers died this week, Haskell Wexler and Vilmos Zsigmond. Both of these men had long and distinguished careers working in all areas of the profession, and both brought strong artistic powers to their films. 

Haskell Wexler has been a star of the profession since the mid-sixties when he won an Oscar for photographing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? This was one of the big films of that period and starred Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Wexler shot it in unconventional ways, on black & white film and with a sort of documentary look, and he was nearly taken off the project. In the end, the gritty look he gave it matched the harshness of the story, a marital fight that lasts a whole night. I recently saw a new print at the Astor cinema – ideal circumstances – and it was astonishing. It was as if a Life Magazine photo-essay had sprung into action. The last shot in the film was a very slow dolly toward the two actors, then beyond them to reveal a hint of sunrise in the background – a glimmer of hope.

Wexler had a long and varied career including a stint as assistant cameraman on the 1950s TV show The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. He shot many advertisements including most of the famous Marlboro commercials featuring cowboys – obviously he now regrets that job. He made documentaries of social injustice, especially his fictional documentary Medium Cool about the riots at the notorious 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

These pictures show how he could light complex scenes while retaining the naturalistic feel. He made a lot of documentaries and it shows in his feature film work. It’s not surprising that he won two Oscars, for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966 and for Bound for Glory in 1976.

COeqkcwWEAApL1Z  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 1966

in-the-heat-of-the-night-blu-ray-rednecks  In the Heat of the Night, 1968

Hoodlum-Priest  The Hoodlum Priest, 1961

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Carol and Todd and Saul

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Todd Haynes’ new movie Carol is based on a Patricia Highsmith novel about a love affair between two women in 1950s New York. It’s played by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara and is getting great reviews.

Haynes’ films always have a strong visual intelligence, think of the stylish look of I’m Not There or Far from Heaven. For Carol he said he was influenced by the still photography of Saul Leiter, the veteran New York photographer whose beautiful Kodachromes of the city in the 1950s have recently gained popularity.

Leiter wanted to be an abstract painter and this ambition gave his photography a distinctive style. He shot into mirrors and windows to catch reflections, used shadow, blur and negative space, or shot through obstacles, all to create a dense, layered vision of the city. His pictures are complex and ambiguous and have a lush painterly feel.

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Leiter

Leiter shot Kodachrome slide film but he wasn’t able to print it at the time. Transparency film was very expensive to print until the digital age so he mostly projected them to groups of artists – no way to gain wide recognition in the visual arts. Now that his early work is being digitally printed it is being seen widely and is gaining great admiration. There are numerous exhibitions and books in circulation and he is now seen as a significant photographer of mid-century Manhattan.

Director Todd Haynes and his cinematographer Ed Lachman researched the period setting of Highsmith’s novel and discovered that Leiter’s images were a perfect fit. Highsmith’s tense and ambiguous world found its analogue in Leiter’s shifting, dissolving vision of New York.

Haynes filmed scenes through
 car or shop windows to create a sense of dreaming
 and distortion. In one episode, Carol meets Therese
 for lunch for the first time. We watch Therese through
 the restaurant’s dirty window while Carol can be
 seen crossing the street in a reflection as pedestrians pass in front of her. (Harpers Bazaar)

In a BBC interview Hayne described how…

the whole act of looking is foregrounded. We’re shooting through windows and frames and doorways, and doors that close and windows that have obstructions or refractions or reflections, separating us from what we’re seeing on the other side. So the very act, the predicament, of looking, is foregrounded in ways that draw special attention to who’s onside of the looking glass, and who’s on the other.”  (BBC The Film Programme)

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And Ed Lachman spoke about the visualising of the film in these terms…

In “Carol,” my latest film, an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith book that takes place in the early ‘ 50s, I used a muted palate of colors, more in magenta and greens. I tried to reference the way film stocks responded to colors in the ‘40s and ‘50s and their grain structure. We shot in super 16, not in 35mm film, because film stocks have become almost grainless.  (Ed Lachman in Museemagazine)

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The movie Carol is in current release, but for a preview, look at the beautiful trailer.

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Self-powered camera

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Scientists have invented a camera that generates its power using only the light it captures in the sensor. No battery or electric cable powers it. Instead …

the pixel’s photodiode can be used to not only measure the incident light level, but also to convert the incident light into electrical energy. A sensor architecture is proposed where, during each image capture cycle, the pixels are used first to record and read out the image and then used to harvest energy and charge the sensors’ power supply. (Towards Self-Powered Cameras).

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Petapixel describes it this way: “After each image capture, the sensor switches modes, harvests light, and stores that energy in order to power the next shot. By alternating between capture and charge modes in this way, the camera sensor can continually shoot images and video without having any kind of additional power source.”

 

 

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The prototype camera has only 30×40 diodes – pixels – hence the crudeness of the image. As a first experiment in a new technology, it’s reminiscent of the first movie tests made by Thomas Edison’s team in 1889, the very first motion picture.

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Edison’s first motion picture film test, 1889

 

Hitchcock’s Lodger

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The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, 1927

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 silent film The Lodger is regarded as the first true Hitchcock film, “the first time Hitchcock has revealed his psychological attraction to the association between sex and murder, between ecstasy and death.” It’s the story of an innocent man mistaken for a serial killer, a young woman who falls for him, her suspicious parents, a jealous lover and the police.

A new BFI restoration of this important film shows the cinematography by Baron Ventimiglia with its original colour tinting and it’s all startlingly beautiful.

Right back to the time of Méliés at the start of the 20th century, films were tinted by hand, sometimes frame-by-frame. This gave a beauty and warmth to the prosaic tones of black & white, but it was laborious and expensive, especially since every print of a film had to be tinted this way. But in 1921 a new product arrived that changed the situation. “Kodak introduced pre-tinted stocks, with stained cellulose base, rather than a dyed emulsion upon the base. The colours available originally were lavender, red, green, blue, pink, light amber, dark amber, yellow, and orange.” 

By the late twenties, the tinted film was phased out due to cost and other reasons, but this version of Hitchock’s film is a memorial to that era. Before sound, movies had a more direct emotional impact on audiences and coloured scenes played their part in setting the audience’s mood.

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Gregg Toland and the FSA

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Gregg Toland, still from The Grapes of Wrath, 1941

When you see John Ford’s 1940 film The Grapes of Wrath, you can’t miss the similarity to the Farm Security Administration photos of Dorothea Lange and others. The movie, which won Ford an Oscar for Best Director, was shot by the great, maybe the greatest, cinematographer, Gregg Toland.

Toland’s research for the look he wanted to give the film naturally led to the FSA whose photographers, including Lange, Jack Delano, Russell Lee and others, had covered the same subject as the film, the Dust Bowl period of the South West US in the 1930s.

“The research library at FOX studios has all the visual research archived for Toland and John Ford’s work with GRAPES OF WRATH – including original glossy prints of FSA field photographers like Dorthea Lange, Russell Lee, etc. slapped into rough binders, gathering dust.” – Jean Dodge 2009

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Gregg Toland, still from The Grapes of Wrath, 1941

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Gregg Toland, still from The Grapes of Wrath, 1941

The images above are frames from the movie.

Now have a look at these Dorothea Lange photographs from a few years earlier. They were taken for the Farm Security Administration to document the tough conditions during the Depression, and might have been in the archive that Toland consulted.

Hollywood is often accused of being the “dream factory”, always making glamorous but empty entertainment, but ‘Grapes’ is one example where this isn’t true (there are thousands of others).

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Dorothea Lange, Jobless on the Edge of a Peafield, Imperial Valley, California, 1937

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Dorothea Lange, Tom Collins, manager of Kern migrant camp, with drought refugee family. California, 1936 

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Dorothea Lange, Pea pickers camp, 1936

Composing Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia is playing at the Astor cinema for a limited season and if you see it there you will never forget the experience. It’s probably lookimg better than on its release in 1962 because after its restoration and digital transfer this year, there are no scratches or dust or colour mis-matches. The image is so clean you can see that Anthony Quinn’s false nose does not quite match the colour of his face!

As a visual artist (still photographer, painter) you can learn from movies to see how problems of composition, colour, scale etc are solved. One of the challenges faced by cinematographer Freddie Young and director David Lean was how to fill the extreme Super-Panavision film format.

At a ratio of 1:2.2 it’s the longest screen format of all and presented extreme compositional challenges, and opportunities. Despite the long horizontal span of the format, the filmmakers were able to create taut compositions in the huge scale of the landscape.

The focal point is on both the vertical and horizontal centres.

No shot in his entire career aroused so much comment as the scene when Omar Sharif emerged from a mirage – achieved with a unique 430mm telephoto lens he had had the foresight to bring with him from Panavision in America. (www.cinematographers.nl)

Linkage between left, right and middle.

The minimalism of the desert shots was partly determined by the subject. As the Prince Feisal character states, ” There is nothing in the desert.”  The insistent horizon line and flat blue skies created a ready made design, but the filmmakers embraced it, creating a new, painterly image of the desert.

Symmetrical composition

The film looks so modern it was seemingly inspired by contemporary abstract art. The indulgence in pure flat colour and graphic compositions is noticeable, especially in comparison to other comparable films. Another British desert film made only four years earlier, Ice Cold in Alex, has none of the geometric starkness of Lawrence. Lean and his cinematographer Freddie Young imbued their film with a very modern, even modernist, visual sense.

Geometric abstract composition

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