The Silence of the Room

Douglas Milsome Full Metal Jacket Vincent D’Onofrio 1987

What was your role in capturing the realism of combat on that film? Tom Savini, a war veteran told me it capture ‘Nam better than any other film…
Vietnam’s  ruined city of Hue was shot in Dockland due for demolition. South East London was South East Asia; yet another idea of Stanley’s, so we beat it up, adding palm trees for sub-tropical effect. We chose a look to shoot with low con fast film, heavily filtered, increased grain and colour. A study in grey/green back light smoke to evoke a mood of urban war. Stanley’s plan was to mould his actors into a form he imagined; “born to kill” aggression on one hand, altruism on the other, creating confusion and a sense of hopelessness.  And the actors not just knowing their scripted lines, but the interpretation and meaning behind the words. His iconic code – no heroes, no easy solutions, no happy endings.
What did you learn from working so closely with Kubrick on those seminal films that you could use in your career as a respected cinematographer?
What I learned? I suppose since Stanley died I have carried lots of memories of him. I continue to see a living memory of him in his films and their status as something special. As a cameraman, I tried to bring a reflection of his personal authorship, a perspective that becomes open to interpretation. Let the photography be true to the narrative, with camera movement not in the way of it. [Douglas Milsome in conversation with Chris Wade]

Narrative was the dirty, unsanitary word used as a pejorative putdown in the 1960s and 70s. For artists like Donald Judd whenever “narrative” was mentioned, well, it was goodbye to all that – too European, to Old World. But in Cinema of the time there was a hot revival of Old World narrative images. This kind of Baroque imagery drove the stories, made sense of nonsense – lied to tell a truth. And speaking of lying to tell the truth – another Old World European artist, a very old Picasso – was reworking his Cubism into something older and baroque as well, collapsing imagery into abstraction, and finding strong narrative structures about his own life in that collapse. Clearly, there was something brewing beneath the “surface and side” aesthetic that was ruling the roost at the time.

Vittorio Storaro Apocalypse Now Marlon Brando 1979

MM: You have spoken in the past about how the art created by Caravaggio has influenced you. What is your earliest memory of seeing his paintings?
Vittorio Storaro (VS): Someone asked me a similar question about two years ago when the Guggenheim Museum in New York City had a beautiful celebration of Italian cinematography, where they presented two of my films, The Conformist and Apocalypse Now. I explained that in Italy we see art in our churches starting on the day we are baptized. When I was attending elementary school, the first book they gave me had paintings by Raphael on the front and back pages. When I was just starting my career during my early twenties, I visited the Church of San Luis dei Francesi in the center of Rome with my fiancé, Antonia, who later became my wife. There were some extraordinary paintings in the church’s chapel. It was the first time I saw The Calling of Saint Matthew
MM: What was your first impression of The Calling of Saint Matthew?
VS: It took my breath away. There is a beam of light that goes from the top to the bottom of the painting, dividing it into two parts. One side is in daylight and the other side is in darkness. I recall thinking they represented the human and the divine sides of life and our unconscious and conscious beings. That was the first time that I saw light and darkness used as metaphors for life and death. I also remember reading a book by William Faulkner called Absalom, Absalom!, where one of the main characters explains how a beam of sunlight penetrated and divided a room like it was separating periods in another character’s life. It was the same concept as The Calling of Saint Matthew. [Vittorio Storaro in conversation with Bob Fisher]

The filmmakers of the late 60s and 70s wanted a rich ambiguity of meaning for their images. They were looking at the strong imagery in movies by Welles, Truffaut, Fellini, Hitchcock and Godard among others – as well as looking back at Europe’s wealth of paintings. They used strong light and harsh angles in their cinematography to drive the storytelling, reworking the conventions of Hollywood movies. Of course American filmmakers had to look to Europe. Nothing like this kind of painting, this sort of visual storytelling, exists in the United States. The movies created by this generation were fueled by Baroque painting and these paintings loaded banal narratives with complex historical and cultural interpretations. The late 60s and the 70s brought about a new kind of experimentation and a new kind of cinema in the US. For younger artists, particularly painters, who had grown up with these films on television, decorating their college dorms with these images, and talking incessantly about scenography, cinematography and scripting – these films would change how they saw painting, how they approached painting and how they reacted to painting.

Robert Burks Rear Window 1954 Jimmy Stewart

The camera moves across the courtyard buildings at dusk, a singer is doing scales, windows light up, the camera moves into our hero’s darkened apartment, he is asleep, a shadow crosses his face…
The camera moves across the courtyard buildings at dusk, a singer is doing scales, windows light up, the camera moves into our hero’s darkened apartment, he is asleep, a dangerous shadow crosses his face… 
We cut to a beautiful woman moving towards camera in the silence of the room. 
Our shadowed hero opens his eyes, seems briefly concerned, then smiles… [Benjamin B describes Robert Burks’ visual imagery]

We see these kinds of images all the time in our culture. They’re ubiquitous, ever-present. But their conventions had been overlooked and ignored by the avant-garde for decades. The lessons about imagery and its meaning learned from the Pictures Generations along with abstract painters who concentrated on the power of photography and cinema, particularly David Reed (see this especially provocative article on Italian Baroque Art and contemporary abstraction), began to enrich imagery with older narratives and a European art historical presence. Also see Reed’s strange collaboration with Hitchcock’s movie Vertigo.

Conrad Hall Marathon Man Laurence Olivier 1976

MS – What about location work? Do you prefer to work on location? Do you think that one necessarily gets more realism on location?
CH – Yes, more realism definitely. It’s not impossible to get good realism on a set, but things are made too easy for you. You have an abundance of light, you have places for lights to be put already. Set work will ultimately have an unreal look, because you’ll have light coming from somewhere where it’s impossible for it to come from. When you’re dealing with natural locations, you have windows, and very few places you can put lights. Usually the places you will put them are the places where light would come from anyway. I’ve always liked shooting away from the studios better than shooting on a sound stage; I hate the fact that there’s a coffee machine right there and everybody goes and gets coffee, and there’s telephones, and friends are visiting . . it’s more like a commissary than a place to work. And when you’re working in a natural location it’s usually so crowded that you can’t tolerate visitors and extraneous people around. Natural locations often force the director to tell the story more simply, because he’s somewhat limited in what he can do. He can’t get tricky with camera moves and that kind of thing. [Conrad Hall in conversation with Michael Shedlin]

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