By Christopher Bell | The Playlist May 12, 2011 at 6:40AM
So you're at a bar, nearly exceeding your alcohol tolerance, when suddenly you find yourself in a conversation with an elder. Chalk it up to liquor-induced time traveling, but however the talk began is of no importance because this charmer is full of exceeding knowledge and incredible stories. Now imagine this intelligent, seen-it-all storyteller was actually the late Jack Cardiff, cinematographer of "War and Peace," "The Red Shoes," "Black Narcissus," and "The African Queen" just to name a few. Quite a night for a film fanatic, huh? While this ever happening is certainly out of the question, Craig McCall's "Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff" is not only as close to the real thing as you'll ever get, but much better, complete with clips and guest interviewees such as Martin Scorsese and Kirk Douglas to enrich the intimate conversation.
Like most geniuses, Cardiff did things his own way. Rather than pull heavy influence from his predecessors or even his peers, the man obsessed himself with paintings, educating himself on lighting and composition by copying some of his favorite works. In that sense, it's no accident that McCall's film is constructed more as a loving portrait of someone he admired than a typical, straightforward greatest-hits doc made for housewives. The director avoids this by nixing any narration (describing the device as a crutch - good McCall!) and letting Cardiff lead the trip down memory lane himself, beginning with his early assistant work and moving along to his Technicolor days (which saw the company handpicking him to be a star consultant) right on to working with Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, and The Archers.
Powell & Pressburger fans will be the most pleased, as a large chunk of the movie is dedicated to their work featuring the visualist and appropriately highlights his incredible ability to control shadows and exploit color capabilities to its fullest capacity (Technicolor was good to him, that's for sure). This is absolutely a labor of love for the director, who takes time to present some of the best representations of his subject's work, even including examples such as the now-forgotten Hitchcock period piece "Under Capricorn" and the easily-dismissible-because-it's-mainstream "First Blood 2: Rambo." Kudos to the helmer for not sticking to the cinephile-approved flicks; so what if that meat-head in high school loved the second Rambo? It looked damn good.
Of course, even those who have only a faint interest in his work will stay for the amusing anecdotes. Cardiff knows the difference between gossip and account, telling little tales with such fervor and detail that they're instantly rebuilt in the mind. McCall helps matters by incorporating stills and video, though thankfully is confident (and competent) enough not to bombard the viewer with needless media accompaniment - he uses just enough to get the job done, supplementing the memoirs without it ever feeling anything like an assault on the viewer. One of the most memorable moments involves the notorious Orson Welles, who raised a stink and demanded a mink-lined coat on set even though they were shooting in the desert. His desires were met, though not without confusion. Once principal photograph wrapped, Welles casually walked off set with the coat and used it for his next theater performance. Oh Welles! Of course, it's not all just for laughs, and as Jack recalls his directing career (a career very much overshadowed by his work as a director of photography), he mentions being nominated for an Oscar alongside Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder and the unreal feeling of it all. The former, in astonishment of his capabilities as a director, took him aside and complimented his film "Sons and Lovers," simply stating that the movie was "bloody good."
Those itching for drama or conflict aren't going to find it here, as "Cameraman" is only a positive representation of the director/DP, supported by his work and his admirers big and small. Honestly, though, it's hard to even be irked by the guy - his tone is kind and modest; his brilliance is friendly and never condescending. Director McCall allows the man to entertain while he steers the ship, somehow navigating through such a long and fruitful career without ever feeling like something got the shaft. The movie certainly isn't for the passive movie goer, but anybody at all interested in the art will likely fill their Netflix queue with things they've missed and, ultimately, agree with Hitchcock: "It's bloody good." [B+]
"Cameraman: The Life and Work Of Jack Cardiff" goes on limited release from Friday, May 13th.