Beach Scenes

Gavin Millar

  • A Man with a Camera by Nestor Almendros, translated by Rachel Phillips Belash
    Faber, 306 pp, £9.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 571 13589 7
  • Players of Shakespeare: Essays in Shakespearian Performance by 12 Players with the Royal Shakespeare Company edited by Philip Brockbank
    Cambridge, 179 pp, £12.50, June 1985, ISBN 0 521 24428 5
  • Year of the King by Anthony Sher
    Chatto, 208 pp, £10.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 7011 2926 3

Nestor Almendros is one of the world’s most sought-after directors of cinematography. He is most closely associated with the French cinema, having shot nine of Truffaut’s films and seven of Rohmer’s, but recently his Oscar for Malick’s Days of Heaven has encouraged Americans to take a chance on this independent Spaniard who has three times been exiled – from Franco’s Spain, Batista’s Cuba and Castro’s Cuba. Among his Transatlantic credits are Jack Nicholson’s Goin’ south, Benton’s Kramer vs Kramer, Places in the Heart and Still of the Night, and Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice. He was closest of all, though, to Truffaut, who contributes a preface. The book ends just before Truffaut’s death last year and the final pages in which Almendros speaks with characteristic warmth, gratitude and modesty of their collaboration, then at a fine point of mature balance, are lent an unexpected poignancy.

It is often loosely said that Almendros is ‘a New Wave cameraman’, but he points out that his first professional job in France was not till 1964 when, by sheer chance, he joined the unit shooting the six-part sketch film, Paris vu par ...The story illustrates once again that there are as many answers to the question ‘how did you get into films’ as there are people working in the movies. He didn’t think of himself as a cameraman, but as a director. He had hopefully trailed a familiar route from film club to film school (New York City College and the Centro Sperimentale in Rome) before finding himself back in Cuba working for the new revolutionary film department – the ICAIC. Their primary task was to produce educational and political documentaries. In his spare time Almendros began to shoot a little private documentary of his own, Gente en la Playa, going to the beach on Sundays to record, in neo-realist fashion, a young film-maker’s impressions. (He doesn’t mention whether or not he had seen Emmer’s famous 1950 feature Domenica d’Agosto.) His activity began to annoy: using the simple materials to hand, particularly available light only, the young man was producing images which didn’t appear to his bosses to be giving a sufficiently glamorous or polished account of the revolutionary masses. His beach scenes were content to let the sky and sea sparkle and the people frolic in silhouette. His bus interiors were crowded and chaotic, the lively grainy images often letting the windows burn out in an effort to hold some sort of exposure inside. By contrast, the official films were rigidly orthodox, with more light inside the buses than out, so that every cheerful peasant had his key, his fill and his backlight. Almendros complained that they were simply imitating Hollywood, especially when they imported a veteran Italian cameraman to light their first features. The Marxist committee at the ICAIC locked his cutting-room and posted armed guards outside it. They said his lighting was counter-revolutionary. They omitted, however, to seize his negative. Almendros secretly finished the film and it was with this calling-card under his arm that he took off for France, fame and fortune.

Young French film-makers, especially the ethnographers and sociologists like Rouch and Marker, and Langlois at the Cinémathèque (who used to send him films at the Havana film club), were friendly and encouraging. But a job was a different thing and he was about to give up again when he bumped into Rohmer and the producer Barbet Schroeder. They had just sacked their cameraman. Would he fill in for a day? Sighing at the fact that it was not as a director, but grateful for the chance, Almendros agreed. They liked the rushes. He was in.

Fortuitous, of course, that the methods he was used to – lightweight (16 mm) cameras, little or no artificial light, occasional handheld work, small, fast crews – were exactly those imposed by economic necessity on the young French film-makers. Many a critical theory has since been erected on the back of this simple financial constraint. As far as Almendros is concerned, such simplicity and naturalness have remained the cornerstone and guiding principle of his photography, and whether you believe that the shift in taste was engineered solely by economics or not, the fact is that the image which declares, and confines itself to, its natural source has been the predominant aesthetic since that time, with Almendros one of its most skilled exponents. ‘One of my basic principles is that the light sources must be justified. I believe that what is functional is beautiful, that functional light is beautiful light. I try to make sure that my light is logical rather than aesthetic.’ The book is full of these modestly repeated axioms. He is even modest about the help given by the medium itself – a ‘generous one’. ‘Everything seems more interesting on film than in life.’ On the other hand, he has an endearing tendency to claim the occasional innovation for himself when he has simply been on the crest of a universal wave. His work for French educational TV from 1965 to 67 enabled him to experiment: using all manner of natural light sources, from oscilloscopes to bonfires, filming at 8 f.p.s. (on the oscilloscope) to get an exposure and asking the actors to move at half-speed, pushing emulsion further and further in the labs, using mirrors in interiors to reflect sunlight as a sole source ... There may be a small queue of cinematographers shuffling forward now with hands raised to claim equal credit in these endeavours. What is true is that Almendros used the methods as thoroughly and successfully as anyone, and was bold about applying them in major features (not always, in America especially, to a friendly reception among technicians).

Innovative and dedicated, independent but flexible, fast but painstaking: it sounds like a director’s dream, and Rohmer and Truffaut must have counted themselves fortunate indeed to have this collaborator who could accommodate himself equally to the one-take Rohmer and to the exhaustive Pialat, demon of naturalness. ‘Pialat can make up to forty takes of a shot, until a spark of life comes into it, at times in ways the actors and even the director himself might not have foreseen.’ Pialat’s ‘independence and sincerity are carried’, says Almendros, ‘almost to the point of madness’. It is a kind of madness of which, you can see, he approves. The man who thinks that emulsion gives an extra glow of pleasure to the real, without traducing it, would be a man to warm to Truffaut’s conviction that the cinema beats life every time (a view which Truffaut began to acknowledge in later years was a mite neurotic); he would be a man to approve of the rigour, similar in aim but opposite in method, of a Rohmer who, when the second take of a muffed scene also fails, prefers to cut the sequence from the script.

Not wishing to usurp the director’s function, Almendros nonetheless considers it proper to involve himself in every artistic decision allowed to him – design, costume, make-up, even sound, for which, as a cameraman, he has an astonishingly sympathetic word. One of the least attractive habits of some feature-film camera crews is their de-haut-en-bastreatment of the sound crew. Almendros will have none of that. What astonishes and pains him most, though, is one of the traditions of his own department: the practice, enshrined in the States, of dividing the functions of lighting and operating, in some cases to the point where the director of photography will scarcely discuss the framing or composition with his operator, preferring to leave it to be decided between him and the director. Almendros has a short answer to that: ‘A director of photography who thinks only about lighting, without taking the responsibility for framing, is not working seriously.’

No such problems of course with Truffaut or Rohmer, for whom he shot The Marquise of O –‘probably my most perfectly finished work’. Nor with Terrence Malick, director of Days of Heaven. The same could not, however, be said of that crew. Malick’s unrigid schedules, spontaneity, improvisation, obsession with natural light sources (the burning fields, single oil lamps, candles) thrilled Almendros, but appalled the old Hollywood hands. The first thing Almendros did every morning was to ask the electricians to turn off all the lights. To please them he sometimes shot one take with lights and one without. He invited them to judge the difference at rushes, but they wouldn’t turn up. They complained that he didn’t know what he was doing, that he wasn’t ‘professional’.

He relates all this without bitterness, even with generosity. His camera operators collaborated with him as far as union rules would allow; for other colleagues too – costume, design and so on – nothing but praise. The Oscar, he says, belongs to them all: for once you don’t feel it’s lip-service, but equally, you don’t feel it’s true. Days of Heaven is a masterpiece of cinematography to treasure.

But not for long. Most modern (i.e. post-Technicolor) film stocks carry an emulsion with unfixed colours (unlike Technicolor, which was a dyeing process). It is virtually impossible to find a print of a film even as recent as Days of Heaven (1976) with its original colour intact. Modern raw stock manufacturers are more interested in sensitivity and fineness of grain than in permanence. The result is that the heritage of modern colour cinematography is disappearing before our very eyes. Almendros cannot bear it. Nor should we. He pleads for pressure not only from archivists but from lovers of cinema everywhere to raise public consciousness about this loss, and the need to act quickly and radically to halt it. Almendros and men like him – Willis, Chapman, Wexler, Hall, Storaro, Rotunno – are the de la Tours, Vermeers, Daumiers, Wyeths, Hoppers of this art, and modern cinema production methods are making pavement artists of them, content to see their work washed away in the next shower of rain.

Almendros is admirably direct and detailed in his technical descriptions. The most valuable parts of Philip Brockbank’s collection of essays by 12 RSC artists are similarly precise. Geoffrey Hutchings, a fine comic, works impressively through the text to show us how he arrived at the character and status of Lavache in All’s well. He probably underrates the amount of meaning a good comedian can seep through to the audience by intonation and gesture, for Lavache has some of Shakespeare’s most condensed and allusive clown’s slang. But the book’s little essays are an admirable reminder that the RSC’s standards have always been based on a close study of the words. David Suchet convincingly shows that his human rather than fishy, black but not monstrous Caliban was a perfectly logical reading, in defiance of grand and inhuman Calibans stretching back to Beerbohm Tree, who, taking his name too literally perhaps, regressed into a primate and spent most of the performance swinging from the branches. Suchet also turns up the intriguing news that calibaun is the Romany word for ‘black’. Donald Sinden painstakingly steers us through his Malvolio line by line, and fetches up with the remarkable conclusion that ‘there is but one thing for Malvolio – suicide.’ There are also Pennington’s Hamlet, Gemma Jones’s Hermione, Sinead Cusack’s Portia, Patrick Stewart’s Shylock, Tony Church’s Polonius.

Anyone interested in Shakespeare, the theatre or acting couldn’t fail to find this slim volume absorbing. You would have to be a greenroom nut or a stage-door Johnny to follow Antony Sher through every day of the year of his king (Richard III) without occasionally finding your breath unbaited. This ‘Actor’s Diary and Sketchbook’ offers us Mr Sher’s every waking thought, and a few un-waking ones, from the moment the possibility of his playing Richard is whispered, dangled, mooted or hinted, to the successful opening in Stratford. There’s a great deal of ‘Bill is frank with me’ and ‘Ali and Shrap have a drink in my dressing-room’ and ‘Terry suddenly at my elbow in the lunch queue. Dressed in black, smiling slightly and knowingly from hooded eyes, a sense of immense energy and power in repose.’ Between the mythologising and the inflation and a heap of ‘Joe Allen’s chat’ there are good hard facts about the genesis of this spidery, crutch-suspended Crookback and some talented sketches, sharper than the prose.