Camera Magic Tricks
Two movies that marked their New York premieres 40 and 25 years ago today respectively are each highly regarded for their outstanding photography as key to the atmospheric and thematic effects their directors intended. To bring the folksinger activist icon Woody Guthrie’s 1943 autobiography to the screen in Bound for Glory (1976), cinematographer Haskell Wexler brought dedication and innovation to director Hal Ashby’s partly traditional yet expansively rambling recreation of Guthrie’s Depression-era odyssey through America, portraying the beloved recording artist as both the inspirational and imperfect man he was (acutely conveyed in David Carradine’s slyly charismatic performance). Wexler beautifully captured in precisely-lit imagery and variable color palettes the expressive human faces and wide-open spaces of what Ronald Bergan reports in The United Artists Story as “all the trappings of the period: soup kitchens, exploited migrant crop pickers, hoboes hopping freight trains, hitchhikers and dust storms.” Plus, as Cinephilia and Beyond’s website essay chronicles: “The visual aspect of the film is without a doubt its strongest component, with numerous breathtaking images engraved in our memory. This is actually the first film to make use of Garrett Brown’s new Steadicam invention, a technique not used simply as a ploy or gimmick, but a powerful tool moderately employed to maximum effect [vividly enthralling in a long take winding through a migrant camp, starting from the top of a Chapman Titan Crane 30 feet in the air, with Brown being gradually lowered to the ground before stepping out on foot]. Bound for Glory is completely disarming with grandiose images often immersed in silence, especially in the first part of the film, as we accompany Guthrie on his way to the West. ‘There are images in Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory so striking or so beautiful I doubt I’ll ever forget them,” Roger Ebert wrote, calling it ‘the most visually accomplished film since Barry Lyndon.’” Wexler won the Best Cinematography Academy Award® for his efforts. Carlo di Palma worked on 12 Woody Allen films, the most of any DP associated with the filmmaker, who commented on their teamwork (all 11 theatrical features plus the telefilm remake of Don’t Drink the Water from 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters through 1996’s Deconstructing Harry) in the 2016 documentary Water and Sugar: Carlo de Palma, the Colors of Life: “Carlo was essentially a poet. He had a great eye for composition and color. Whatever he did always looked good.” Allen might have added that whatever a cinematographer did on an Allen film would likely pay homage to or draw inspiration from movie history. At the midpoint of that decade-long association came their one foray into startling, shimmering black-and-white: Shadows and Fog (1991, a loose adaptation of Allen’s one-act play Death), applying an Ingmar Bergman-evoking title to a spooky, backlit, Middle European-set fable, dipped in Kafka with some G.W. Pabst/F.W. Murnau/Caligari-esque flourishes and punctuated with golden-age Universal Horror visual flair – plus a culminating touch of magic. Allen told biographer Richard Schickel: “What I wanted to make was a kind of German expressionist movie, where this homicidal figure was wreaking havoc and causing various reaction to him – the scientific reaction, the intellectual reaction, the overreaction by mobs of vigilantes, the religious fanatic reaction – all, all reactions that we use to cope with death and evil and violence, none of which really work out well.” It was a challenge to which the veteran di Palma (Divorce Italian Style, Red Desert, Blow-Up and the Twilight Time title The Black Stallion Returns) seized upon, even employing green-screen photography to depict the final escape effect in which Allen’s persecuted clerk Kleinman eludes the close-at-hand killer. Allen continued: “And finally, in the end, the only thing that really saves him [Kleinman] is a magician with a magic trick, because short of a magical solution there does not seem to be any way out of this terrible existence we seem to live in.” In the experienced painters of light named Wexler and di Palma, Ashby and Allen found their magical solutions, and their enthralling work is lovingly rendered on TT hi-def Blu-rays of Bound for Glory and Shadows and Fog, and both are available for a special reduced price [Bound 25% off, Shadows 50% off] through this Friday December 9 at 4 PM EST/1 PM PST at www.screenarchives.com.