The Circling Ballhaus Camera
There are a number of great films that crystallize the brilliant fusion of golden-hour lighting and alternately intimate and wide-shot compositional characterization marking the work of the great Berlin-born cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who died Wednesday at age 81. It’s fair to say that his contributions to the fluid style and tactile imagery of the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, World on a Wire, Fox and His Friends, The Marriage of Maria Braun) and Martin Scorsese (After Hours, The Color of Money, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York, The Departed) proved invaluable to their helmers’ evolution as visual storytellers. But in his half-century behind the camera, it’s also noteworthy that Ballhaus generously brought his talents to the projects of first-time directors like James Foley (Reckless), Prince (Under the Cherry Moon) andIrwin Winkler (Guilty by Suspicion). Another neophyte who benefitted from the Ballhaus eye was Steve Kloves, who directed his own screenplay for the fabulously adult and glamorously soulful musical romance The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), starring brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges as a piano-playing lounge act that has seen better days and Michelle Pfeiffer as a sexy songbird who changes their sliding fortunes like a lightning bolt. Kloves relied on Ballhaus to invest his dialogue-driven script with a stylish visual edge, proposing a nocturnal Edward Hopper feel as a starting point of discussion. Kloves told Filmmaker magazine interviewer Jim Hemphill: “I always saw the movie in terms of the burnished red of the booths, a kind of dark crimson with amber light and a slightly threadbare quality, like the surroundings are all going to seed a bit. We also talked about keeping the camera movement simple and motivated, not just sweeping the camera around for its own sake. I wanted to keep it simple both because I was a first-time director and because stylistically I felt it was right for the movie. We saved the more elaborate moves for moments we wanted to stand out, like the scene on the piano, which needed a different energy.” That elaborate move became iconic – and a source of great satisfaction to the veteran Ballhaus, who told Goethe Institute interviewer Jörn Hetebrügge: “That 360-degree circle shot round Michelle…When I read the screenplay I knew – it had to have the effect of the sexual act – the camera had to do one complete circle round her. I suggested it to Steve and he was thrilled with the idea. Michelle did a splendid job and it became one of the highlights of her career.” Ballhaus’ work on The Fabulous Baker Boys earned him not only one of his three Academy Award® nominations (Broadcast News and Gangs of New York were the other two) but also the Boston Society of Film Critics, Los Angeles Film Critics and National Society of Film Critics Awards for the year’s Best Cinematography. In addition to Deleted Scenes and an Audio Commentary with Kloves and Twilight Time resident film lovers Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, TT’s hi-def Blu-ray also boasts a Commentary with Ballhaus himself, offering an aural master class with alternating doses of technical detail and common-sense professionalism, all magically enlightening.