Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Light and Sound: Image Makers and The Magic Flute

William H. Daniels, with Greta Garbo, on the set of Romance (1930).

The best time I’ve had at the movies so far this year was watching Image Makers: The Adventures of America’s Pioneer Cinematographers, which TCM ran over the weekend. It’s catnip for film buffs. Written by film critic Michael Sragow and directed and edited by Daniel Raim, Image Makers zeroes in on seven groundbreaking artists – Billy Bitzer, Rollie Totheroh, Charles Rosher, William Daniels, Karl Struss, Gregg Toland and James Wong Howe. It combines historical and biographical material; precise, razor-sharp film analysis; interviews with a crew of extraordinarily knowledgeable scholars, a few contemporary DPs and a couple of relations; invaluable voice interviews conducted at the American Society of Cinematographers while Rosher and Daniels were still alive; brightly-colored comic-strip frames (by Patrick Mate) to illustrate some of the stories; and, naturally, clips from these men’s movies and in some cases the ones that influenced them.

Bitzer, who learned his craft from the horse’s mouth, so to speak – he was trained by W.K. Dickson, the official cinematographer for the Edison Company, where the first American camera was invented – teamed up with D.W. Griffith, the man who invented the art of filmmaking, at the outset of Griffith’s career, in 1908; it was he who got Griffith to see the connection between this dazzling new medium and the Victorian melodramas he grew up on and loved. Totheroh, most of whose story is related by his adoring grandson David Totheroh, was a one-time baseball player who moved from shooting westerns for Broncho Billy Anderson to collaborating with Charlie Chaplin. Rosher and Daniels were perhaps the most gifted of the “glamor photographers” whose work with iconic movie actresses – Rosher shot all of Mary Pickford’s silent from 1917 on while Daniels, who had been second cameraman on Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 masterpiece Greed, was behind the camera on every one of Greta Garbo’s MGM pictures except for her last, the disastrous Two-Faced Woman – defined Hollywood’s approach to lighting stars for the entirety of the big-studio era. In the mid-twenties Rosher was invited by Germany’s celebrated studio UFA, home base for the German Expressionists, to give a demonstration of glamor lighting and stayed to serve as a consultant on F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926); when Murnau emigrated to Hollywood the next year, his comrades-in-arms on Sunrise – one of the most exquisite, visually inventive and enduring films of the silent era (and one of the last) – were Rosher and Karl Struss. Gregg Toland is forever associated with the introduction to American movies of the deep focus lens, which permits the shooting of all three planes of the image, foreground, middle ground and background, with equal clarity. He was Orson Welles’s DP on Citizen Kane in 1941 and a repeat collaborator with William Wyler. What I never knew until seeing Image Makers was that James Wong Howe, whose career began in 1923 and spanned more than half a century, was the actual inventor of deep focus, which he tried out on some tests for the 1931 Transatlantic. Howe was also one of the pioneers of three-strip Technicolor and, much later, CinemaScope. (He was also godfather to Toland’s daughter Lothian, a rugged western beauty who shows up briefly but memorably in the documentary.)

The subtitle The Adventures of America’s Pioneer Cinematographers prepares us for the tone of the movie, a joyous mix of wide-eyed discovery and the best sort of egghead fascination. If you’ve read Sragow’s wonderful critical biography Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master you’ll recognize the fleet yet dense style of the writing and the approach he takes in the narration (read by Michael McKean), which is to present remarkably detailed material with the wonder of a science nerd who’s happened upon the most exciting laboratory ever built. He and Raim located the ideal team of experts to explicate what the narration doesn’t. All of them, from David Totheroh (who can’t stop grinning as he talks about the stories his “grandpop” passed down to him – except when, alluding to the final scene of Chaplin’s City Lights (1931), he gets teary-eyed) and Steve Gainer, curator of the ASC Camera Museum, to Leonard Maltin (author of The Art of the Cinematographer and many other volumes) and Matt Severson, the director of the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library, conveys their tales and observations as if they’d been waiting decades for the right audience. If there’s a master guide in this journey, though, it’s the great British silent-movie historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow, who turned eighty last year. Everything he shows and tells us is fresh, like the early occasion of a camera moving into a close-up in a 1904 short called Photographing a Female Crook and the way Bitzer lit Griffith’s most staggering film, the 1916 three-and-a-quarter-hour Intolerance, before arc lights had been invented. It’s a magical narrative, all right, like an inspired episode in a boys’ adventure serial – and big-eared Brownlow, clad in a tie and baseball cap, with his twee English accent, is such a goofy, outsize gnome of a fellow that he looks like he was born to tell it. And he’s so much in thrall to Griffith’s picture that he chokes up when he describes it. “When you’ve gone through Intolerance, you feel unhinged,” he proclaims – and indeed yes, it’s the maddest masterpiece ever put on screen.

A scene from Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 masterpiece Greed.

My second favorite expert is the modern-day Missouri-born cinematographer John Bailey, whom I recall with fondness from Visions of Light, a highly enjoyable doc from 1992 that, with broad strokes, covers the entire history of movie lighting, and from the film noir episode of the terrific 1995 TV limited series American Cinema, where he explained the “Venetian blind effect” and other visual trademarks of forties and fifties noirs. Here he is, still tall and imposing at seventy-seven (he looks maybe sixty-two), demonstrating how Struss and a handful of other proactive DPs “unchained” the camera after the early sound pictures had immobilized it by showing and explicating the opening sequence of Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Even more fun is the moment when Raim splits the screen to show us a still of Murnau directing Sunrise on the left side while Raim unspools an excerpt from the amazing big-city sequence, with its breathtaking use of superimposition, on the right. (Here, too, Bailey explains how Struss and Rosher shot it.) Raim and Sragow wisely choose to place Bailey’s rich reading of the last scene of Martin Ritt’s 1963 Hud close to the end of the documentary; Bailey theorizes that changing the locale from inside the house (as it appears in all three versions of the screenplay he’s managed to track down) to its exterior was the idea of the cinematographer, James Wong Howe. Watching this scene made me excited to see the movie again.

Image Makers packs in so much that’s wonderful in an hour and forty minutes that it’s hard to select all my favorite parts. I loved Brownlow’s revelation that a shot from Greed anticipates the way Welles and Toland got their low-angle shots in Citizen Kane as well as a still of the two men shooting from a trap cut into the floor of the set. A blue-tinted clip from The Hoodlum, one of Rosher’s Pickford films, and Howe’s use of color in the 1938 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer put those movies at the top of my must-see list. The narration is sprinkled with insights that turned my head around, like the fact that Pickford’s 1929 talkie Coquette – which Rosher refused to light and Struss did but then regretted it because it enslaved him to the chained camera – is shot like a multi-camera TV show; and that when Pickford collapses in Little Annie Rooney (1925) after learning that her father is dead, Rosher takes the light off her curls to show that the life has gone out of her. And because I’m a Gregg Toland devotee, I ate up the section on his work. The narration claims that Welles and Toland believed deep focus imitates the movement of the human eye; what it doesn’t point out is the irony of that statement, since what they did in Kane with deep focus (which Renoir had already been using in France and Wyler, in league with Toland, had tried out in the 1939 Wuthering Heights) was to turn it from the best realist tool ever thought up to an expressionist visual device. (That’s why Welles has often been hailed for pioneering deep focus in Kane – because he used it in a strikingly weird manner.) Severson explains how Toland employed it – once more for realism – in a scene from Wyler’s crowning achievement The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

In Image Makers, the contemporary DP Rachel Morrison says that cinematographers “dance with the actors” and Sam Peckinpah, quoted in the narration, scoffs at the idea that the camera is a mere machine when “it is the most marvelous piece of divinity ever invented.” This joyous documentary piles on the evidence for both of these charming descriptives.

Mhlekazi Andy Mosiea in The Magic Flute. (Photo: Keith Pattison)

The notion of The Magic Flute adapted to the style and instrumentation of a South African company sounded irresistible, so I’d been looking eagerly forward to the production by the Cape Town-based Isango Ensemble, which ArtsEmerson programmed last week. (I’d missed it during its previous engagements.) And it was definitely a kick to hear the famous Mozart overture played on drums and marimbas. But the show doesn’t have a concept, the staging (by Mark Dornford-May, who also adapted the opera) is fairly static and sticks to straight lines, and Lungelo Ngamlana’s choreography is, frankly, amateurish – a lot of marching up and down and swaying of hips. Presumably the point of translating the material is to suggest that the librettist Schikaneder’s loony fable – with its fairy-tale lovers, Tamino and Pamina, and their low-comic counterparts, Papageno and Papagena, the demonic-harpy Queen of the Night and her opposite number, the warm, paternal priest Sarastro, and his Masonic cult – could be reconceived as an African story. But Dornford-May hasn’t come up with any cultural equivalents for the characters or the visual elements of the libretto, settling instead for a generalized African vibe. It isn’t even especially colorful, which strikes me as a huge missed opportunity. (No costume designer is listed in the program.)

During the first aria, Tamino’s cry for help as he’s being pursued by a dragon (Dornford-May does almost nothing with this scenario), I was put off by the musical performance, but I figured that I would get used to the pared-down, percussion-dominated arrangement, and certainly part of the problem seemed to be the lackluster singing of Masakana Sotayisi. (He does improve in the second act, but he’s the weakest singer in the cast.) But I never did get comfortable with it, though a couple of the duets – Papageno (Zamile Gantana) with Pamina (Nombongo Fatyi) and the always-welcome meeting of Papageno and his Papagena (the singer in this role isn’t identified in the press material) just before the end – are very enjoyable, and I loved the idea that when Tamino goes to work on his magic flute, the sound that emerges is a trumpet, played by the conductor, Mandisi Dyantyis. (Dyantyis also arranged the music and he and Paulina Malefane directed it.) The problem, for me, at least, is that even when the singers are at their finest – Fatyi and Ayanda Tikolo, the Sarastro, have the most impressive vocal instruments – you miss the melodic richness and depth of the Mozart music when their voices are set against so thin a sound.

The production is tedious (a word I don’t think I’ve ever employed to refer to The Magic Flute), especially the second act, though it’s only about forty minutes long. And perhaps the ArtsEmerson folks could include some more information in the program? The performers are listed but not by role, and it’s a little shocking to see no credit to either Mozart nor Schikaneder. They did write the damn thing.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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