Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Photographing Directors (and Cannes Cinema)

Title: Magnum Cinema - photographs from over 50 years of movie-making
Series: Phaidon
Author: Alain Bergala
Publisher: Phaidon Press Limited* (1995)
Pages: 360
Price: $59.95
I am not quite sure if the 2005 English language re-print of Magnum Cinema is the same one Mr. Toubiana** highlights as one of the many accomplishments of the recently deseased Claudine Paquot (I do not see her name in the credits) but it is a gorgeously put-together book. Toubiana's post from his magnificent blog, which since then he wrote about Pierre Cottrell and the arrest of Mahnaz Mohammi, highlights the important back-stage role Pacquot had at the world's best film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma and there are some moving comments from the old Cahiers writers Nicolas Saada, Jean-Michel Frodon and Bill Krohn as well as one from the filmmaker Chantal Akerman. The personal anecdotes describe a singular and wonderful women who help shaped Cahiers for what it is now.

On the front cover of Magnum Cinema Elli Wallach is in the front seat of a car driving Marilyn Monroe. The black-and-white photograph which is drabbed in shadows with the azure blue title in the top left corner is an unassuming beginning to this beautiful documentation of the seventh art through different behind the scene film shoots. The book comprises of a small selection of Magnum Photos seven-thousand photograph collection which are spread throughout the sections: The Movie Nomads, Preparing for the Shoot, The Shoot, In the Edit Room, Film Festivals, The Stars, Cinema in the Street. The index of films and personalities at the back of the book make it easily navigable.

Alain Bergala opens the book with his essay Magnum meets the Cinema where he writes an abridged history of the photography agency which was spear-headed by Roger Capa, who was originally renowned for his war-time photographs, and Henri Cartier-Bresson and George Rodger who started Magnum in 1947. Their first photograph is of Alfred Hitchcock filming Ingrid Bergman's hand on the set of Notorious. Capa brought a magnetisms to the agency while their executive editor John G. Morris, who would use his connections from his stint at Life Magazine, was able to guarantee magazine purchases of the backstage photo shoots that reeled them in a higher income as well as more prestige. Though sometimes acquiring contracts through personal connections prevented certain openings, as well some studios were not receptive, which is one of the reasons for the exclusion of some directors in the book. The photographers talked about the difficulty and restrictions about their work on set, yet, as Bergala notes, "Yet the greatest strength of Magnum's photographers in dealing with set photography has been both their ability to maintain artistic freedom with subjects that were not necessarily of their own choosing, and their strength of character in not giving in to market demands." The golden age of the agency seemed to have reached a climax with The Misfits which was to become a symbol of the gloriousness of the Studio Era as well of the changing of a time as Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe died shortly afterwards. The Misfits, which Phaidon has another book dedicated too, with its iconic images of Monroe, Gable and Montgomery Clift captures, as Bergala notes, "the legacy of a dying dynasty and of a woman who was its last tragic embodiment." The crisis and turning point for Magnum on acquiring contracts had to do with the rising competition from television on the studios which lead to lesser interest in both the films and for coverage by prestigious photographers.

The subjects of the photographs in Magnum Cinema include stars, directors, technicians, screenplay writers, authors, film critics and philosophers; and some photographers are a better match for particular subjects. Some noteworthy affiliations include: Antonioni saw Bruce Davidson, who took the pictures of Zabriskie Point, as his alter ego. Eli Reed shoots John Singleton. Erich Solomon's in situ photographs of Eisenstein and Lubitsch. Other note-worthy talents include Guy Le Querrec and Philipp Halsman whose pictures are both innovative and ambitious. Eve Arnold has a good eye. Ernst Hass did well with his subjects. And from all their photographers the one that successfully moved onward to feature film is Raymond Depardon.

There is a great photograph of the white-haired bearded older man John Huston, who has a major presence in Magnum Cinema as Capa and him were friends, who is filming Under The Volcano. Thierry Jousse writes in Cannes Cinema, "Huston was one of the last superstars of American Cinema." Orson Welles appears almost God-like. The Italians Visconti, Rosselini and De Sica are there. Truffaut and Godard have a big presence and so does Renoir. As well many other directors sporadically pop up: Kusturica, Wajda, Ray, Allen, Fuller, Mankiewicz, Angelopolous, Chaplin, Wilder, Wise, Yimou, Robson, Renais, Wenders, Hartley, Cronenberg, De Palma, Tarantino, Ferrara, Eastwood, Rivette and Garrel. One of the most gorgeous images is of Jacques Tati walking with a boy with a Mon Oncle poster in the background. There is part of the set of Carax's Les Amants du Pont-Neof. There is also a focus on actors and actresses like Isabelle Hupert and Jane Birkin, Elizabeth Taylor and Humpthrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and Audrey Hepburn. Some writers that are photographed include Jacques Prevert, Margarite Duras and William Faulkner. As well you can see Henri Langlois and a Cahiers chief editor boardroom.

Magnum Cinema is at its most interesting when there is more descriptions and commentary, which it is lacking, as one wishes it had even more text kind-of like the Cannes Cinema book. And the book appears almost dated, as the latest in art cinema seems incarnated by Kusturica, Hartley and Angelopoulos. When was the last time these guys even made a movie? I would have liked to seen some photographs of Terrence Malick, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and James Gray. Anyways, for more recent trends there are the film magazines: Cahiers, Positif and Cinema Scope. I really liked in Cahiers the pictures of Gregg Araki in a tanktop and big head-set directing two chicks on the set of Kaboom, Wes Craven almost-looking like a devil directing My Soul to Take or Philipe Garrel with some of his friends making Un Été Brûlant. And for photography, last years out-of-series issue of Positif Portfolio: 80 cinéastes vus par… Positif & Nicolas Guérin is one of the best collections of director portraits mixed with serious film-criticism that’s out there.

Though in the other book Cannes Cinema: a visual history of the world’s greatest film festival the film festival is documented through the local Traverso family over four generations of photographers starting with Auguste Traverso, the founder of Traverso Maison, to the Traverso that is still working today Henri. The book is similar to Kieron Corless and Chris Darke’s Cannes: Inside the World's Premier Film Festival (Faber and Faber, 2007) as they both expand on the same stories. Toubiana writes about the raison d'être of Cannes that in the wake of the catastrophic Second World War,
"Thus the festival was about demonstrating, in the most visible and impressive way possible, the desire on nations to gather together around the idea of peace. Cinema became the vehicle for this recovered ideal. And the festival would continue to fly the many flags of the nations that presented their films in competition."
Cannes Cinema is better at chronologically documenting the history of cinema then Magnum Force as it encompasses a wider subject as well the bottom of each page is filled with interesting observations from the perspective of Cahiers with the contributors Serge Toubiana, Joël Magny and Thierry Jousse. You can even see the Cahiers and Cannes ties from the photographs of Godard, the discussion of Hitchcock as a serious artist, and photographs of the writers, directors and programmers all together. The connection between Cahiers and Cannes is still present in the lastest issues (N. 667, 668) as the magazine covers the competition, discusses four French films that played at the Directors’ Fortnight Après le sud, La Fin du silence, My Little Princess and 17 Filles; as well Cahiers has a feature on the Palme d'Or winner Tree of Life with multiple interviews with everyone involved, except for the elusive Mallick. Even the chief editor Stéphane Delorme has been on the selection of Directors’ Fortnight since 2004.

Like the crisis for Magnum there came a time when photography at Cannes changed; in terms of both approach and style, the media accreditations and restrictions in the 1980s, around the time of the expansions of the Palais des festival, shifted the tone from casual to more restrictions. The golden age of the photography encapsulated within these pages makes the book a pleasure to go through. Magnum Cinema and Cannes Cinema are also necessary illustrations of film-history, similarly to Gallimard’s publishing of Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinema, as these documents put a face and a context on film history, as they expand on the backstage presence of the stars as well it illustrates the convergence between the studio era and a prestigious photography agency. – David Davidson

*Other books from Phaidon Press includes Truffaut at Work, Hitchcock at Work and Welles at Work. They have two film-festival books Take 100 - The Future of Film and Gilles Jacob’s Citizen Cannes. As well Cinema Today, Seen Behind the Scene, Musée du Cinema and Movie Book. They are also responsible for the Masters of Cinema series and a Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese interview book with Michael Henry Wilson.

**Serge Toubiana was the Cahiers chief editor from 1981 to 2000 and he is now the director general of the Cinémathèque Française. Here is Toubiana’s Top Ten list of films from the 2000s from Cahiers (N. 652):
- Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004)
- The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006)
- Tetro (Francis Ford Coppola, 2009)
- Three Times (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 2005)
- Coeurs (Alain Resnais, 2006)
- Catch me if you Can (Steven Spielberg, 2002)
- Volver (Pedro Almodovar, 2006)
- Les destinées sentimentales (Olivier Assayas, 2000)
- The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006)
- A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, 2008)
- Saraband (Ingmar Bergman, 2003)

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