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Posts tagged Vilmos Zsigmond

Jazz has endured because it doesn’t have a beginning or an ending. It’s a moment.” — Robert Altman, 2004

"The game of life is hard to play" MASH Robert Altman, 1970 Cinematography | Harold E. Stine

“The game of life is hard to play”
MASH
Robert Altman, 1970
Cinematography | Harold E. Stine

A quote that not only offers perspective on the art of jazz, but also provides a key to why so many of Robert Altman’s films carry such power. When attempting to provide an over-all descriptor of this Cinematic Master’s work the word “satire” is the most often used. Other great words would be “psychology” and “humanity,” because I find it difficult to limit the scope of Altman’s filmography to the satirical. Even when he pulls us into soft satire there are equal measures of psychology and human nature that make a film like The Player resonate. I remember being surprised at how much I enjoyed The Player. A meta-film filled with late 1980’s Hollywood insider jokes and pokes that I had already decided that I would not get most of what Altman’s film pursued. I was wrong.

"So, what's the story? The Player Robert Altman, 1992 Cinematography | Jean Lépine

“So, what’s the story?
The Player
Robert Altman, 1992
Cinematography | Jean Lépine

At the time I didn’t fully appreciate many of the jokes/pokes, but Altman managed to pull me into his protagonist’s shoes. Tim Robbins’ Griffin is not an easy character to like. He is most certainly not the sort of character that you expect to root for, but I did. When this iconic movie is over the viewer is fully satisfied, but this was a movie that did not actually end. As I left the cinema that evening my mind drifted back to Griffin‘s situation. Just how far would he go in the next movie deal? The Player never really stops playing.

This sort of “ending” is the type Altman most often relied upon. In this case that ending was open-ended and threatened a whole new twist to a complex situation. Other times Altman simply cut the movie off or have his story forever floating off the screen as the credits began to roll. This often resulted in a sort of gut-punch or lingering melancholy. His first major critical and box office hit, MASH, was satirical as much as was potently human. By the time we come to that moment when the silly antics, raunchy pranks and comedy will conclude — it suddenly occurs to the audience that all of it has been a ruse. These characters have yucked it up not because it sums up who each of them are, but because they are all trying to delude themselves away from the realities of war. It is both innovative and startling to realize that Radar’s voice which has been booming out announcement over the military encampment is actually reading off the movie’s cast credits. Altman’s way of ending MASH is cleaver and hints that we are leaving the movie while the tragedies continue.

MASH Robert Altman, 1970

MASH
Robert Altman, 1970

Robert Altman had been working in the film industry for over sixteen years when he was finally able to make his narrative fiction feature film. He was 43 years old when he arrived in Canada to shoot That Cold Day in the Park. He was no neophyte. A viewer need not know that fact because this seemingly forgotten cinematic gem is handled with a confident elegance. Having managed to secure Academy Award winning actress, Sandy Dennis, to star was a crucial part of his plan. In any other filmmaker’s hands this profoundly odd character study would have been turned into a morbid horror film. Nothing about the way Altman handles Cold Day indicates the creepy place the film is headed.

Sandy Dennis plays her character like only Sandy Dennis can. She is a wealthy but lonely young woman. She lives a mundane, lonely life surrounded by wealthy extravagances limited by a social life structured around older people. It almost feels as if she has being forced into the role of an aging spinster when in reality she is far too young. It is never clearly articulated, but thanks both to Altman and Dennis’ performance we receive several clues that something is very wrong with “Miss. Frances Austen.” When she breaks convention and offers help to a homeless mute “boy” who is actually closer to her own age than others we meet in her life. We hope this is a sign of healthy rebellion and quest for human connection.

But how often does human motivation follow our better hopes? 

"I have to tell you something." Sandy Dennis That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | Laszlo Kovacs

“I have to tell you something.”
Sandy Dennis
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | Laszlo Kovacs

With Laszlo Kovacs’ brilliant cinematography bringing additional emotional levels, one could call this movie a psycho-sexual thriller. The challenge in limiting this surprisingly effective film to that genre is non-sensical. The film is far more concerned with human psychology to allow itself to fall into line with a cinematic trope. That Cold Day is far more focused on human loneliness, lack of connection and the tyranny of societally imposed isolation and alienation. The film is all of these things but Altman’s main pursuit is to slip into a woman’s damaged psyche.

The film is short and fast-paced. Filled with uncomfortable and realistic scenes between Miss. Frances Austen and The Boy, we see the woman open-up to the mute boy who she manages to keep mostly nude most of the time. Altman’s protagonist is dealing with a whole lot more than sexual repression and alienation. The movie’s “twist” arrives shortly after the one we expect. It is the way in which Altman brings about That Cold Day‘s non-ending that sparks this low-budget magic. The deliverance of the story’s true twist shifts the audience chuckle into an unexpected disturbance. What seems comical gradually takes on the perspectives of the sinister and disturbing. This little movie will never leave your mind. Film critics at the time failed to grasp the power and audiences failed to see it. Robert Altman’s true cinematic debut continues to be studied and re-evaluated.

"I want you to make love to me. Please." That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969

“I want you to make love to me. Please.”
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969

Another forgotten Robert Altman gem arrived to cinemas in 1978. A Wedding is structured and filmed in typical 1970’s casual Altman style. It is satire that manages to be both sharp and silly. A Wedding is also surprisingly sad. Filled with rambling sub-plots as two families come together for a lavish post-wedding reception, it is intentionally rambling but stumbles into deep-cutting cultural commentary. A Wedding is concerned with societal ideas around marriage, family, class and loneliness. A Wedding would later inspire a modern opera.

Carol Burnett A Wedding Robert Altman, 1978 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Carol Burnett
A Wedding
Robert Altman, 1978
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

As the wealthy and the middle class mingle and attempt to form a vague idea of familial bonds we see almost every sort of tragedy and mishap imaginable. Altman seems to constantly being throwing the audience off-guard. He seems determined to refuse any specific genre. Intellectual, slapstick, raunchy and introspective, A Wedding stretches use of familial dysfunction to its limits. The end credits arrive with an unforgettable mixture of crudeness and solemn regret. It is a very strange and often dark “comedy” of epic proportion. It failed to connect with mainstream audiences despite an amazing cast list. Part of the reason remains active today. A Wedding is framed and seems to have been set-up as a forgotten chapter of American Cultural Satire documented so brilliantly with Altman’s 1975 cinematic masterpiece, Nashville. A Wedding was never intended as such. It stands alone and has a very different sort of aim.

"You know weddings are the happiest events I could possibly dream of and yet some how when they're over it's always so sad." A Wedding Robert Altman, 1978

“You know weddings are the happiest events I could possibly dream of and yet some how when they’re over it’s always so sad.”
A Wedding
Robert Altman, 1978

The ill-fated ad campaign for A Wedding boasted that the movie contained a great many secrets, but there were no secrets about his earlier movie. Altman took a head-first plunge into the murky waters of dream logic with 1977’s 3 Women. Altman was specifically clear that this entire film was born of a personal nightmare. He was also very gracious in sharing a good deal of the credit with one of the film’s primary stars. 3 Woman is an incredible examination of identity and surrealism was largely formed by the participation of all three actors in the title roles. This is most particularly true of Shelley Duvall.

" I had the most wonderful dream..." Sissy Spacek / Shelley Duvall 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

” I had the most wonderful dream…”
Sissy Spacek / Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

This wildly experimental dark comedy morphs into one of the more disturbing films you are likely to see. It is full of female energy, but it never feels as if it is trying to make a statement about anything other than these three very specific female characters. Shelley Duvall’s Millie gleefully informs Sissy Spacek’s Pinky, “This is my parking space. It’s the best one!” Later Millie explains, “That’s Dirty Girtie! Pull her bow and she’ll say hello!”  Her delivery of those improvised lines creates an odd and varied response for viewers. Some giggle, some laugh, and many are not sure how to react. There is one reaction that is usually shared: Millie and this dream-inspired film is uncomfortable and induces squirms.

"My leg! My leg! My leg hurts..." 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

“My leg! My leg! My leg hurts…”
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

When 3 Women debuted nearly all major critics swooned. In what has inspired a number of debates, Pauline Kael truly disliked the movie. Her negative viewpoint of this film is of particular interest because up until this movie, Kael had been a consistently staunch Altman ally. Her odd dismissal of 3 Women seemed to curse this extraordinary surrealistic movie. When 20th Century Fox released it into cinemas, audiences were either entranced, confused or indifferent. The film flopped and was pulled out of cinemas just a couple of days beyond a week. Over the following two decades 3 Women has not only become a “Cult Classic” — it is now considered one of the most important American films of the 1970’s. Robert Altman’s surreal study of female identity, isolation, loneliness and sexuality is a cinematic masterpiece.

"The Home of Country Music..." NASHVILLE Robert Altman, 1975

“The Home of Country Music…”
NASHVILLE
Robert Altman, 1975

As The United States headed into its Bicentennial and a game-changing election year, Robert Altman’s Nashville provided a satirical assault. This movie is quite often called the quintessential Robert Altman film. I agree with this viewpoint. Everything we know to anticipate from the great filmmaker is present. Overlapping dialogue, lots of characters, rambling plot points, improvisational in feel but clearly mapped-out toward one clear moving image of mid-1970’s US. Country music was shifting into a more mainstream accessed pop sensibility. Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt were both about to take a place on the pop charts. Country Music stardom was no longer limited to The Grand Ole Opry. And as the country headed into a cultural values torn battle — celebrity and celebrities were as important as anything else. Music Row was selling out. Altman and his screenwriter, Joan Tewkesbury, focused on Nashville as the stage to provide a scathing satire of American culture.

Perhaps the most lost is the most knowledgeable.  Lily Tomlin  NASHVILLE Robert Altman, 1975 Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

Perhaps the most lost is the most knowledgeable.
Lily Tomlin
NASHVILLE
Robert Altman, 1975
Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

So much has been written about this exceptional film it seems silly to attempt to add anything worthy of it, but this epic film remains as powerful as it must have been in 1975. It is satire, but it is also realistically grounded within the limitations of its very human characters. It has continued to cause incorrect criticism for depicting the horrors of celebrity stalking. This film is not an inducement, it is a mirror reflection. Looking carefully in the mirror is never easy. An epic film.

In 1971 Altman set out to explore the concept of The American Western. Many have referred to McCabe & Mrs. Miller as a satire of The American Western. I do not agree with that assessment. This artfully shot and realistically acted film feels like it is attempting to more accurately be an American Western. It succeeds.

"...Oh I hope you run into them, you who've been travelling so long. Yes you who must leave everything that you cannot control..." McCabe & Mrs. Miller Robert Altman, 1971

“…Oh I hope you run into them, you who’ve been travelling so long.
Yes you who must leave everything that you cannot control…”
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Robert Altman, 1971

The timing of the story is a key element for McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The film takes place just as the 19th Century is about to progress into the 20th Century. The setting of the film is that place we know as The Old West. Filmed utilizing natural light as if he were painting on a canvas, Vilmos Zsigmond’s work is breath-stealing. I would doubt that Altman had ever worked so closely with his cinematographer to capture the exacting viewpoints so precisely with the film’s. It also had to be a major coup to manage to cast both Warren Beatty and Julie Christie (infamous lovers at that time) on one screen. He makes the most of both movie stars.

Warren Beatty’s sly ‘aw, chucks attitude is transformed into the one of the movie’s two main characters. McCabe may be tough and ambitious, but he is not very smart. I think it is safe to describe Beatty’s McCabe as a seemingly lucky idiot. Julie Christie’s luminously erotic beauty and intelligence bring Mrs. Miller to life. There is a surprisingly realistic love story here: A stunningly beautiful and intelligent woman begins to fall in love with the handsome man who appears to have all the power. The film’s straining question is how far can love grow when two people are so very different. McCabe‘s brainpower and opinions are so dull that it seems to degree a sad fate.

 

"...When you're not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you've sinned..." No. It's not Jesus.  Warren Beatty McCabe & Mrs. Miller Robert Altman, 1971 Cinematography | Vilmos Zsigmond

“…When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned…”
No. It’s not Jesus.
Warren Beatty
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Robert Altman, 1971
Cinematography | Vilmos Zsigmond

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a beautiful looking and sounding film. Leonard Cohen’s songs fill in as much of the movie’s soundtrack. This actually lends a very late 20th Century take on the film’s story. Cohen’s music also adds to the melancholy that pours out from Zsigmond’s photography. This masterful film is not satire. It is reality. Understated and even quiet, this film is truly brilliant. At long last the film has been newly restored and will be issued to DVD/Blu-Ray thanks to the folks at The Criterion Collection.

Going against the beginning of my post, McCabe & Mrs. Miller does offer a true end to the story. And this is a story that continues to speak in a meaningful way.

Julie Christie McCabe & Mrs. Miller Robert Altman, 1971 Cinematography | Vilmos Zsigmond

Julie Christie
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Robert Altman, 1971
Cinematography | Vilmos Zsigmond

Happy endings are absolutely ludicrous, they’re not true at all. We see the guy carry the girl across the threshold and everybody lives happily ever after — that’s bullshit. Three weeks later he’s beating her up and she’s suing for divorce and he’s got cancer.” — Robert Altman

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Mike Nichols, 1966 Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966
Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

Cinema is many things, but it is a visual medium. The Cinematographer weaves magic of light, composition, perspective and frames which capture the vision of the film’s director. Here are a few of my favorite cinematography moments. There are other cinematic moments that are better and equally loved, but this are a few that came into my mind…

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8½ Federico Fellini, 1963 Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

“Fate is written in the face.”Federico Fellini

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8½ Federico Fellini, 1963 Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

“Our job isn’t to recreate reality, our job is to represent reality.”Gordon Willis

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Klute Alan J. Pakula, 1971 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

 

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Manhattan Woody Allen, 1979 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

 

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September 30, 1955 James Bridges, 1977 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

 

“The idea is to find the space and then to light it in such a way that the actors can go wherever they like, and then to respond to what the actors have done. Only at that point are the final frames decided upon. So it can be very spontaneous.” Sean Bobbitt

 

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Shame Steve McQueen, 2011 Cinematography | Sean Bobbitt

 

 

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12 Years A Slave Steve McQueen, 2013 Cinematography | Sean Bobbitt

 

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Hunger Steve McQueen, 2008 Cinematography | Sean Bobbitt

” When we came to film Persona, we virtually discarded the medium shot. We went from wide shots to close-ups and vice versa. Ingmar had seen a certain resemblance between Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson, and the idea had dawned of making a film about identification between two people who come close together and start to think the same thoughts. The film gave me the opportunity to explore my fascination with the face…” — Sven Nykvist

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Persona Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

 

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Persona Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

 

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Persona Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

 

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Persona Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

“For me, movies should be visual. If you want dialogue, you should read a book.”

Vilmos Zsigmond

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The Rose Mark Rydell, 1979 Cinematography | Vilmos Zsigmond

 

Mark Rydell told Zsigmond that The Rose should “look like an abdominal operation.” — Noel Murray of The Dissolve

 

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The Rose Mark Rydell, 1979 Cinematography | Vilmos Zsigmond

 

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The Rose Mark Rydell, 1979 Cinematography | Vilmos Zsigmond

 

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The Rose Mark Rydell, 1979 Cinematography | Vilmos Zsigmond

 

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Vivre Sa Vie Jean-Luc Godard, 1962 Cinematography | Raoul Coutard

“Photography is truth. The cinema is truth twenty-four times per second.”

Jean-Luc Godard

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Vivre Sa Vie Jean-Luc Godard, 1962 Cinematography | Raoul Coutard

“A film on prostitution about a pretty Paris shopgirl who sells her body but keeps her soul while going through a series of adventures that allow her to experience all possible deep human emotions, and that were filmed by Jean-Luc Godard and portrayed by Anna Karina. Vivre sa vie.”Jean-Luc Godard

 

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Vivre Sa Vie Jean-Luc Godard, 1962 Cinematography | Raoul Coutard

“The more one talks, the less the words mean.”Vivre Sa Vie

 

Invisible Waves Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2006 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Invisible Waves
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2006
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

 

“I think the point of cinematography, of what we do, is intimacy. Is intent, is the balance between the familiar and the dream, it is being subjective and objective, it is being engaged and yet standing back and noticing something that perhaps other people didn’t notice before, or celebrating something that you feel is beautiful or valid, or true or engaging in some way.” Christopher Doyle

 

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Happy Together Kar-wai Wong, 1997 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

 

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Dumplings Fruit Chan, 2004 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

 

“There’s always a shot or a moment you missed; it informs your work rather than takes from it.” Christopher Doyle

 

Away With Words Christopher Doyle, 1999

Away With Words
Christopher Doyle, 1999

 

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A Woman Under the Influence John Cassavetes, 1974 Cinematography | Al Ruban

 

“Mabel is not crazy, she’s unusual. She’s not crazy, so don’t say she’s crazy.”A Woman Under The Influence

 

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Bronson Nicolas Winding Rein, 2008 Cinematography | Larry Smith

 

“I’m colorblind, I can’t see mid-colors. That’s why all my films are very contrasted, if it were anything else I couldn’t see it.”Nicolas Winding Refn

 

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Only God Forgives Nicolas Winding Rein, 2013 Cinematography | Larry Smith

 

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Calvary John Michael McDonagh, 2014 Cinematography | Larry Smith

 

“I shot much of the film with a handheld Arriflex with a very wide lens and a tiny tobacco tin on the front fitted with a wee bulb to add a bit of fill, just enough to see Catherine Deneuve’s skin in the shadows until I moved in close.”Gilbert Taylor

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Repulsion Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

 

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Repulsion Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

 

“I believe the look of the picture is inherent in the material. The material will tell you what the picture should look like. Roman [Polanski] took the audience and led them by the nose to a point, then he left it up to you, and let the audience run with their imagination.” — William A. Fraker

 

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Rosemary’s Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

 

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Rosemary’s Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

 

“Cinema should make you forget you are sitting in a theater.”
Roman Polanski

 

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Rosemary’s Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

 

“I love my work. It’s a passion because otherwise you can’t do it.” — Benoît Debie

 

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Irreversible Gaspar Noé, 2002 Cinematography | Benoît Debie

 

“When you see a movie, it’s like you’re attending a show of magic in which the magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat.”
Gaspar Noe

 

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Enter The Void Gaspar Noé, 2009 Cinematography | Benoît Debie

 

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Spring Breakers Harmony Korine, 2012 Cinematography | Benoît Debie

 

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Love Gaspar Noé, 2015 Cinematography | Benoît Debie

 

“You make the movie through the cinematography – it sounds quite a simple idea, but it was like a huge revelation to me.”
Nicolas Roeg

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Don’t Look Now Nicolas Roeg, 1973 Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond

 

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Don’t Look Now Nicolas Roeg, 1973 Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond

 

“I think a cinematographer’s job is to put a director’s vision on the screen. Nic is very clear in his vision and how he wants a movie to look, to feel, to smell.”Anthony B. Richmond

 

 

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Don’t Look Now Nicolas Roeg, 1973 Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond

 

“During the minutes or seconds that this fleeting image is on the screen, you have to enable the viewer to see and especially to experience that there is a very rapid emotional shock. So the lighting has to be designed in such a way that its form can pierce through the screen and travel like an arrow into the viewer’s mind.” — Henri Alekan

 

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Wings of Desire Wim Wenders, 1987 Cinematography | Henri Alekan

 

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Wings of Desire Wim Wenders, 1987 Cinematography | Henri Alekan

 

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Wings of Desire Wim Wenders, 1987 Cinematography | Henri Alekan

 

“The beautiful thing about Robby is that he starts the process by talking to you about what the film means, what the story is about, what the characters are about. He starts from the inside out, which is really, really such a great way.”Jim Jarmusch

 

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Down By Law Jim Jarmusch, 1986 Cinematography | Robby Müller

 

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Paris Texas Wim Wenders, 1984 Cinematography | Robby Müller

 

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Breaking the Waves Lars von Trier, 1996 Cinematography | Robby Müller

 

” I’ve had glasses since I was six. Back then, I’d wake up in the morning and do things without my glasses on, and I’d be pretty blind. I’m very comfortable getting up close to things. There’s a sense of discovery that comes with that and it’s something I’m really interested in in my work.”  — Ashley Connor

 

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Butter on the Latch Josephine Decker, 2013 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

 

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Butter on the Latch Josephine Decker, 2013 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

 

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Thou Wast Mild and Lovely Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

 

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Barry Lyndon Stanley Kubrick, 1975 Cinematography | John Alcott

 

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Barry Lyndon Stanley Kubrick, 1975 Cinematography | John Alcott

 

“Our working relationship is close because we think exactly alike photographically. We really do see eye-to-eye photographically.” John Alcott

 

 

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A Clockwork Orange Stanley Kubrick, 1971 Cinematography | John Alcott

 

 

“Style is something that’s extremely important, but it must grow naturally out of who and what you are and what the material calls for. It cannot be superimposed.”
William Friedkin

 

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The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

 

“The camera lies all the time — lies 24 times/second.”
Brian De Palma

 

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Dressed to Kill Brian De Palma, 1980 Cinematography | Ralf D. Bode

 

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Dressed to Kill Brian De Palma, 1980 Cinematography | Ralf D. Bode

 

Dressed to Kill Brian De Palma, 1980 Cinematography | Ralf D. Bode

Dressed to Kill
Brian De Palma, 1980
Cinematography | Ralf D. Bode

 

 

” It’s very pleasant to hear that because my conception of this job is to be a companion or a collaborator. It’s to complete something. It is also making the image as separate from the directing but to be part of the storytelling process. If you have some distance with the film you are watching, you’ll be just attracted. You’ll be swimming in it. Or enveloped, like music” Agnes Godard

 

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Beau Travail Claire Denis, 1999 Cinematography | Agnès Godard

 

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Trouble Every Day Claire Denis, 2001 Cinematography | Agnès Godard

 

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The Intruder Claire Denis, 2004 Cinematography | Agnès Godard

 

“Photographing Citizen Kane was indeed the most exciting professional adventure of my career.” Gregg Toland

 

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Citizen Kane Orson Welles, 1941 Cinematography | Gregg Toland

 

“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”
Orson Welles

 

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Citizen Kane Orson Welles, 1941 Cinematography | Gregg Toland

 

“Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.”
Ingmar Bergman

 

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Persona Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Cinematic images are the things of magic.

Matty Stanfield, 1.6.2016