Book Reviews

Learning From the Legends of Filmmaking

May 29, 2014

By Jim Cornfield

If you’re among the burgeoning group of photographers—wedding, event specialists and photojournalists in particular—who now include video capture in their professional repertoire, you’ve already encountered what I call the Big Paradox: that a film is made up of still photographs and a photograph can become a movie.

Yes, on the surface a movie is, even in the world of digital video, a series of still photographs strung together to create the illusion of movement in real time (just as Eadweard Muybridge first managed over 130 years ago). And despite the multiplicity of other crafts usually required to create a movie—the script, theater, sound recording and editing—there’s no escaping the reality that every motion picture is, first and foremost, photography.

Few writers understand that notion better than New Republic film critic David Thomson. In his remarkable, newly released cinematic anthology, Moments That Made the Movies, Thomson looks at 70 combinations of filmmaking tools as they’re used in a selection of feature films made over the last century.

While an individual photograph can be examined by a viewer at his or her own pace, films are different. Our impressions are governed from beyond the content of a shot: by the length of time we’re allowed to view it, by the content of the frames that preceded it—establishing shots, dolly shots, pans or tilts—and the frames to follow, such as reaction shots, zooms and closeups. There’s also the nature of the editorial transitions between these images—hard cuts, soft cuts, fades, long and short dissolves—and the dialogue, sound effects and music (maybe the audio fades up or down; maybe it overlaps a cut to “tease” the next shot in sequence).

Some of these tools are icons of movie history: a wide establishing shot of brooding Humphrey Bogart and piano-playing Dooley Wilson, center stage at Rick’s Café Américain in Casablanca (1942); the ever-dapper Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1959) as he outruns a crop-dusting biplane in Alfred Hitchcock’s (or maybe in history’s) most famous movie chase, a sequence composited from a location shoot and close-ups filmed on a sound stage; a tight close-up revealing the breakout role of Faye Dunaway as down-and-out waitress-turned-bank robber Bonnie Parker in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

From the movie Casablanca. Practically all of the plot’s tension is revealed in one perfectly crafted shot of Rick’s Café in strife-ridden WWII-era Casablanca. The filigree shadows on the wall suggest the Moroccan locale; every woman in sight ogles the glamorous Rick (played by Humphrey Bogart); every man stares with admiration. Rick’s dour expression reflects the important plot element built around one of movie history’s most celebrated music tracks, “As Time Goes By.” Photo © Warner Bros/the Kobal Collection at Art Resource NY

In North by Northwest, a terse bit of  dialogue sets up this terrifying moment a few cuts before. On a deserted stretch of rural farm road, a local resident waiting for a bus spots a tiny biplane in the distance and ominously informs Cary Grant’s bewildered city-slicker character that someone’s out there “dustin’ crops where there ain’t no crops.” Photo © Warner Bros/the Kobal Collection at Art Resource NY

Bonnie and Clyde reveals the power of the close-up: Faye Dunaway’s character reacts a little bitterly as smooth-talking stranger Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) claims he’ll end the dreariness of her life as a small-town waitress in Depression-era Texas. Photo © Warner Bros/Photofest

In the book’s introduction, Thomson explains his selection of scenes as purely personal, but adds that all are what he considers “very ‘movie’ moments, doing something that could be managed in no other medium—the look, the pace, the movement, the texture, the context, all these things are vital [to filmmakers].”

But Thomson remains acutely sensitive to the motion picture’s birthplace in the world of still imagery. The first selection of his Moments That Made the Movies isn’t a movie at all; it’s one of Muybridge’s still sequences—a familiar frame-by-frame human locomotion study, shot from three separate angles, of two naked young women interacting in real time with a wooden chair. And he ends the book’s selection of legendary film clips with the work of another still shooter, sports photographer Richard Lam. This final image shows a young couple lying together in a totally inappropriate embrace on the pavement outside a hockey arena. They’re passionately kissing, oblivious to the rioting crowd in the background and the silhouette of a helmeted policeman in the foreground. Lam caught this tableau during a fracas during the 2011 Stanley Cup tournament in Vancouver. The shot was scandalous enough to get worldwide media exposure for a few days.

The raucous fans and the truncheon-wielding cop are out of focus, so the lovers take center stage. And therein lies the shot’s cinematic credentials: The dramatically selective planes of focus and the racy sight of the kiss and the girl’s bare thighs convey, he writes, a “wealth of meaning,” ostensibly as much as a film sequence of the same scene might suggest. Clearly, Thomson “gets” the resonance between stills and live action.

All filmmakers—from newbies to the selected few among the Red Carpet crowd—owe a collective debt to our shared cinematic past. Whatever manuals you’re devouring to make your transition into film or digital videography, and no matter where you’ll ultimately head with the knowledge, Moments That Made the Movies is a valuable collection of “teachable” moments for you and your career.

Also On Our Radar

In keeping with the filmmaking theme of this month’s issue, here is a pair of titles that celebrate still shooters who made their way, quite successfully, into the ranks of important motion picture directors.

Gordon Parks
Introduction by Paul Roth

“Gordon Parks’ engagement with the medium of photography began as an exercise in personal salvation,” begins the introductory tribute in this visually rich collection of work by one of history’s most eloquent and successful African American artists. A recent addition to Thames & Hudson’s award-winning Photofile series of compact, affordable, but lavishly reproduced monographs, this newly introduced collection is an astonishing achievement.

Parks was raised in poverty during a terrible period of repression for African-Americans, yet he succeeded in attaining the zenith of success in his chosen profession, beginning with poignant images that exposed the power of segregation and bigotry in this country. He went on to a Depression-era stint with the celebrated FSA, and then to freelance fashion photography and celebrity portraiture for Vogue, followed by 20 years as both a writer and photographer for LIFE. Hollywood contacts led Parks to his second career as a film director, his first effort being a movie adaptation of an autobiography, The Learning Tree. His signature movie achievement was the 1971 detective film Shaft.

Some of the most potent samples in this powerful collection are images of African-Americans who helped change the course of history, among them Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X. “I needed a weapon against evil,” Parks once said. “You have chosen a gun. I have chosen a camera. I think my weapon is stronger.”

The Stanley Kubrick Archives
Edited by Alison Castle

It could be called criminal in any discussion of photographers who graduated to movie careers to omit the name Stanley Kubrick. He’s regarded by many as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time—Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s oeuvre was honored recently in this lavish addition to the large-format Taschen Archives Series featuring great motion picture directors. 

The phenomenon that was Stanley Kubrick (he passed away in 1999) may well have begun when his father gave him a Graflex camera at the age of 13. He took on freelance photography jobs after high school, eventually selling some images to LOOK magazine, where he ultimately landed a staff job. Kubrick’s early photos (1945-1950) were published in the book Drama and Shadows in 2005, and also appear as a special feature on the 2007 Special Edition DVD of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In 2011, many of his LOOK pictures were selected by curators at the Museum of the City of New York and made available as limited-edition prints. 

Kubrick’s well-known passion for precision in visual detail and historical accuracy in his films are doubtlessly the direct result of his photographic interest. The breadth of his visual sensibilities is the dominant motif in the stunning collection of production stills and behind-the-scenes images that make up The Stanley Kubrick Archives.

See this story in the digital edition.