i just spent many hours writing a blog post and accidentally deleted it. i definitely don't feel like writing the whole thing again so here is the gist of what i wrote.
- he wrote a great book, man with a camera.
- i don't know what a nestor allemandes movie "looks like", yet he shot so many wonder films.
my two favorite autobiographies written by filmmakers are luis bunuel's my last sigh and nestor almendros' man with a camera. as you may know from reading this blog, i dislike the concept of advice, but i do love a good personal story. i truly have no interest in anyone's theories, beliefs, or insights but rather i cherish hearing about personal experience and (mis)adventure. both these books read as beautifully dictated memoirs of roaming life memory, rather then an attempt to be a great work of literature, and i believe that simplicity makes them in fact great works of writing. kurosawa (something like a autobiography) and bergman (the magic lantern) both wrote autobiographies and they are not good. the reader gets blow hard poetic quotes but no real grounded substance to trully relate to. for example, bunuel will randomly break off from his life story with a list of his favorite bars around the world...
almendros' will write a simple and relatable sentences like:
"no mater how hair brained a director's shot concept maybe, i will always try my hardest to decipher it and make sense of it before i say 'it's not possible'".
now that is something i can relate to!
unlike so many great DP's of almendros' era, i am not even sure if i can identify his work on sight. i believe this to be the case because his career did not have a clear and streamlined trajectory. he was raised in a world of revolutions and of governmental conflict, which lead him to have a nomadic life. aside from shifting between geographical locations throughout his career he shifts between narrative, documentary , art and commerce. just a glance at his filmography shows the following films in order:
- koko the talking gorilla. a feature documentary for barbet schroeder
- love on the run. a strange and flawed truffaut film and the final of the antoine doinel series.
- sophie's choice. an academy award winning hollywood film dir by alan j pakula.
almendros began his career making documentaries in nyc and cuba and participating in the nyc avant garde cinema movement of the early 1960's. he was good friends with maya deren and screened his own films at underground theaters. this pedigree made him a perfect match to participate in the french new wave where he shot paris vu par after the original DP fought with a director and left the set. although it's never been stated, i always suspected the original DP to be raul cortard.
i am not sure if it's good or bad for a DP's work to be recognizable and have a signature look but i know its not essential for a great DP to have a recognizable style. a style basically means that you visualize a story in a certain and particular and possibly limited way... or one way. an example would be gordon willis who has a signature style that i always enjoy watching--whether its "all the president's men", "annie hall" or "the godfather films", the film's lensing, composition, light direction and camera movement are all similar. he does do a great job of changing color palette from film to film.
i believe almenrdos' work not to have a signature style but rather a harmonious union with the story, space and performance. he approaches the photography from the director's vision first and not his own. there is no consistency in color, lighting or movement, although i do think there is consistency in his framing and compositional balance. i recently was introduced to the masterfully austere film "the mouth agape" only discover almendros name in the credits and i thought to myself "i knew i felt someone special behind the camera". in his book he describes himself as the assistant to the director and i assume the directors he worked with appreciated his collaboration. he worked repeatedly with auteur filmmakers such as francois truffaut, eric romer, barbet schroeder, and robert benton although his best know work is incredibly stunning yet boring days of heaven for malick. i have a theory that if you put on two movies at a party, days of heaven and anything else, people will be drawn to the room with anything else playing on it. then when you ask them which film they like better, they will always claim days of heaven.
i probably respect alemdros' work to such an extent since i identify with his bizarre and unique career path. i don't identify with a particular style and don't visualize films in one definite way. i enjoy the process of building upon a director's ideas and exploring all potential ideas with the hope of finding the best one... regardless of fiction or documentary, art or budget. i have been blessed in finding a career that has let me experience so many different types of filmmaking and in different places, and it's just the beginning.
i am truly grateful to almendros for taking the time and finding the humility to write "man with a camera", sharing his life and career experiences. very few people take the time and energy to give back and instead self promote, especially in this day and age of personal websites and instagram feeds. the line between promotion and the sharing of knowledge is very thin and often confused. this is an issue i try to monitor in my own life, since i am guilty and victim of this confusion. ones public images can be so easily curated and controlled in the digital era. photos and information can be controlled and used to create a self inflicted idealized "brand" upon anyone with a decent sense of graphic design and a internet connection. "man with a camera" does the opposite, it breaks down the wall between the writer and reader. aldemdros shares his experiences with us, wether they be successes or failures and more often then not he discusses the conflict and process of making movies, not just the war stories, successes and achivements.
one current DP definitely has been giving back, rodger deakins' with his wonderful online forum. you can post a cinematography question and deakins will actually post an answer. one trick i learned from the site is to use one shade of window curtains during a day time scene and then when shooting in the same location at night, switch to a darker color since you can never get a white curtain to look "dark" at night. smart stuff.
the original post that was even longer and more rambling. thanks god it got deleted.