Movies, Cinematography, Visuality

Movies, Cinematography, Visuality


A Brief Review of Néstor Almendros’s A Man with a Camera, but Mostly My Own Thoughts about Film, Art, and the Human Condition

Néstor Almendros (1930-1992) was a Spanish-Cuban cinematographer known for his work with French New Wave directors Éric Rohmer (La Collectionneuse, Claire’s Knee) and François Truffaut (The Wild Child, The Last Metro). But his most famous film is American director Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), for which Almendros won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

Almendros is known for his simple, natural imagery—almost always, he tried to use as little artificial light as possible. He writes: “I believe that what is functional is beautiful, that functional light is beautiful light.”1 And—“the important thing is not what is inside the camera, but what is in front of it.”2 Almendros believed that the more complex a movie was, the more the director of photography should sit at the viewfinder himself—contrary to the prevailing practice, existing mainly because of union regulations, that in large projects it’s mostly the cinematographers’ assistants who shoot the movie. Almendros also believed that a good cinematographer should concern herself with more than just her camerawork—she should also be involved with people working on sets, wardrobes, props.

I wanted to read Almendros’s book A Man with a Camera (1980) because I’ve been curious as to why it is that, when we talk about movies, we usually talk about directors. When we praise a movie we usually praise the ingenuity and skill of the director. True, when we criticize a movie, there are often other reasons—e.g., bad acting or a shallow script—which are not always directly attributable to director’s work. Nonetheless, it seems to me that there is a prevalent tendency to equate a movie with its director—to think of movies as works by their directors, even though we know that there are hundreds of people involved in making of most movies. I understand that it’s the director who orchestrates the whole process—and all those hundreds of people are just helping him realize, materialize his idea/vision. And yet, compared to a painter or a writer, who often are the sole creators of their work—because they both envision and execute it—a movie director cannot be called the sole creator of a movie, if it’s a whole bunch of other people who execute the movie for him. Equating a movie director with her work, so seamlessly as people often do, is, in my opinion, a little inaccurate.

I have this notion that the person who physically creates a film is the person who films the film, and that person’s importance should be equal to that of the director’s. I saw a documentary recently where I thought the camerawork was fine and innovative. But then I wondered—it was the producers who got the permission to shoot, and it was the operator who shot the film. So what did the director do? Tell the producers and the operator what to shoot—possibly, how to shoot it. But couldn’t a talented and enterprising cameraman do it by himself? Think what he wants to film and then film it?

That’s how Néstor Almendros did a few of his short films, for example, Gente en la Playa (1961), which got him in trouble in revolutionary Cuba. He thought the movie out, shot it and edited it—a one-man job. A hard job for sure—to do a whole movie by yourself requires versatility, the ability to be simultaneously inside and outside of your work, or to switch rapidly between—doing it and thinking about what needs to be done. But it’s not an undoable job. In comparison, a lot of excellent photography projects—which don’t fall behind in depth and complexity from good movies—have been done chiefly by the photographer alone. But I guess making a film is different—if it is to be a professional production (and there is rarely a good art without some degree of professionalism having gone into it), making a film needs to be a teamwork.

My wanting to read Almendros’s book also had something to do with a suspicion that a director often doesn’t do that much—it’s the team that gets the physical work done. The first page in, it turns out the director of photography does not necessarily do much either. “There are films where the camera operator actually handles the camera while I sit nearby in a folding chair with my name on the back,” writes Almendros.3 His answer to the question What does a director of photography do? could also, it seems to me, be the answer to the question What does a director do? “Almost everything and hardly anything.”4

Almendros writes that a director of photography “must never forget that he is there to help the director.”5 He must understand that “[it] is not “our” film but “his” [director’s] film.”6 I’m disappointed. Does it always have to be so? Can’t there be an our film? About Days of Heaven Almendros admits that his cinematography Oscar should be shared among the “unsung technicians.”7 Yet there is no award for “the best film crew,” only for the best individual.

A Man with a Camera contains Nestor Almendros’s thoughts on the profession of cinematographer, biography of Almendros, case studies of forty films he has photographed, and a glossary of technical terms. It is surely a valuable if not indispensable read for young cinematographers and film students in general. Almendros expresses hope that the book might be useful to film amateurs, such as operators of a video camera, but the book will be interesting for anyone wishing to learn more about the technical aspects of shooting a film. A Man with a Camera is not a tedious technical book—Almendros, who has had a hefty experience working in film, also gives you a lot of behind the scenes stories about how movies are made in general (and about the people he made them with). You can learn, for example, what is the average amount of screen minutes filmed in a shooting day (in Almendros’s time at least).8 In his introduction to the book, François Truffaut writes that “he is conscious of practicing an art even as he exercises a profession.”9

Paralleling the photographer Garry Winogrand who said that he photographs so that he can see how things look photographed, Almendros writes: “Everything seems more interesting on film than in life.”10 He writes: “Basically, a cinema production of any value must be visually interesting . . . it must be visually exciting even for someone who has missed the beginning of the story.”11

I think storytelling in art is overrated. Why does everything need to be turned into a story? Why is simply experiencing, feeling, making loose associations not enough? A story is an arbitrary construct, devised so that we get away from emptiness, arbitrariness, meaninglessness. A story comes after experience. Seeing comes before words, said John Berger. I don’t go to movies just because of their story; I also go to movies for new visual experiences, for discovering new visual worlds.

I liked the story of Days of Heaven; it was a harsh one and made me think about the distribution of wealth in our society. But I also enjoyed the movie for the views: The shots of wheat fields—in the wind, in the sunset, under stormy clouds, under fire—are gorgeous. Yes, I should mention that in most of those shots there are people working in those fields. More exactly, they are laboring there from dawn to dusk for trifling pay. And the shots of them laboring are beautiful, and I must ask myself: Is it wrong to enjoy aesthetically other people toiling for their survival? Or, more broadly, is it kind of wrong—neglectful to the film, to what it’s trying to convey—to just enjoy the visual image and disconnect it from the film’s story? Or is it kind of wrong—neglectful to the world—to neglect to try to connect what you see in a movie to the life outside the movie theater?

The world is, largely, for most of its inhabitants at least, a lot of work and suffering. To make a movie is a lot of work. What does it mean then to go to a movie and want only pleasure? Moreover, only a visual pleasure and forget about the rest? Well, it’s obvious what does it mean—we don’t want work and suffering, but pleasure. Or maybe we want pleasurable work? I think, when I go to movies, I do pleasurable work.

  1. Néstor Almendros, A Man With a Camera, translated by Rachel Phillips Belash. (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984), 9.
  2. Almendros, A Man with a Camera, 10.
  3. Almendros, A Man with a Camera, 3.
  4. Almendros, A Man with a Camera, 3.
  5. Almendros, A Man with a Camera, 4.
  6. Almendros, A Man with a Camera, 4.
  7. Almendros, A Man with a Camera, 172.
  8. Almendros, A Man with a Camera, 91.
  9. François Truffaut, “The Lights of Nestor Almendros,” translated by David Reifenstahl, A Man with a Camera, viii.
  10. Almendros, A Man with a Camera, 10.
  11. Almendros, A Man with a Camera, 15.
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