Originally posted in PhotographyMatters.com in March 2010
The publicist for the upcoming World Cinema Showcase sent me a letter as a heads up about two films in the upcoming festival; one about Che Guevara – Chevolution, and Salt – a short film. Rather than describe them, I will leave you to look them up on their website, but please do. They sound interesting, and they’re showing in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland.
But the letter about “…several films that may be of interest to you and the photographic community…” set me thinking. I can never resist a film in which one of the main characters is a photographer, or that has photography as a theme. And there are quite a few. (I’m not talking about documentary films here, just dramatic films.) I’m not going to try to list or review all of them, but here are a few personal favourites, some obvious, some you may not have heard of (in no particular order):
Blow Up, (1966, dir. Michaelangelo Antonioni) is a must see. It’s the film that popularised the figure of the streetwise, savvy fashion photographer, with its protagonist, Thomas (David Hemmings) loosely based on fashion photographer David Bailey. It set off a trend of photographers wearing white trousers and suede jackets.
The film explores the predatory nature of photography/photographers, its sexual angles and fantasies; but more imortantly it is a study of the perception we have, individually and collectively, of reality. You are never sure whether the central event of the film, the witnessing of a murder, actually occurred; the photographer perhaps captured it on film, perhaps not. A key scene in this respect is the final one, involving the travelling mime troup.
As a film-portrayal of London is the swinging sixties, Blow Up is superb. The scene in the nightclub with The Yardbirds playing is alone worth the DVD hire. The Hemmings character is an egoist, a bit of an arsehole really, but he is cool!
In ‘On Photography’, Susan Sontag said this about Blow Up:
And what exactly is the perverse aspect of picture taking? If professional photographers often have sexual fantasies when they are behind the camera, perhaps the perversion lies in the fact that these fantasies are both plausible and so inappropriate. In Blowup (1966), Antonioni has the fashion photographer hovering convulsively over Verushka’s body, with his camera clicking. Naughtiness indeed! In fact, using a camera is not a very good way aof getting at someone sexually. Between photographer and subject, there has to be distance.
Sontag then refers to the movie Peeping Tom (1960) … about a psychopath who kills women with a weapon concealed in his camera, while photographing them. From memory, he used a tripod with a spike in one leg for a weapon, rather than the camera. Correct me if I’m wrong.
Getting back to Blow Up, Hemmings was obviously well coached in using all the cameras, lights and enlargers. He handles everything like a pro. It always irritates me when I see in other films, for example, a camera with a manual winder being used, but the sound effect is a motor drive. Then they somehow take about 50 frames on a roll of film. If the director isn’t worried about that kind of detail, chances are the rest of the film will be crap too. Not the case with Blow Up at all. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blow_Up_(film)
On the subject of photography interpreting reality, there’s the Australian film Proof (1991, dir. Jocelyn Moorhouse – not to be confused with the 2005 John Madden film of the same name), in which the blind character Martin (Hugo Weaving) takes photographs and gets his new friend Andy (Russell Crowe) to describe what the photographs show. This is his way of proving the world exists. But what if Crowe lies to him? This is an intriguing story, well worth hunting out.
High Art (1998, dir. Lisa Cholodenko) is another goodie. Syd (Rahda Mitchell) who works for an art magazine, Frames, discovers photographer Lucy Berliner (Ally Sheedy), who has gone to ground after being famous a decade earlier. The photography shown here is of the Nan Goldin school – photographs of friends and peers in an underground, hip lifestyle.
Another Nan Goldin connection here: Pecker (1998, dir. John Waters) amused me no end. If you’re a fan of the book “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” by photographer Nan Goldin, you will totally get this film. Title character Pecker (Edward Furlong) incessently photographs his friends, neighbours, workmates and local eccentrics, and he stages an exhibition of his snaps in the diner he works at. A hip New York gallerist (Lili Taylor) happens along to the opening, ”discovers” Pecker and offers him a show in her up market gallery. What ensues is a warning about the ordinary being made famous; and it is a great comment on the fickleness and self-serving nature of the art world. Watch for the art photographer cameo at Pecker’s N.Y.C. exhibition opening (not mentioned in the Wikipedia article). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pecker_(film)
Another film set in New York, with the screenplay written by Paul Auster, is Smoke (dir. Wayne Wang & Paul Auster). While it doesn’t feature a lot of photography, photography is central. Augie (Harvey Keitel) obsessively takes a photo at 11am each day outside the tobacconist shop he owns. The camera is set on a tripod in exactly the same spot, pointing in the same direction. When the character played by William Hurt sits down and flicks through the albums containing decades of Augie’s photos, he says, “They’re all the same!” Augie then points out how each photo is different, but you see the same people cropping up over and over. Hurt then sees his dead wife in several photos, the event that kicks the plot into life.
The concept of taking sequential photos in the way shown here may not be new, but it is brilliantlyand uniquely described in this film; and I have noticed a surprising number of people have since adopted the idea, some claiming it as their own. Aside from its photographic relevance, Smoke is a superb film.
Anyway, I can think of a few others involving photojournalists in war-torn countries, and there’s that totally disappointing NZ film about the Burton Brothers, but enough for now. Your contributions and additions are most welcome.
by james | 29 March, 2009
Photography Matters II