As a proud Powell and Pressburger completist, my chief complaint regarding Craig McCall’s 12-years-in-the-making documentary Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff is that we’ve seen the best material here before. Essentially an expanded version of McCall’s featurette “Painting with Light,” available on the Criterion Collection’s Black Narcissus DVD and Blu-ray, Cameraman covers the entirety of Cardiff’s career as an operator, technician, 2nd unit director, cinematographer, and finally film director through copious clips and interviews with collaborators, notable fans, and the man himself. It should be said that “Painting with Light” is arguably one of the best Criterion supplements; Cardiff explicates, with down-to-earth sardonicism, the inner workings of a Technicolor camera, and passionately discusses the painters that influenced the light schemes of the Himalayan nunnery. But after Cameraman runs dry on this material, and Cardiff’s relationship with the Archers ends, the film offers precious little in the way of biographical piquancy to compensate for its subject’s myriad of uninteresting projects.
Indisputably the master of three-strip Technicolor even in the view of the technology’s developers, Cardiff’s most magisterial work stands seemly impossibly at the nexus of intuition and proficiency, emotion and empiricism. A trained painter, Cardiff describes in Cameraman how he copied a Boucher sketch as a young man because he couldn’t afford genuine artwork, and his humility in this anecdote masks a profoundly meticulous understanding of the languages of light and color. (He also explains how he was chosen, from a pool of camera operators, to be trained as the first British Technicolor photographer; while the others dropped names such as Eastman, Cardiff cited Vermeer.) His best films, most of them with Powell and Pressburger, are furthermore painterly without ever stooping to recognizable allusions; Cardiff was inspired by visual approaches rather than configurations, a distinction that facilitated mise-en-scène both beautiful and narrative-oriented. In A Matter of Life and Death, Cardiff’s first full cinematography credit, we’re kept guessing as to how much of the film’s reality is being influenced by the protagonist’s brain tumor with occasional camera swivels and color schemes that make the mundane appear angelic.
Cameraman‘s talking heads are, admirably, nearly all filmmakers or technicians of some kind; predictably, Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker offer thoughts and stories, as do Kirk Douglas, Freddie Francis, Ian Christie, and Moira Shearer. (Michael Powell’s late-life drawl occasionally and unintelligibly spills through the soundtrack.) The film is so industry-centric, however, that we never get a sense of Cardiff’s private life, which might have given the content an emotional arc. There’s great behind-the-lens gossip, to be sure: Cardiff claims that Marlene Dietrich knew more about film stock and light angling than either he or Josef von Sternberg did, and he gentlemanly describes his working relationships with Hitchcock (on Under Capricorn) and John Huston (The African Queen). But Cameraman speeds through his mostly dreadful directorial career, leaving us wondering why or how one of the world’s most precious cinematographers helmed the first and only movie to be made in Smell-o-Vision.
Cardiff’s incomparable knack for optical representations of emotion also provokes curiosity about his domestic life, his three wives, and his children—none of which are mentioned. McCall presents him as nothing more, or less, than an exemplary cameraman. It’s a noble enough tribute, but what would a documentary entitled The Sex Lives of Famous Cinematographers look like?