Rooting for the undersold, or championing the Cinematogapher

Following my suggestion on Front Row Reviews a fortnight ago that Taxi Driver resists traditional notions of authorship, I posted two pieces to my blog last week. The first concerns what I call the “fetishisation of the director”; the second is a brief, more specific follow-up.

In light of these, I’m writing now on two directors of photography, whose contributions to two films I watched last week were a significant part of my enjoying them.

After reporting last Thursday that Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page have all been cast in the new film by Woody Allen – whose Midnight in Paris opens Cannes on May 11 – I decided to watch a film he directed that I’ve had lying around for a while: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask (1972).

A sketch piece of seven disparate episodes, the film – adapted by Allen from David Rueben’s novel – struck me as one of the writer-director’s funniest comedies. Perhaps slight in nature – full of winks to camera and throwaway one-liners that betray Allen’s stand-up roots – the film is given a gorgeous, mature texture by David M. Walsh‘s cinematography.

Warm and dusky in tone, Walsh’s imagery lends a strange, alluring beauty, from the period piece opener to the absurd scenes in which a giant female breast haunts a suburban idyll. If Allen’s direction homages 1950s monster movies, his cinematographer brings to it a genuine, quiet beauty.

Allen has worked with better known directors of photography: Gordon Willis shot Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979) as well as several of Allen’s 1980s comedies, while Vilmos Zsigmond has shot his recent UK features. But I hadn’t heard of David M. Walsh before last week. Further details are scarce: according to his IMDb entry, he hasn’t shot a film since 2004. He did win an Emmy in 1975, though, for the TV movie Queen of the Stardust Ballroom. At any rate, his work on Sex is impressive, and reminded me how often we overlook Allen’s films in cinematic terms.

On Friday, meanwhile, I saw Meek’s Cutoff. I’ve already posted fuller thoughts on that film; here, I want to champion its cinematographer, Chris Blauvelt, whose first feature as DoP this is. Blauvelt has been first assistant camera to DoP Harris Savides for a number of years now, on projects from the visually intricate Elephant (2003) to the sumptuous and immaculate Zodiac (2007).

Working with director Kelly Reichardt, Blauvelt shot Meek’s Cutoff in the Academy ratio, offering a more austere, minimalist revision of the kinds of vistas normally associated with the western. Given the film’s subject matter – the bare essentials of a daily survival as seen through the undervoiced wives of the male characters – it strikes a complimentary chord indeed.

In fact, early on in Meek’s Cutoff I recalled another film about people being lost in a wilderness, the 2002 film Gerry. As with Elephant, that film was shot by Harris Savides. The first assistant camera? Chris Blauvelt. And we don’t have to wait long for their next project, either: Blauvelt was Savides’s camera operator on Restless, which opens the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes on May 12

About The Author

Michael Pattison is a film critic from Gateshead.

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