The American Society of Cinematographers

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February 2009
The Ingmar Bergman Archives Online
by Paul Duncan and Bengt Wanselius (Editors)
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Concurrent with the reissue of their first-rate volume The Stanley Kubrick Archives, the editors at Taschen have released an even more lavish and exhaustive tome, The Ingmar Bergman Archives. Like the Kubrick book, this is the definitive text on its subject, a work of both breadth and depth that collects a wide array of perspectives and documents to provide a detailed narrative of a master filmmaker’s life.  
Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges
by Glenn Lovell
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Ever since critic Andrew Sarris consigned John Sturges to the “Strained Seriousness” category in his landmark 1968 study The American Cinema, the director of Bad Day at Black Rock, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and The Magnificent Seven (among many other noteworthy films) has been more or less ignored by the American critical community.  While the reputations of many of his peers, like John Ford and Anthony Mann, have (rightfully) increased in stature over the years, Sturges has been pushed further and further to the margins, to the point he is rarely written about, discussed or even mentioned in the pages of film journals or histories.  Upon his death in 1992, he was so obscure the news of his demise took days to reach newspapers.  
The Reel Truth
by Reed Martin
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Throughout his nearly 500-page moviemaking primer, The Reel Truth, Reed Martin repeats variations on the Dickensian mantra: “It is both the best of times and the worst of times for independent filmmakers.”  

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The Ingmar Bergman Archives
by Paul Duncan and Bengt Wanselius (Editors)
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Concurrent with the reissue of their first-rate volume The Stanley Kubrick Archives, the editors at Taschen have released an even more lavish and exhaustive tome, The Ingmar Bergman Archives. Like the Kubrick book, this is the definitive text on its subject, a work of both breadth and depth that collects a wide array of perspectives and documents to provide a detailed narrative of a master filmmaker’s life. 

Before his death in 2007, Bergman gave Taschen and Swedish publisher Max Ström unlimited access to his archives and permission to reprint his interviews and writings; meanwhile, longtime Bergman colleague and photographer Bengt Wanselius hunted through photographic collections all over Sweden for rare stills from the director’s films and life. Taschen editor Paul Duncan then gathered all of this information and supplemented it with essays by noted Bergman scholars and collaborators from all over the world, organizing the materials into an extensive biography that surpasses even Birgitta Steene’s essential Ingmar Bergman: A Reference Guide as a research tool.

The book is split into seven chapters that organize Bergman’s life according to his most significant periods of artistic growth; each chapter begins with an introduction by a critic or colleague (Steene and Bergman biographer Peter Cowie provide some of the most noteworthy insights.) and then goes on to tell the director’s story via archival materials. Virtually everyone who ever played a significant role in Bergman’s career is represented in interviews and essays, including lengthy commentaries by cinematographers Gunnar Fischer and Sven Nykvist, ASC, and there are dozens of in-depth conversations with Bergman himself drawn from each stage of his life.

If The Ingmar Bergman Archives feels like less of a revelation than Taschen’s similar volume on Kubrick, it is because the sense of discovery is somewhat lacking; an effusive talker and prolific memoirist, Bergman was as generous with information about his methods and personal life as Kubrick was stingy. Yet what the book lacks in surprise it more than makes up for in sheer scope; whereas the entire first half of the Kubrick book is comprised of nothing but frame enlargements, The Ingmar Bergman Archives is packed with text from beginning to end.

This is not to say the book lacks stunning artwork; the stills, production sketches and marketing materials are voluminous and beautiful — and many of them have never been seen outside Sweden or even outside the walls of The Bergman Foundation. The candid photos of Bergman at work are particularly illuminating as are the stills from obscure movies like Brink of Life that few American fans have seen.

The images inform Bergman’s own words and vice versa, creating a sort of virtual movie in the reader’s mind; taken together, the writings and the artwork generate one of the most vivid portraits of a film artist ever committed to the page. This portrait is completed by a supplemental DVD containing nearly two hours of excellent, behind-the-scenes footage: documentaries on the making of Autumn Sonata, The Image Makers and Saraband and Bergman’s home movies taken on the sets of Sawdust and Tinsel, The Seventh Seal and Through a Glass Darkly. (As an additional nifty treat for Bergman buffs, each book comes with a 35mm filmstrip from Bergman’s personal print of Fanny and Alexander!)

Each chapter ends with a detailed timeline of the period under discussion; as in the sections that precede them, the chronologies include commentary by critics and collaborators, quotes from Bergman himself and documents from the archives. The timelines provide perhaps the most comprehensive list of Bergman’s credits ever to see publication — his films, stage productions and written works along with useful supplementary materials. The meticulous cataloging of Bergman’s theater work is especially valuable and somewhat astonishing: his productivity seems almost superhuman based on the detailed reports of more than 100 plays he wrote and/or directed over the course of his career — to say nothing of the numerous radio broadcasts, commercials and television shows, all of which are meticulously documented. There is surprisingly little overlap between the material in the timelines and the writings that precede them; at 592 densely typeset pages, The Ingmar Bergman Archives is virtually devoid of filler or repetition.

It might seem hyperbolic to say one book could provide the reader with everything he or she needed to know about a director, but this one comes close.

Taschen
$200 hardcover  

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Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges
by Glenn Lovell
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Ever since critic Andrew Sarris consigned John Sturges to the “Strained Seriousness” category in his landmark 1968 study The American Cinema, the director of Bad Day at Black Rock, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and The Magnificent Seven (among many other noteworthy films) has been more or less ignored by the American critical community.  While the reputations of many of his peers, like John Ford and Anthony Mann, have (rightfully) increased in stature over the years, Sturges has been pushed further and further to the margins, to the point he is rarely written about, discussed or even mentioned in the pages of film journals or histories.  Upon his death in 1992, he was so obscure the news of his demise took days to reach newspapers.  

Yet Sturges is clearly due for a reappraisal, if only to consider what it is that makes him appealing to so many contemporary filmmakers — John Carpenter, P.T. Anderson and Lawrence Kasdan, to name three, have all professed admiration of his work and acknowledged its influence on their own styles. Clearly, anyone held in high regard by such an eclectic group must be worthy of more thoughtful consideration than Sarris’ casual dismissal would indicate, right?

The answer to that question is an unequivocal “yes” based on the convincing evidence on display in Glenn Lovell’s Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges, a combination of biography and critical analysis both reasoned and passionate in its advocacy for an overlooked director. Lovell follows Sturges from his work as a novice cutter at RKO (where he worked alongside fellow, soon-to-be directors Robert Wise and Mark Robson) to his wartime documentaries and subsequent career as a versatile helmer of action movies, melodramas and science-fiction pictures. The author illuminates Sturges’ accomplishments without sugarcoating his weaknesses (both personal and artistic) and examines the complicated reasons behind his eventual public neglect. Best of all, Lovell describes the making of each individual film, with particular attention paid to Sturges’ often ingenious ways of solving logistical problems and his relationships with volatile actors, particularly on difficult films such as Black Rock and the underappreciated The Old Man and the Sea.

All of this information is presented in an accessible, unpretentious style that strikes just the right balance among technical information, film history and first-hand anecdotes.  Lovell draws upon a wide variety of sources, from interviews with Sturges and his collaborators to production documentation and other biographical and critical writings, and his book is a superb distillation of only the most interesting and useful information available on his subject. In his remarkable combination of efficiency and complexity, Lovell resembles one of Sturges’ contemporaries, director Budd Boetticher — like Boetticher, Lovell tells his story quickly but never seems to rush or gloss over important details. Each film is discussed at an appropriate length corresponding to its significance in Sturges’s oeuvre: classics like The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape justify lengthy production histories, and minor works (particularly from Sturges’ early apprentice period) are commented upon in less detail. Yet even the most misguided of Sturges’ efforts (like By Love Possessed and A Girl Named Tamiko, a pair of weak melodramas directed just before The Great Escape) are addressed with scholarly rigor, and the chapters on these lesser films paint a vivid portrait of what it was like to be a director-for-hire in the last days of the studio system.

In fact, what makes Escape Artist worth reading even for those who share Sarris’ low opinion of Sturges’ output is this broader perspective on Hollywood in the 1950s and ’60s; more than the many books on the market about Ford, Hitchcock and other icons that treat their subjects like supernatural deities, Lovell’s tome provides a richly textured sense of what it really means to be a working director in an economically determined medium like film. Although the details are specific to their time, the larger lessons — about juggling art and commerce, about staging drama visually within practical limitations and about avoiding unnecessary distractions that will not contribute to what is on screen — are as relevant today as they were in Sturges’ time. 

Lovell makes no grand claim for Sturges as an underrated genius who deserves comparison with Welles or Kurosawa; rather, he sees him as an overlooked craftsman at the top of the second tier — a guy who earned his spot alongside Boetticher, Anthony Mann and other more fashionable auteurs, but who somehow lost it in the eyes of the critical community. Lovell’s persuasive arguments for not only Sturges’ acknowledged classics but also for less well known stunners like Jeopardy and Escape From Fort Bravo should help to rectify this inequity, and his precise descriptions of the director’s working methods are invaluable for aspiring filmmakers.

A comprehensive critical biography of Sturges has been a long time coming, but Lovell’s achievement is well worth the wait. 

The University of Wisconsin Press
$60 hardcover, $26.95 paperback

The Reel Truth
by Reed Martin
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Throughout his nearly 500-page moviemaking primer, The Reel Truth, Reed Martin repeats variations on the Dickensian mantra: “It is both the best of times and the worst of times for independent filmmakers.” 

At the same time that increasingly sophisticated (and decreasingly cost-prohibitive) digital equipment has made it easier for beginning filmmakers to produce technically proficient features, the glut of product, combined with rising distribution costs and media consolidation, has drastically raised the odds against getting a completed film released. To make matters even more daunting, the ramifications of new video-on-demand and Internet-streaming-delivery methods have yet to be fully understood. Will the new technologies level the playing field for independents or make it even more difficult to gain attention and recoup financial investments?

Martin, an entertainment reporter and former marketing executive, is well aware of the complexities and contradictions inherent in the minefield of independent filmmaking, and his book provides the most up-to-date guide readers could want. With its combination of detailed legal, aesthetic and technical advice, supplemented by quotes from indie film luminaries (including Alexander Payne, Danny Boyle and many others), The Reel Truth is similar in both scope and quality to Gregory Goodell’s excellent Independent Feature Film Production. Yet even readers who already own Goodell’s book will find plenty of new material in Martin’s tome, which addresses financing and production in a world of distribution options both shrinking (the theatrical market) and expanding (the Internet and various sell-through services on Amazon, Movielink, etc.).  They will also find perhaps the most brutally realistic of the many independent filmmaking manuals on the market — using dozens of examples of actual films and their abilities (or lack thereof) to recoup their investment, Martin provides sound, pragmatic advice for the many thousands of low-budget filmmakers whose debut film will most likely not be the next Open Water or Blair Witch Project.

The format of the book is straightforward, beginning with key components of pre-production — writing business plans, raising financing and attaching name actors—something becoming more and more vital for filmmakers hoping to secure any kind of significant distribution. The unique section of this book is also the most problematic, a lengthy chapter called “The Nightmare of Story and Screenplay Theft.” Although the author is to be commended for dispelling certain widespread myths (such as the notion Writers Guild registration provides the same protections as copyrighting a script with the Library of Congress), many of his suggestions regarding intellectual property theft are paranoid at worst and simply untenable at best. Martin constructs a nightmarish vision of the film industry in which any script submitted to a producer, actor or agent without rigorous legal counsel is likely to be pilfered in whole or part; although such theft of ideas undoubtedly does occur on a regular basis, Martin’s pervasive vision of literary larceny borders on the hysterical and leads him to create guidelines (such as ordering young writers to never sign release forms and to bog their scripts down with brand names and other extraneous details) that are simply unfeasible and are obstacles, not aids, toward getting a project financed.

Thankfully, once the author shifts focus to the world of production, he provides an abundance of useful tips for independent filmmakers, particularly when it comes to deciding where to be cheap and where to spend money. As Martin and his interviewees point out, there are a lot of areas where pinching pennies just does not make sense, and those areas are not always the things beginning filmmakers consider.

The Reel Truth’s greatest value lies in its attention to the less sexy aspects of movie production, things like security, parking, gas and insurance. Yet Martin also offers many nifty aesthetic tricks one can use to improve a film without spending extra cash, and his technical tips are remarkably specific; he addresses many issues most independent filmmakers learn about the hard way (like how to avoid time-code breaks when shooting on DV or hi-def), and he helpfully navigates the differences between various DV, HDV and hi-def cameras and formats. 

This specificity is the book’s greatest strength, and the thing that distinguishes it from many others like it; Martin never speaks in generalities; instead, he offers precise monetary figures and technical specifications applicable to whatever topic he is discussing. The upshot of this is a forceful reaffirmation of the author’s “best of times, worst of times” thesis: his book is alternately sobering and inspiring as it forces the reader to acknowledge the cold, hard realities of independent filmmaking. It is safe to say that no one who embarks on a feature of his or her own after reading The Reel Truth can say he or she has not been warned — and, more important, not been prepared.    
    
Faber and Faber
$25 paperback