Experimental Russian ERA to American Cinema (“12 Angry Men” – cinematography)


in terms of innovation and style Boris
Kaufman has to be very very highly placed in the Pantheon of cinematographers. Certainly to most cinematographers today he’s a name that’s known a name that’s respected but whose work is not really individualized Boris Kaufman was the youngest of three
brothers the other two brothers were filmmakers as well cinematographers
directors the oldest one was Dennis Kaufman who was born probably about 1895
I think, and he adopted in Soviet era the name Dziga Vertov and was a theoretician
and director, cinematographer, did a very famous film from 1929 called “Man with a
movie camera” which was photographed by the other brother Mikhail who was the
middle brother who was born I think just a couple of years after Denis and
there’s some question when Boris the youngest son was born if he was born
when some people say he was and all three sons were born within like 18
months of each other but he may have been born in 1906 all of them in
Bialystok, Poland which at the time was politically aligned or possessed by
Russia and then when the first world war broke out and I guess Germany invaded
they moved to the family moved to Russia and the two older brothers stayed,
became very involved with the beginning of the Soviet era film industry
and became filmmakers and theoreticians and taught and Boris ended up being sent
to Paris and he studied at the Sorbonne he did maintain contact with his
brothers who were very much in this sort of firm it
of Soviet era experimental filmmaking during the 20s… certainly he must have
been seeing a lot of those films at that time The early Soviet era was a period
of an incredible technical and aesthetic experimentation, the medium was really new and, because it was silent, the images had to carry obviously not just the
visual but the dramatic weight and so it was filmmaking for a brief several
decades was sort of freed from any sense of having to have strict narrative
dialogue and the Soviets and certainly the German
Expressionists but probably pre-eminently the Soviet filmmakers of
the 20s sort of embraced that nonverbal aesthetic, preeminent among them of
course we’re Pudovkin and Eisenstein and Eisenstein’s first real international
film was Battleship Potemkin from 1925 and it has a lot of visual techniques,
compositions, a selection of camera angles that are very much part of that
Zeitgeist that we’re also being taught at
the Bauhaus in Germany. Boris Kaufman grew up in that ambience as did John Vigo. Boris Kaufman started
his career in France and he did either three or four films with Jean Vigo who
died very young in 1934 at the age of 29. and they were very experimental films
they were done certainly the first one “À propos de Nice”, a silent film, was done
very much in that sort of Soviet era, German expressionist experimental
style, camera style, with with not a strict narrative… impressionistic
kind of film. Vigo was spending a lot of time along the Promenade, des Anglais,
along the beachfront there and looking at the vacation people the sort of sense
of indulgence and entitlement and decadence that they represented and he
came Vigo came from a very strong leftist political tradition, his father
was perhaps an actual you know anarchist and was in jail, he had changed his name
he had a politicized name and he died under mysterious circumstances in prison
when Vigo was still quite young, but Vigo was very much privy to, and heir, to that
sort of leftist socialist tradition, from his father and that
permeates the whole content of “À propos de Nice”
and Kaufman obviously had been in a sympathetic world that I don’t know much
about Kaufman’s actual politics, but both of his brothers were you know political
filmmakers in the Soviet Union at the same time so I mean it was very much in
the air of course at the time, around the world and the title card for “À propos de Nice” after the title card lists both Kaufmann and Jean Vigo as co-filmmakers it’s a shared card and the only other time I can think of of ever
having done that was when Orson Welles shared his card with Greg Tollan for
Citizen Kane so it was kind of it’s sort of a unique thing and it’s very
startling when you see it so it’s really a collaboration between the two. In 1927, I think it was, McCale came to
Paris to visit Boris and brought with him a small camera called a kinamo
camera which was one of the first very small sort of handheld portable cameras
it was originally manufactured I think in 1921 or 22 as a hand-cranked camera
and then a few years later by 1925 I think that they put in a spring in
awhile and spring and it was very unusual in that it was extremely
lightweight it was only about six inches high and it didn’t even really look like
a camera looked like a little leather box and so it was very easy to sort of
just hold it in your hand and shoot and people wouldn’t be aware that you you
were actually using a camera so Kaufman had this small camera and he and Vigo
were able to go out on the promenade in Nice and basically shoot dozens and
dozens of people without being noticed and that little camera that they had the
key nominal camera was really unique in that it
did not have to be threaded you did not take up a roll of film and thread it
through you know the the sprockets and into the gate and everything you’d open
it up plug the thing in and I think it was like a 35 meter cassette and you
could just close it up and shoot and then reload it even you could put
another cassette in in the open light you didn’t have to go into a dark room
so they were able to continue shooting not only was the camera basically
invisible but they could they could reload it and keep shooting you know
when they found something it was very interesting and when you look at “À propos de Nice”,
it’s startling how close the camera is to a lot of these people I
mean it was basically shot handheld they could have been more than 2 or 3 meters
away from some of the people they were shooting. That sense of being so close to
the subject is something that it seems to me is not just there from the
beginning in Kaufman’s work but it’s all the way through and if you look at
just the way he used close-ups in the later films even, as late as say:
“The Fugitive Kind” (1960), or in
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (1962) but particularly in “12 Angry Men”
when you get into the intense close-ups… there is, a kind of hankering back or an
evocation of the way he used the camera at the very beginning of his career You see it in “À propos de Nice” you see
it a little bit in “Zéro de conduite” but you see it in the feature you see it in “L’Atalante”
I mean there are scenes in “L’Atalante” where you feel the camera is right
on top of Dita Parlo and Michelle Simone the scene in the barge and Michelle
Simone’s broom where he’s showing her all of the artifacts that he’s collected
from around the world the cameras literally right on top of them you know
I obviously it was a set there’s no way they could have got a camera in life in
there that was part of the set that they did but it feels in terms of its sense
of a claustrophobic space and the way the camera was used and the kind of
stuffed tight compositions in there that you are in an actual space and thus in
in that very severe winter and you see a lot of traffic a sense of changing light
and changing you know space it almost has a documentary feel and that sense of
light and dark is a strong element all the way through Kaufman’s work and you
see it even in something as documentary like “À propos de Nice”. Of course it’s
much stronger by the time you get to “Zéro de conduite” which is you know a fictional
film and has a lot of interiors where the lighting of course was able to be
controlled a lot more you know very bold. It is sort of an indication I think of
just how meticulous even at that earlier point a Kaufman was to place the lights
as carefully as he did and lighting such specific small areas even in that film
was something that was not generally done I mean
a lot of the European films especially of that time had a more general kind of
lighting you look at most of the Renoir films from the early sound period and
they they’re not that nearly that dramatic so I think that Kaufman even
from very early on was was somewhat anomalous. When Vigo died he was sort of
a very promising director and Kaufman even though he had worked on a few
documentaries before Vigo he kind of got his teeth you know with Vigo and when
Vigo died in October of 1934 I think Kalman still very young was cast
adrift and he righted himself very quickly and and throughout the 30s he
worked with a large number of French feature film directors and had what
looked to be like a very major career in the French film industry when the war
broke out he was drafted and he served briefly with the French army until you
know France had France surrendered and he somehow escaped I don’t know how but
he somehow got himself to Canada and for a brief period of time he worked in
Canada for the film board doing documentaries under John Grierson and
some time in 1942 he actually came to the United States and he settled in New
York and he started making a number of documentaries and shorts in New York
some of which were I think wartime propaganda films in 1947 he did a very
highly esteemed almost feature-length film for the United States Information
Service called “Journey into Medicine” and on the basis of that and a couple of
other films he established I think some sort of you know legitimate credits in
the New York filmmaking system eventually that led him to Elia Kazan as
my understanding that when Boris Kaufman met with Kazan he was able to show him
some of his documentary work which obviously especially filmed like “Journey into Medicine” which I do think that Kazan saw shows great sophistication in
its lighting and yet it has a documentary reality to it and I think
that combination of documentary reality and control stylization and lighting
technique appealed to him very very much he wanted him to see “L’Atalante”
but there was no print available in the United States and it’s too bad in a way
because what could have been more perfect bridge you know for Kaufman
between you know a film that takes place on a barge on the waterways and then
hoboken New Jersey on the docks and and on the waterfront you know I mean
there’s there’s a there’s a thread there is a the threat of water and boats you
know linking the to the in a very beautiful way and I am merely supposing
this but my own sense is that some of the sense of space and the sense of
poetry that is in “L’Atalante” and the controlled use of light percolates
through into “On the Waterfront” there’s a certain irony to the fact that he
actually hired Kaufman because Kaufman was the youngest of three brothers the other
two of whom were… communists living and working in Soviet Russia at a
period when in the American film industry the house and American Affairs
Committee was purging – attempting to purge Hollywood and the irony of course
is that one of the friendly witnesses to the committee was Alya Kazan and you
know I mean he two had to deal with that for the rest
of his career even up to when he got the honorary Academy Award so there’s a
tremendous irony that it was a confirmed anti-communist testified anti-communist
who hired this Polish – Russian cinematographer, who must have been on
the FBI’s radar anyway you know because of his two brothers, living in New York
and yet he hired him I mean it’s sort of a delicious aspect to it that it’s kind
of like Nixon going to China it took somebody like Kazan to give an outsider
like Boris Kaufman the ability to jump into the the American feature film
mainstream and jump in he did it turned out that was his first American studio
feature film “On the Waterfront” and he got a nomination and subsequently he got
an Academy Award for that. He stayed in New York he as far as I know he never
actually came to Hollywood he never shot a film outside of New York even “The Fugitive Kind” which nominally takes place in Mississippi was shot you know
very close to New York City he was a real New Yorker he lived in a village he
lived on West 9th Street and he was had an accent from what I’ve been told
by several actors who have worked with him he was very quiet, methodical, he was
not a self-promoter, he was very focused on his work obviously there’s a very
strong European aesthetic in his work which has nothing to do with the
American studio tradition in other words we think of American cinematography from
the 30s 40s as having a certain style there’s a certain MGM style of Warner
Brothers grittier style I kind of you know romantic sort of very gauzy style
we think of paramount films during authorities a lot of and there were
certain American cameramen who were under contract to specific studios
during those days like Shamu I had a long-term contract with 20th Century Fox
and there were sort of house styles you know I mean not just in terms of the
cinematography but in terms of costumes in terms of subject matter even and
Kaufman was totally outside that world so Boris Kaufman sort of worked within a
his own sort of very small and very intense pressure cooker and that
pressure cooker had a lot to do with intense theatrical drama that either
came directly from theater pieces or had a kind of theatrical quality to them for
example “Baby doll” was an original screenplay that Tennessee Williams did
but the film itself feels like a theater piece you know I mean in terms of just
the formality of the dialogue I mean it’s a lower depths kind of environment
like “Fugitive kind” but it has its own kind of like dark down-and-out poetry to
it he photographed seven films for Sidney Lumet and three films for Elia
Kazan and that constitutes a large percentage of his known body of work so
it was a very sort of tightly kind of a nuclear kind of environment that he
worked and it was very compact and very tight and very intense and I can’t think
of another cinematographer working in American mainstream films that was that
specific in terms of the kind of films he did the nature of the films and then
also in terms of the physical aesthetic way that he worked with lighting in the
use of the camera, it was very very individual. The sense of physical space
streets buildings and everything I think have always been very important to the
way Kaufman worked in the New York films for example what we normally think of as
establishing shots of building skylines and things like that they’re not normal
shots they’re intensely present and dramatic hot highlights and
dark shadows you know real chiaroscuro and everything the city feels almost
like a character that is something that I think Kaufman did everywhere at the
beginning of “12 Angry Men” The view opening shots the exterior establishing
shot of the court building the shot from inside coming from the Rotunda up to the
to the walkway and with people crossing and then panning over and going down the
hallway to the jury room I mean it seems like well it’s sort of throw away but
it’s really not because there’s there’s a tremendous sense of animation and in
12 Angry Men when you get inside the jury room
the opening shot itself is… absolutely startling. Now, part of it is very
theatrical in terms of the staging you’re introduced to all of the
characters but the the way the camera is used to do that and the moves that
happen are really extraordinary a lot of what we see in 12 Angry Men and
I think embodies a Kaufman style is in the compositions more than the lighting
when they come into the jury room which is a six and a half minutes long it’s a
high angle across a fan at one end of the room Jack warden comes in and tries
to turn on the fan and then as he walks away the fan will turn on the camera
booms down and starts to move down the table and during the course of the next
five and a half minutes it moves basically through most of the
room back and forth and we are introduced to different groups of the
jurors and we also get a strong sense right away that Henry Fonda is the one
carrier this seems to be outside he immediately goes to the window and he
stands there it’s an amazing shot it has very tight compositions a lot of the
moves are not terribly complicated moves but they’re all very meaningful and I
think that shot even though the meson send the choreography the actors
obviously was something we met you know and created I think there was a real
dialogue between him and Kaufman about how to do that as we go through the film
and we see an increasing use of two shots tightly composed four shots a
variety of angles down the length of the table where we see six and eight people
stacked up I think those are really Kalman’s compositions
I mean lunette coming out of TV and working on a small screen and working
with multiple cameras where you could not get one camera in and get those kind
of closely observed shots and we know from several decades work that that’s
exactly the kind of presence that Kaufman created I think that’s very much
very much Calvin’s contribution and then as we get toward the later part of the
FAL where it’s a little bit darker and we
get slightly more dramatic lighting on the actors nothing like what he did
before and certainly nothing like what he was doing after and in fugitive kind
but it does it it has you know def and it sort of hints that it you know it’s
Calvin’s lighting as you go through the movie and it gets you know more and more
jurors start to you know vote for acquittal though and it gets later in
the day and then the rain comes in and they turn the light on it does have an
evolution in the lighting style the walls become darker the shadows become a
little bit stronger the the close-ups especially the very tight close-ups when
you get in toward the end when there’s some very tight close-ups with
wide-angle lenses and the lighting has sort of a break across the forehead you
know where you have a little shadow there and the backgrounds tend to fall
off a little bit more there is a progression in the lighting style but
it’s not much and I think one of the reasons that it didn’t evolve more is
because I think probably Lew met being his first film probably didn’t have the
courage to let Kaufman do that my I’ve this pure supposition on my part but on
the basis of Kaufman’s work before and after I would say that that is not the
choice he would have made I think that lumad wanted the jury room to look much
more open one of the the things that cinematographers always try to avoid
unless they’re trying to make us Terry comment is use wide-angle lenses for
close-ups and medium shots because of the distortion and especially back in
the 50s when the lenses were not designed by computers yet and they
tended to have more sort of aberrations perspective and chromatic aberrations
already built in it was very dangerous to use a wider angle lens for a close-up
and yet Kaufman seem to you know walk that
razor edge between it being arresting and making you feel very present with
the shot and it’s sort of putting you off I’m absolutely convinced that the
the choice of lenses and the kind of configuration of those shots very much
must have been what Kalman was doing you know the I think he made those choices
and in other interviews no met you know later in his life talks about having
chosen lenses and he felt that he knew lenses from the TV days and everything
and he talks about using you know longer lenses for close-up and selective depth
of field and things like that but that is actually not what you are seeing at
all in 12 Angry Men you’re seeing absolutely the converse of that you were
actually seeing wide-angle lenses in close with the deep focus behind him I
mean something that Toland did and George Barnes did you know decades
before but even there it was done differently I mean the you look 12 Angry
Men isn’t it it’s the use of the single
shots and even two shots a lot of times there is so strange I mean it’s not the
way you would think that a Hollywood film would be photographed at that time
it’s not the conventional sort of compressed perspective and it kind of
throws you into that that moment into being with that actor you certainly see
it all the way through the fugitive kind the the close-ups of onam on Yanni and
of Brando in there he uses a little diffusion on her sometimes you know you
cut in you see it’s a slight sense of diffusion but they’re not flattering
long lens portrait lenses that he used the cameras in very close
to them the fugitive kind is such a standalone film I can’t think of
anything else like it inside of the Canon of American studio films and I
think it’s one reason why it failed so miserably at the time of the release I
think it was so against the the the tenor of the times that people did not
know what to make of it the lighting when Prandtl comes in to
the town in is kind of beat-up jalopy and it’s raining and he turns a corner
and there’s this unbelievable strong backlight that’s behind a tree or
something see shafts of this light penetrating through the rain and the fog
it literally is you know I mean the fugitive kind was based on Tennessee
Williams play Orpheus descending and I mean literally when you first see Brando
coming in here in that car and it’s like he’s descending into you know into an
infernal there inside that car and it’s that one shot already kind of puts you
inside the space of the film Fugitive kind seems to have real physical space
the cars the the the general store so much of it looks and feels like our
gritty you know sort of small southern space but none of it is photographed in
a way that looks anything other than incredibly stylized I think there is an
evolution in Boris Kaufman’s lighting particularly I mean the compositions
there’s you know very dramatic compositions and the kind we find all
the way through his career but the lighting has evolved from film to film
to the most refined and specific kind of use of almost dots of light I mean some
of the night seems a character Brando will move two or three inches or mignon
II will move two or three inches out of one light into another light and even
some of the close-ups that are static there is such a small Nimbus of light
around the face the forehead the hair will be dark the the the neckline will
be dark or if there’s light there there’ll be a hard Barsad I’ll cut
through it the back walls will have a hard almost
far film-noir cut through them I’m very
controlled lighting that you would think would make it seem so artificial but
again and this is what Coffman says he wants to do he wants to get inside the
characters and inside the emotional dynamic one of the sort of abiding
truths I think in the work of Boris Kaufman is you never feel he was doing
any kind of trick either in the lighting the composition the camera movement it
was all to serve what he felt was the emotional state of the film and because
these characters are sort of basically so overheated and so dramatic and urgent
in their needs that the lighting serves that I mean if the lighting had been
more realistic if the lighting had been more documentary if the day scenes in
the store even had actually had Windell light coming in so you felt the outs I
never feel the outside light coming in that story I mean obviously it was a set
but it’s lit from inside you know there’s nothing real about it and that
was a very brave choice to have done to the film I mean there are people that
have said that Boris Kaufman worked very slowly but he’s also been defended by
Kazan I think saying you know that it takes a long time to write poetry and as
a cinematographer when I look at the lighting in the fugitive kind and I see
how specific it was and how many small lights he used every light whether it’s
a big lighter a small light has to be set and controlled and it takes time and
if you’re lighting with two lights or three lights a fairly large lights and
you cut them in a certain way to control them a little bit that’s working a lot
faster than if you’re working with fifteen or twenty or twenty five lights
and I think in a lot of these scenes Kaufman was working with dozens of
lights just small little things that were
sooted just to get a little just a small you know just a small Nimbus of light
and there are a couple of scenes where he he is so in control of the light and
essentially wants the light to make such a contribution that he actually changes
the light within the shot and Lou Matt had has talked about about that in an
interview and the first time is tonight that Brando has come back from the joint
and there are lights on in the store but it is there’s a lot of darkness a lot of
shadow and very controlled light there’s a hard cross light on Ottoman Yanni you
know a lot of times it’s just a little Nimbus of circle of light other times
it’s a cross light and it changes even within scene her key light and brando’s
key light will change not dimming from one light to another but as you change
the angles instead of maintaining a consistent key the key itself will
change which is a very deliberate device obviously that Kaufman is doing and
there’s a scene as Brando is talking to her in this long scene where he’s
standing up against behind him it’s a low angle and there’s a wall behind
there with Windows and Brandel starts to tell the story about what it’s his life
is like that he’s really a bird that can’t land and it’s a beautiful
Tennessee Williams sort of monologue which could have been absolutely deadly
but within the shot as you’re watching it the light starts to go out on Brando
and his face gets darker and the glass from behind the walls behind him get
darker as well but the glass starts to light and there’s light coming through
the glass and then a light comes up on Brando’s face it’s totally unreal I know
and this was obviously something this in and and Lumet admits that he couldn’t
know that Kalman was going to do this there was something Calif mini plan
and when Lumet expressed certain and anxiety about it he said we’re gonna do
it again and he wouldn’t tell them that exactly when he did it but he later
toward the end of the film there’s any a reverse light change on her where she
started in the dark and the light comes up on her and wall behind her slowly
gets to be lit and at first you think maybe it’s just you know a street had a
streetlight effect a headlight effect from a car this passing or something no
it’s just a light change that that he dimmed up in the shot and those are two
are the ones that that Lou Matt talks about there are other smaller ones that
are more subtle I think throughout the film I mean I think that there are a lot
of dimming effects that are going on all the way through the film you know stir
ro Vittorio Storaro talks a lot about using dimmer boards and and doing light
dimming effects as the camera moves around
well Kaufman was doing them in fugitive kind within the shot without changing
the axis or the angle and you can actually see them they’re very small
changes I think looking at it now there is such
an integration I think the cinematography the performances the the
absolute poetry in the screenplay itself are all of a piece it seems to me a film
that is as as bold and as daring and everything that it does as a fugitive
kind is is really ripe for re-evaluation for me as a cinematographer and I think
for any cinematographer that that is discovering Kaufman and I think in a way
he is just now really starting to be discovered as we’re getting very
high-quality remastered DVDs of some of his work you know it’s earlier versions
of it have suffered visually now we’re actually seeing how strong how beautiful
and poetic the work is I think he is standing out in a very individual way as
an artist that and the work still seems so fresh and so new it’s so different
than what other cinematographers were doing it at you know at the same time
and I think it one of the reasons it’s so individual is obviously because of
who he was his character as a human being I think his aesthetic training
obviously but that he was not part of what can I say a large he was an
outsider I think he was even an outsider in France I mean you know he came from
Poland and grew up a little bit in Russia he went to France as a young man
he worked there for what twelve or fifteen years became a war refugee was
in Canada he came to the United States struggled in New York for a number of
years I don’t know that he was up he was sort of a man without
country in an odd way and I think it it it helped prepare the ground or the
fertile soil for for him to have a very specific and a very individual aesthetic
he wasn’t part of a group or part of a larger body like a lot of the Hollywood
or even some of the New York cinematographer WA cinematographers were
I think in a lot of ways he was sort of a world unto himself you

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