Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The master of light (1922-2006)

Okay, I sort of suggested last week that this week I might give you a searing exposé of how you, me and everyone we know is being bombarded with propaganda. But then I saw former president Bill Clinton being interviewed by Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday and then I had to question everything I thought I knew. I think I might have been brainwashed. Now I just have to figure out if I was brainwashed by Bill Clinton or by Fox News.

While I am sorting that out (and maybe I will finally give you the results, ahem, next week), allow me to do something that I would have done last week if I had been more on the ball. Instead of mourning a noun, I should have been mourning an actual human being.

Most of us know the name of the major actors who have worked in movies over the years. And most of us even know the names of at least a few of the world’s major film directors. And there may even be a screenwriter or two out there who is a bona fide household name. Most of the other jobs involved in moviemaking are mainly the domain of people in the business or of serious film buffs. If you are not in either of those categories, then you can test that proposition by trying to think of the name of a single director of photography, or cinematographer, i.e. the person who is in charge of the cameras and the lighting. If you can think of any DP at all, then there is a good chance that the name that comes up in your mind is that of a Swede, Sven Nykvist.

While Nykvist worked as the director of a handful of films, unless you are a serious Swedish film buff, you have not only seen none of them, but you may well not have heard of any of them. His legacy is clearly the some 120 films on which he worked as the cinematographer, over a career that spanned more than half a century. And those can generally be divided in two groups: those that he made with Ingmar Bergman and those that he made with other directors.

While many of Bergman’s films may seem grim and stark, especially to American viewers, they invariably have great photography. Even if you find yourself bored or depressed while watching them, you cannot deny that every frame makes a great photograph or would make a very nice painting. The key to this aesthetic beauty, in addition to the framing and composing, is the use of light. And Nykvist was a master of lighting. Whenever possible, he used one source of light for a scene, giving it a more natural look. He paid particular attention to the actor’s faces, especially the eyes.

He “painted” wonderfully in monochrome, working on most of Bergman’s best known black-and-white films, including The Virgin Spring, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence, Persona, Hour of the Wolf, and Shame. But if he could work wonders in black and white, his images were truly luminous when working on Bergman’s color movies. Whatever one thought of the plots and characters, I don’t think anyone can help but smile at remembering the beauty of films like Scenes from a Marriage, The Passion of Anna, Cries and Whispers (which won Nykvist the first of his two Academy Awards), The Magic Flute, Autumn Sonata (the penultimate film to feature Ingrid Bergman and her only collaboration with non-relative Ingmar) and The Serpent’s Egg. Especially beautiful was Fanny and Alexander, perhaps Bergman’s best-loved film, the one that is the most gorgeous to look at and the one which earned Nykvist his second Oscar.

Now, if your taste in movies does not extend to classic European art films, you may well be thinking at this point that you yourself have likely never actually experienced Nykvist’s craftsmanship in your local multiplex or on your home entertainment system. But, if so, then there is a good chance that you are wrong. Nykvist’s last assignment on a Bergman-directed film was in 1984 with After the Rehearsal, concluding a working relationship that extended back to 1953’s Sawdust and Tinsel. But around 1970, Nykvist began working with other directors in other countries. His first couple of films in this category were not particularly auspicious. Neither Maximilian Schell’s adaptation of a Russian novel, First Love, nor Richard Fleischer’s gangster flick with George C. Scott, The Last Run, were very memorable. These were followed by adaptations of books by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) and Hermann Hesse (Siddhartha) and a thriller with Sean Connery and Ian McShane called The Terrorists.

As the years went on, Nykvist turned his camera on faces even more familiar to American audiences: Roman Polanski (directing himself) in The Tenant, Eric Roberts in King of the Gypsies, Susan Sarandon and the young Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby (directed by Louis Malle), Jason Robards and Mia Farrow in Hurricane, and Burt Reynolds and Jill Clayburgh in Starting Over. In the 1980s, Nykvist worked with Paul Mazursky (Willie and Phil), Bob Rafelson (remaking The Postman Always Rings Twice with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange), Bob Fosse (Star 80), Norman Jewison (Agnes of God), Woody Allen (Another Woman, Crimes and Misdemeanors) and Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being). This last film earned Nykvist another Oscar nomination and is a good example of how his contribution made a movie look great. The above list of films varies widely in terms of overall quality and genre, but they all look great.

In the 1990s, he shone his light on the faces of Robert Downey Jr. in Chaplin (directed by Richard Attenborough), Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle (directed by Nora Ephron), Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (directed by Nykvist’s fellow Swede Lasse Hallström), a comedy ensemble including Steve Martin, Madeline Kahn, Robert Klein, Anthony LaPaglia, Juliette Lewis, Rob Reiner, Adam Sandler and Liev Schreiber in Ephron’s Mixed Nuts, Downey and Marisa Tomei in Jewison’s Only You, Joe Pesci and Brendan Fraser in With Honors, Julia Roberts and Dennis Quaid in Hallström’s Something to Talk About and Kenneth Branagh and Judy Davis in Woody Allen’s Celebrity.

When we think back on any of these numerous movies, our minds can dredge up any number of memories and impressions. Maybe it’s the way Lena Olin was so sexy in The Unbearable Lightness of Being or the banter between men and women or, alternatively, the way our emotions were shamelessly manipulated in Sleepless in Seattle or DiCaprio’s Oscar-nominated performance in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. But somewhere in the dark recesses of our memory, you can be sure that, without necessarily being consciously aware of it, we also remember with satisfaction the invariably lovely glow of light that illuminated all these actors and the sets and locations.

Sadly, that that light went out for good last week. But thank goodness it was captured for posterity during a remarkable 57-year career.

-S.L., 28 September 2006

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