Sunday, 22 February 2009

The Dying of the Light

When is an hour only twenty five minutes long? When, in the experience of the late cinematographer Nestor Almendros, you’re talking about ‘Magic Hour’, the brief twilight period that he famously captured for Terrence Malick’s 1978 masterpiece Days Of Heaven.

In accounting for this apparent temporal anomaly Almendros described the term as “a euphemism…it is the moment when the sun sets, and after the sun sets and before it is night. The sky has light, but there is no actual sun. The light is very soft, and there is something magic about it." The logistical difficulties of exploiting such a fleeting moment would prove challenging for any director of photography. Even more so when one considers that Almendros was losing his eyesight at the time of the film’s making. In Almendros’ case there’s something clearly emblematic about his use of ‘Magic Hour’ in the Malick movie, a memorable last-chance-to-see tattooed on the retina as a final beautiful reminder of a world. When one considers his contribution, and those of other visually impaired filmmakers to this most visual of media, the consideration of film is perhaps lent an added dimension.

Few could deny the impact of the colour palate that John Ford used for The Searchers. And yet it’s unlikely that the man himself could fully appreciate the stunning earth and sky hues so superbly realised by his cinematographer Winton Hoch. Prior to making the film Ford entered hospital for the removal of cataracts. While recuperating after the surgery, he became impatient with the bandages covering his eyes and tore them off earlier than his doctors told him to. As a result Ford suffered a total loss of sight in one eye. Despite this setback there is little critical doubt that The Searchers remains the brightest beacon of Ford’s artistic vision. As such it’s interesting to imagine that this partial loss of sight may have worked in his favour, the colours in his creative mind coming to the fore through his script and art direction collaborations.
Aside from his well-regarded string of B-movies, André De Toth’s prime contribution to film history is his 1953 3D classic House Of Wax. It is one of cinema’s greatest ironies that the maker of arguably the finest example of 50s 3D was completely unable to appreciate the effects produced by the process, owing to the loss of an eye in his childhood. But again, is it possible that the director’s enforced detachment from the effects that he was striving to achieve could have given him a creative advantage? Perhaps there are parallels to be drawn between the product of Ford and De Toth’s labours and the effect that poor sight lent to the works of Claude Monet (cataracts) and Edgar Degas (maculopathy) – would their output have been less outstanding if they had been blessed with 20/20 vision?

It remains to be seen – pardon the pun – whether the work of the blind filmmaker Joe Monks can be credited with any similar qualities. Monks, an independent comics groundbreaker for the past two decades, lost his eyesight in 2002 after a long battle with diabetic retinopathy. Since then he has completed his first feature The Bunker. Monks is quite clear about how the blindness has affected his output: “I think it would be a thousand times more difficult if I had never been able to see…It isn't about being blind and making a film. It's about making the film despite being blind. Every filmmaker has obstacles, I just happen to have one that's unique and a little more difficult to get around than a producer clamping down on spending or scheduling conflicts with the actors. I know it adds a great angle to this story, but what's important isn't a blind guy making a film, it's--hopefully--about a guy making a good film who happens to be blind.”

Jez Conolly

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