Three documentaries screening at this year's New York Film Festival are biographical portraits of artists. There's Michael Epstein's 'LennonNYC,' about the final years of John Lennon, Martin Scorsese's 'A Letter to Elia,' a tribute to legendary filmmaker Elia Kazan, and the greatest of the three, 'Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff,'Craig McCall's look at the titular cinematographer, who is best known for his work with Powell and Pressburger ('Black Narcissus,' 'The Red Shoes').
You can find my thoughts on each of these films after the jump.
Does anyone need another John Lennon movie? In two weeks (on his birthday actually) the early years biopic 'Nowhere Boy' opens in limited release. And here's the seemingly billionth documentary on the former Beatle, which partly treads the same territory as another recent Lennon profile, 'The U.S. vs. John Lennon.' Like that 2006 work, 'LennonNYC' initially focuses on John's political influence in America and his related FBI file and deportation trial. But ultimately this new film is so much better, growing out of an early rehash of familiar history and obligatory archive montages of the times into a touching and tragic story of redemption.
As the title suggests, 'LennonNYC' deals with John and Yoko's migration to the U.S. in '71 for various reasons, which, though there's no mention of the UK tax issues, makes this film almost an interesting companion piece to the recent doc Stones in Exile. But Lennon wasn't immediately making masterpieces like The Rolling Stones did during their move. Songs like "Woman Is the N****r of the World" didn't go so well, for obvious reasons. Through nostalgic interviews with session musicians (members of Elephant's Memory) and producer Jack Douglas, as well as a lot of recordings of John himself, we get a full narrative of the decade of solo work culminating with the 'Plastic Fantasy' album.
More compelling than the music stuff, though, is John's personal arc, in which his career goes downhill, his marriage to Yoko hits the rocks, he has his lengthy "Lost Weekend" in LA with assistant-turned-girlfriend May Pang, he records the 'Walls and Bridges' album while regularly heavily intoxicated, and then he seems to suddenly clean up and return to Yoko in New York, has Sean and becomes a loving househusband and father. The highlight of the upturn moment is Elton John talking about a surprise Madison Square Garden duet with Lennon where he admits to wearing "an outfit that would make Lady Gaga blush."
But otherwise the story is worth a trip to the screen -- in spite of it already being told in plenty of books -- because of Yoko's heartfelt testimonials, including talk of being embarrassed at a party as John cheated on her loudly in another room and a few other moments in which she definitely comes off more moving than we're used to seeing. Also Epstein really builds up an emotional third act with what feels like five years spent in real time with John and son Sean, piling on as much footage of happier times and confessions of how his life was improved and continued improving, which all of course is cut short by his murder in 1980. I swear, if Sean had participated with an interview, too, the audience would be in tears by the end.
'A Letter to Elia'
There's much less to say about this film, which is okay since the literal DVD extra is only an hour long. Though it will be shown ahead of a NYFF screening of Kazan's 'America America,' the documentary is basically a supplement for a new box set of the filmmaker's work, though it has more prestige because it's made by Martin Scorsese. The thing is, it's a film as appropriate, if not more so, for a Scorsese retrospective since it's as much about himself as it is his idol. Appearing on screen at parts and throughout in voice over narration, the 'Goodfellas' director talks about how stuff like 'East of Eden' and 'On the Waterfront' were films he grew up with -- and films that grew up with him.
There is a touch of the film history, as Scorsese talks about Kazan being of the time when directors became filmmakers, but in terms of biographical info, there might be more on Scorsese's youth in New York and his relating to the fraternal aspects of those two Kazan titles mentioned above, plus his meeting with Kazan while at NYU and a claim that he thought of the elder filmmaker as a sort of father figure, even prior to getting to know him personally. Because the films feel so intimate, according to Scorsese, who has said you learn more about the man from his movies, while learning about yourself through them, as well.
Okay, Marty, but will people without brothers appreciate your two favorite Kazan films? Will viewers without your connection to the American dream immigration story relate so well to 'America America'? Maybe not, and it's worth addressing the fact that nobody but Scorsese, who has previously made personal "journeys" through Italian and American cinemas, could make such a subjective tribute like this and have anyone caring. This is fine, it's mostly for those people who will pay $150 for a set of 15 Kazan films personally selected by Scorsese, but the doc isn't just for die-hard Kazan fans. You have to be a die-hard Scorsese fan, too.
'Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff.'
Scorsese lovers will appreciate his appearances here, as well, talking about his personal experience with and homages to such films as 'The Red Shoes' (a great split-screen comparison shows us just how influential the film was on 'Raging Bull'). Fortunately, this one allows room for other figures and interviews, including Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Richard Fleischer and Charlton Heston.
After recent docs on great editors, screenwriters and directors, it's about time we get a proper film on cinematographers. But for now we can settle on a terrific documentary about one of the greatest all-time DPs, Jack Cardiff, whose work spans the majority of cinema's existence. Seriously, from his days as a child actor in early silent cinema to his foundational work in Technicolor pictures to directing B-movies in the '60s to shooting 'Rambo: First Blood Part II' and eventually becoming the first cinematographer to receive an honorary Oscar, Cardiff's biography plays like a comprehensive course in film history.
This doc primarily succeeds, though, due to its humorous and revealing interviews with Cardiff himself, recorded prior to his death in 2009. As far as anecdotal documentaries about Hollywood go, 'Cameraman' is one of the best in a long time. Cardiff talks of an awkward moment involving a naked Marlene Dietrich, Ava Gardner confessing to looking worse during menstruation, a close encounter with Marilyn Monroe and a funny memory of how Humphrey Bogart and John Huston avoided an otherwise crew-encompassing sickness while making 'The African Queen' because they only drank whiskey, never water.
Equally fascinating, though, is Cardiff's interest in painting and art history and an address of the importance for cinematographers to have such interests. He also, following a minor lament about how most cinematography is done in post-production these days, admits to believing today's cinematographic standards are better than they were in the past. Of course, that may only be true because not everyone was as great as he was. How often nowadays do actors recognize a DPs contribution to the success of their performance the way Kathleen Byron partly credits Cardiff for her work in 'Black Narcissus'?
In terms of its own craft, 'Cameraman' is merely okay to look at -- outside of clips from Cariff's work, that is -- while being more an achievement of editing. In addition to stuff like the 'Red Shoes'/'Raging Bull' comparison, director Craig McCall does an excellent job of choosing the most applicable clips from the old films. Much of the time, he presents Cardiff or another interview subject discussing a specific scene and/or its production, then he cuts to footage or photos of the making of that exact scene, and finally he cuts to the moment in the film itself for a fluid transition between memory and actuality, and the behind the scenes work and its result.
No matter your interests in Cardiff, cinematography, Scorsese, Powell and Pressburger, film history, editing or anything similarly specific, if you love movies you really ought to see 'Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff.'