"He gave me half my performance with the lighting," actress Kathleen Byron says of cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who shot her in 1947's Black Narcissus. A rebuke to style-versus-substance segregationists, these words pay tribute to the star of Craig McCall's documentary, a soapbox for the wizened eminence to explain the innovative effects he achieved with a Technicolor camera the size of a sedan while narrating his epoch-spanning career. The son of music hall actors, Cardiff began in movies in 1918 as a child performer. An autodidact whose "film school" was the National Gallery, he trained as England's first color cinematographer, shot Narcissus and other legendary collaborations with Michael Powell, directed Sons and Lovers and several ingenious, scurrilous B-movies, and then returned to cinematography to immortalize the sweat-beaded torsos of Stallone and Schwarzenegger in the '80s. Cardiff shows off a gallery of famous co-workers on his wall and counts the casualties: "He's dead, she's dead..." You can do the same with interviewees in Cameraman, 17 years in the making: directors Peter Yates and Richard Fleischer, DP Freddie Francis, Charlton Heston — and Cardiff himself, whose inextricable life and work ended in 2009. Director Alan Parker (still living) nicely describes the tightrope teeter of Cardiff's hothouse imagery: "It's great art, and then it will be kitsch, and then it will be art again." Or is he summing up cinema itself?
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