The Cinematography That Changed Cinema: Exploring Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, Peter Greenaway & Other Auteurs

One type of argument made against “auteur theory,” which posits a film’s director as its “author,” holds that certain non-directorial collaborators contribute just as many — or, as Pauline Kael argued about Citizen Kane, more — of a work of cinema’s defining qualities. Surely a video essayist like Lewis Bond, co-creator with Luiza Liz Bond of Youtube channel The Cinema Cartography, subscribes to auteur theory: just look at the increasingly in-depth analyses he’s created on Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky, and David Lynch — all, of course, directors. But the recent Cinema Cartography essay “The Cinematography That Changed Cinema” sees him turning away from the figure of the director, exploring instead the auteur-like contributions of those masters of the camera.

Any competent cinematographer can make shots pretty; few can make them truly cinematic. Here we use “cinematic” in the sense that Peter Greenaway would, referring to the vast capabilities of the medium to go beyond photographically illustrating essentially verbal stories — capabilities that, alas, have so far gone mostly unused. It should come as no surprise this essay uses Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover to establish its perspective on the power of cinematography.

Ironically, the movie’s inventiveness in that respect and all others produces “a film so removed from cinema that it rarely feels as though it was even intended to be a film.” Shot by Sacha Vierny (best known for Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour), its ultra-artificial images resemble those of no other movies, much less anything in real life, and for that reason they sweep us along.

Drawing examples from dozens of films over half an hour, the Bonds show how cinematographers have not just represented or enhanced reality, but created it anew. This happens in such pictures famous for their visual lushness as Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes (cinematographer: Jack Cardiff), Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (John Alcott), Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (Néstor Almendros), and Akira Kurosawa‘s Ran (Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saitô, and Shôji Ueda). But it also happens in less likely cinematic realms: 1970s Italian horror, documentary, and even productions stripped nearly bare of money and equipment, whether by choice (as under the rigors of the Dogme 95 manifesto) or by necessity (as in Mikhail Kalatozov’s still aesthetically exhilarating I Am Cuba). You could call each of these films beautiful, but as every cinephile has felt, film doesn’t exist to achieve beauty: it exists to go beyond it.

Related Content:

The 100 Most Memorable Shots in Cinema Over the Past 100 Years

A Mesmerizing Supercut of the First and Final Frames of 55 Movies, Played Side by Side

Every Academy Award Winner for Best Cinematography in One Supercut: From 1927’s Sunrise to 2016’s La La Land

How Famous Paintings Inspired Cinematic Shots in the Films of Tarantino, Gilliam, Hitchcock & More: A Big Supercut

The Greatest Cut in Film History: Watch the “Match Cut” Immortalized by Lawrence of Arabia

The History of the Movie Camera in Four Minutes: From the Lumiere Brothers to Google Glass

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.


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  • Brian says:

    People don’t like to mention it because of its ugly racist subject matter, but the film that undoubtedly had the greatest influence on modern cinematography is D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. About half the palette of commonly-used shots used today come from that film.

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