PRINT Summer 1985


A Man With A Camera

A Man With A Camera.

By Nestor Almendros, trans. Rachel Phillips Belash, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984, 306 pp., 37 black and white photographs.

In this engrossing memoir Nestor Almendros, a cinematographer renowned for his work with movie directors ranging from Francois Truffaut and Eric Rohmer to Terrence Malick, Robert Benton, and Alan J. Pakula, reveals his job to be as much one of creative visual problem-solving as of working out lighting schemes and knowing which lenses and film stocks to use. Here, for example, is part of his description of how a scene in Malick’s Days of Heaven (1976; a movie for which Almendros won an Oscar) was shot:

In the extreme long shots of the plague-infested fields we used seeds and peanut shells scattered from above by helicopters. . . . [O]ur innovation was to use a camera...that could shoot running the film backward; then we asked the actor[s] and extras to walk backward, and we also had the tractors driven in reverse. So when the printed film was projected, the characters and tractors were going forward and the locusts (seeds) were not falling but seemed to be flying up the wheatfields. . . .

In addition to this fascinating offscreen record of effects there’s the story of Almendros’ life and career, including a childhood in Spain and young adulthood in Cuba; studies in New York (with Hans Richter) and in Rome; friendship with Maya Deren and the filmmakers around Film Culture (for which he wrote) at the end of the ’50s; and documentary work in post-revolutionary Cuba. When he found himself censored and excluded from jobs by the government, though, Almendros went into self-imposed exile in France, where his documentary, available-light techniques fit in well with the evolving esthetic of the New Wave. To this and his later projects he appears to have brought an exceptional command of photographic and lighting techniques, an ability to adjust himself to the exigencies of low budgets and directorial quirks, and a sense of film as both art and craft. This attitude, implicit rather than overt, takes the book beyond shoptalk.

Charles Hagen