Lisa Rinzler is nothing if not eclectic. A veritable chameleon, her cinematography is always dictated by the subject matter and the director’s vision. From the high-contrast grit of “Menace II Society” to the glowing impressionistic palette of “Three Seasons,” Rinzler takes pains to match style with substance, sometimes in ways that are not always obvious.
With “Pollock,” a biopic of abstract expressionist pioneer Jackson Pollock (directed by and starring Ed Harris), Rinzler employed a kind of friction between Pollack’s painting style and her and Harris’ classical approach to the visuals. “We took a very precise approach to a very combustible, chaotic human being,” says Rinzler. “And somehow that contradiction seemed to support the character.”
Muted tones and bleak exteriors mirror Pollock’s depressive moods, while dynamic scenes of Pollock at work — from blank canvas to furiously detailed end-result — lend an otherwise downbeat film a levity that’s inspiring. “The scenes of (Pollock) working were the easiest to shoot,” explains Rinzler. “The painting material, to me, felt like shooting a sport in a way that I really enjoyed. That was the action of the film.”
If Rinzler has become one of the more in-demand d.p.s in the indie world, she has remained steadfast in choosing projects that reflect a rigorous aesthetic. A grander scale or a higher profile is not necessarily a lure for her. Instead, she followed “Pollock” with two smaller, personal efforts, one of which started out as a photographic project for New York’s office of mental health.
“There was a psychiatric hospital called Willard,” she explains, “that existed for over 100 years. After it closed in 1995, a couple of hundred suitcases were found in the attic, many of which were filled with people’s belongings. Many of these people died as patients in the hospital and were buried in unmarked graves. So we’ve selected 20 of the suitcases and are trying to recreate the hidden lives of these people who suffered and were largely forgotten.”
The project reflects Rinzler’s tendency to gravitate toward material that focuses on complex characters, and directors whose vision might be deemed iconoclastic. She has twice worked with Wim Wenders (“Buena Vista Social Club,” “Lisbon Story”) and the Hughes brothers (“Menace II Society,” “Dead Presidents”). Her photography on “Menace” won her an Independent Spirit award, as did her work on “Three Seasons,” which also earned her a cinematography award at Sundance in 1999.
In a way, “Pollock” harkens back to Rinzler’s own painting ambitions as a student at the Pratt institute in New York. “I intended to become an artist,” she says, “but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t put enough movement into my paintings. They kept getting bigger in size, but things never moved enough. I decided to switch to filmmaking because it felt right.
As fellow cinematographers Vilmos Zsigmond and Steven Poster would attest, Rinzler has become an artist. She simply paints with light.