The mesmerizing images of Mexican d.p. Gabriel Figueroa (1907-97) catalyze a fascinating master class in cinematographic philosophy in gorgeous-looking docu “Multiple Visions, the Crazy Machine.” Alternating glowing black-and-white excerpts from films lensed by Figueroa with sharply composed, sensitively stylized talking-head interviews with 40 cameramen from different countries and generations, Mexican multihyphenate Emilio Maille brings into the light men more used to painting with it, and finds them, in most cases, highly capable of articulating their craft with words. The pic reps quality fare for festivals, cinematheques and broadcasters, with broad potential in ancillary.
Revered for the great beauty and complexity of his lensing, Figueroa had a long career in his homeland and Hollywood, working for top-drawer helmers including Luis Bunuel, Emilio Fernandez, John Ford and John Huston. He shot more than 200 films, although Maille draws solely on his Mexican pics from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, showing Figueroa to have had as great a role as still photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo in defining his country’s visual identity, by depicting natural elements of the landscape.
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Maille removes the film excerpts from their narrative context, stripping them of sound so his interviewees can focus on the essence of the image and the depth of the frame. As he cuts together thematic sequences (for instance, landscapes, women walking, couples kissing, musicians performing, people dancing or sleeping), hypnotic minimalist music composed by Michael Nyman and Manuel Rocha draws viewers into the visuals and elevates their intensity.
The lensers discuss a wide range of topics, including the portrayal of emotion through faces; the expressionist terrain of black-and-white; monochrome vs. color; and the future of cinematography in a digital age, making the pic an ideal companion piece to Chris Kennedy’s recent docu “Side by Side.”
The interviewees also share more personal reminiscences. Italian lenser Vittorio Storaro recalls his surprise when he saw Figueroa’s name used as a marketing tool on a poster, and realized that Figueroa had achieved a level of visual expression so specific and important that simply his presence on a film guaranteed a certain vision.
French New Wave luminary Raoul Coutard confesses that his own preferred style of lensing is comparable to Dutch painting, but it’s something he never did himself because “he worked with a lot of people who knew nothing about how to make films,” and that influenced his cinematography. Oz-born, Hong Kong-based d.p. Christopher Doyle speaks in what sound like Zen koans, while Hideo Yamamoto believes Japanese lensers unconsciously imitate Figueroa’s way of constructing closeups and subtle use of space.
The playful end credits, showing the faces of all the interviewees and their main lensing credits, were shot in negative 16mm black-and-white with a Bolex camera. Masterful editing by Octavio Iturbe provides a compelling rhythm.