(We here at Hammer to Nail are all about true independent cinema. But we also have to tip our hat to the great films of yesteryear that continue to inspire filmmakers and cinephiles alike. This week, our “The Curbside Criterion” continues where HtN staff can trot out thoughts on the finest films ever made. Today HtN Lead Critic Chris Reed digs into Kirsten Johnson’s hypnotic, self-reflective doc Cameraperson.)
A hand enters frame, removing blades of grass, which otherwise block the view of sheep on the road. Director and cinematographer discuss, off screen, whether haze mars a panoramic view. Young boys play with an axe as we hear the gasp of the woman behind the camera, just as we later hear her express concerns about the fate of a newborn baby in need of oxygen. Lightning slashes the sky, provoking another startled exclamation. Sometimes events play as is, with no commentary; at other times, we’re part of a behind-the-scenes moment that plunges us into the heart of the creative process. There is never any overt explanation of why we jump from one moment to the next, yet after the 102 minutes of Cameraperson, cinematographer-turned-director Kirsten Johnson’s hypnotic new movie, we have shared enough moments of intimacy with the intelligence behind the camera – a woman whose own face we glimpse only once, towards the end – that we, too, in a way, feel like the titular artist.
“What does it mean to film another person? How does it affect that person – and what does it do to the one who films?” So asks director Kirsten Johnson in the press notes to her movie, in which she gathers footage from a 25-year career as a documentary cinematographer to create an elliptical memoir of her life spent interacting with the world through a camera frame. Over the course of the past five years, Johnson, working closely with two editors – Nels Bangerter (Let the Fire Burn) and Amanda Laws (Béla Fleck: How To Write a Banjo Concerto) – and with producer Marilyn Ness (Trapped), has painstakingly taken clips from a wide range of very different kinds of film and woven them into a cinematic tapestry of our modern, incessantly recorded, universe. Slow, subtle, yet ultimately mesmerizing, Cameraperson is a very personal testament to one exceptional filmmaker’s love affair with her profession.
Johnson has worked with some of the most noteworthy documentarians of our day, including Laura Poitras (Citizenfour), Kirby Dick (The Invisible War) and Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11), and she borrows clips from their films – mostly outtakes – for her own story. If you know your film history, it’s like the ultimate Eisensteinian montage of attractions, where bits and pieces of disparate stories are brought together into a cohesive whole that reveals meanings beyond their original intent. In addition to the many shots from around the globe, Johnson sprinkles in footage from her own life, including captured moments with her young twins or with her Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother. It all adds up to a portrait both comprehensive and elusive, since as embedded as we are with Johnson, that intimacy is simultaneously illusory and real. Cinema may (or may not) be truth 24 frames-per-second, as per French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard,
And now we can all watch the film at home, courtesy of this comprehensive Blu-ray package from Criterion, which presents the film in a beautiful high-definition transfer, with a 5.1 surround DTS-HD soundtrack. Each of the special features adds to our understanding of the film and the process of making it. What follows is a brief review of each extra, including the booklet materials (which are extensive).
There are four separate sections to the booklet, two of which come directly from the original press kit for the film:
- Credits of All the Films Used in Cameraperson: As you can imagine, this is very useful in identifying the many sources of the material we see in the movie.
- “Getting Close,” Essay on Cameraperson by Filmmaker Michael Almereyda: This manages to be both an insightful analysis and a good discussion of Johnson’s production techniques. One of my favorite of Almereyda’s comments is the following: “Johnson supplies a few grace notes, musical interludes, flashes of scene splendor, but for a film made by a cinematographer, there are bracingly few images that are merely pretty or picturesque.” Indeed, that is the brilliance of the movie.
- Kirsten Johnson’s Director’s Statement, written for 2016 Sundance Film Festival: This is the first part of Johnson’s press notes. She writes, on “the joys of being a documentary cameraperson,” that, “I get to share profound intimacy with the people I film, pursue remarkable stories, be at the center of events as they unfold, travel, collaborate, and see my work engage with the world. … No wonder I’ve been doing it for 25 years and love my life.” If only we could all be so lucky to lead as creatively fulfilling an existence.
- “An Incomplete List of What the Camera Enables”: Finally, Johnson offers the same list that she included in her press notes, in which she enumerates the different way the camera affects both cinematographer and subject. Fascinating.
There are six special features:
- “Editing Cameraperson,” Featuring Kirsten Johnson, Editors Amanda Laws and Nels Bangerter, and Producers Marilyn Ness and Danielle Varga (Produced by Criterion in 2016) (36:31): What a treat to have these five creative forces behind the movie discuss the process of making it. Of particular note is the revelation that editor Amanda Laws cut an entire first version of the movie, complete with voiceover by Johnson, before all involved decided that it wasn’t quite working, and so passed it on to new editor Nels Bangerter, who started rebuilding the story around the scenes of “trauma.” He delivered a 40-minute cut which became the centerpiece of the new direction. Wow. I loved learning about this, and about the intense collaboration amongst all parties.
- “In the Service of the Film,” Roundtable with Kirsten Johnson, Sound Recordists Wellington Bowler and Judy Karp and Producer Gini Reticker (Produced by Criterion in 2016) (39:06): Another terrific conversation. Both sound recordists have worked many times with Johnson – and their work is in the movie – but had not met each other before filming this. They talk a lot about the ethics of filming, instead of intervening, when you see things about to happen in front of you, and about the “wake” of the camera crew and the effect it has on what is being filmed. Great stuff.
- 2016 Traverse City Film Festival Q&A, with Michael Moore (Recorded June 30, 2016 (21:48): Moore leads Johnson in a discussion of her production difficulties. Because Moore – whose work I do admire, upon occasion – has a tendency to talk about himself a lot, this is not as strong a conversation as the first two extras, but we still learn quite a good deal about certain scenes within the film, including the harrowing moment in the Nigerian hospital where a newborn baby struggles to survive. When discussing the ethics of how to behave as a filmmaker in the midst of real-life trauma, Johnson offers this bit of advice: “Just try to be decent in the present.” It’s the least anyone can do.
- 2016 Sarajevo Film Festival Q&A (Recorded August 15, 2016) (14:51): Some of the film’s subjects from the Bosnian sections show up for the screening – including the main Muslim family and the two trauma-case workers – and we get to see them react to what they have just seen. Very moving.
- The Above, 2015 Short Film by Johnson (8:35): Commissioned by “Field of Vision, this is a short documentary about the U.S. military surveillance balloon that floats over Kabul, Afghanistan. The army sees it as a deterrent, even if the on-board cameras are not working, since it is seen as an omniscient presence by the locals. At the end of the piece, we cut to Aberdeen, Maryland, where a similar surveillance balloon monitors long-range missile threats. There are no cameras on board. Or so we are told …
- Trailer (2:05): This is the theatrical trailer, and is a good and accurate advertisement of what is in the movie.
That’s the package. There’s a lot there, and all well worth watching and reading.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)