By Sarah Street, Principal Investigator
Prism, a new play by Terry Johnson (Hampstead Theatre, London, 6 Sept-14 Oct 2017), is based on legendary colour cinematographer Jack Cardiff (Robert Lindsay) towards the end of his life, when past and present become intertwined through the effects of Alzheimer’s disease and as he struggles to write his autobiography. The set – a large garage kitted-out as a work-space – includes a Technicolor camera (‘the old Rolls-Royce’) that is almost a character as it is spoken to, discussed and admired, and other memorabilia from Cardiff’s long career. Here the play recalls the many photographs of Jack Cardiff with a Technicolor camera, identifying him very much with the technology.
One wall features luminescent portraits of film stars photographed by Cardiff including Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich. They revive his memories of working with light, cameras, prisms and Technicolor. The play’s language revels in Cardiff’s reminiscences of his craft as family members and the set become confused in his mind with film stars and locations, so much so that in Act 2 the set is transformed by a projected background into that of The African Queen (1951). At different points Cardiff’s wife Nicola becomes Katharine Hepburn, his son Mason becomes Humphrey Bogart and Arthur Miller, and his carer Lucy merges in his mind into Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe. Cardiff arranges Lucy as Marilyn on a sofa, recalling his cinematography in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957). Here we see two very different lighting strategies and camera angles from that film, the first image low-key with Laurence Olivier looming over Monroe as he tries to seduce her, and the second in a higher-key set-up, more typical for the star to accentuate her complexion with a soft, pastel colour palette.
The confusion resulting from Alzheimer’s permits the play to range between decades, locations and people while reminding the audience of Cardiff’s illustrious career and craft as a cinematographer. He recalls the wonder of the beam-splitting prism in the three-strip Technicolor camera as a magical accomplice in helping him understand ‘the very secret of light’. Incidents and impressions from Cardiff’s autobiography Magic Hour are interspersed within the play such as Arthur Miller reminding him of the murderer Reginald Christie, and Cardiff’s likening of Marilyn Monroe to ‘a Botticelli cherub…a delightful evocation of Renoir’ (1996: 195-96). The play ends appropriately with reference to the ‘magic hour’ that features as an author’s note at the start of Jack Cardiff’s autobiography: an hour is needed to prepare to shoot ‘the swift evanescence of the dying day’ or, as articulated in the play, when ‘the under-exposure from the sinking sun forces the sky into that stunning deep blue’, so difficult to film but worth ‘scheduling an entire day around’.
Colour features explicitly elsewhere in the play, such as when Cardiff recalls capturing ‘one end of the spectrum to the other and a few colours along the way we invented for ourselves. That green jacket in the gallery of The Red Shoes; those shades of purple I wove through Black Narcissus. No one had seen those colours before, because no one had photographed those damn colours before’. His ingenuity with Technicolor is indeed what won him his Honorary Academy Award in 2001 as ‘Master of Light and Colour’. Cardiff is of course best known for his work with Powell and Pressburger as a cinematographer who experimented with the aesthetic style known as ‘British Technicolor’ in its formative years. Cardiff’s frequent references to being inspired by the paintings of Renoir, Van Gogh and Vermeer invested Technicolor with an aura of cultural capital rarely bestowed on other techniques. The ubiquity of Eastmancolor/monopack stocks tended not to inspire such self-referential analysis even though as followers of our blog will know, these attracted many instances of chromatic play through aesthetic innovation.
Prism’s focus on Cardiff’s well-known Technicolor films and associations with major Hollywood stars however overlooks his interest in experimenting with colour much later in his career when three-strip cameras were no longer used. Cardiff directed thirteen feature films between 1958 and 1974 and continued to work as a cinematographer. Somewhat ironically, the film that earned him most nominations and awards was the black-and-white Sons and Lovers (1960). But the subject-matter of Prism, with its technique of doubling family members with film stars and the garage set with an African film location, raises the more general question about colour as being as multi-faceted as a prism’s refracting surfaces. These thoughts prompted me to consider one later colour film directed and photographed by Jack Cardiff as worth re-evaluating from this perspective: The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968).
The Girl on a Motorcycle was an Anglo-French co-production starring Marianne Faithful (Rebecca) and Alain Delon in an adaptation of a cult novel by André Pieyre de Mandiargues about a young married woman whose exhilarating, leather-clad motorcycle rides occasion intermittent memories of past sexual encounters. Her personality is quixotic: she can be demure but on other occasions, especially when she is riding the motorcycle or recalling meeting her lover, she becomes reckless and, ultimately, self-destructive. Raymond Durgnat saw the film as rooted in ‘a Michael Powell era approach rather than to Surrealism or the various trends whose form, rather than its spirit, borrows from the book’, while noting its ‘deliriously blotched-up colour with transposed dyes’ (1968: 36). With its nouvelle vague sensibility and visually audacious design, planning the film’s colour was indeed conducive to innovation.
For some of the scenes Cardiff experimented with solarization, or the replacement of some colours by others to create a disorientating, hallucinogenic impact. In solarized images detail can be seen but the colour and lightness is reversed in selected parts of the image. Probably the most well-known use of the effect in still photography was by Man Ray. Solarization with moving images presented opportunities for expressivity while drawing attention to the arbitrary nature of colour signification as we see in these examples. The viewer is challenged to compare ‘real’ images with their solarized counterparts as the expectation of associating objects with culturally accepted colours is playfully blocked. As David Batchelor puts it, in relation to luminous colours that similarly subvert our sense of conventional chromatic representation, this can be thought of as ‘an escape of colour, this assertion of its autonomy and independence from the objects that lay claim to it’ (2014: 49).
At the time, solarization was quite difficult to achieve photographically, and Cardiff made use of new technologies to obtain the desired effect. As he explained, this involved using both film and tape: ‘I used many techniques, one of which was solarization – half-negative, half-positive; it had been used before in small doses, but I was able to use it thanks to a computer system devised by a brilliant backroom boy from Technicolor, Laurie Atkin. I shot the scenes straight, then they were taken to the BBC’s telecine department late at night when BBC work had finished. There I had Atkin’s magic box with dials on it and I could adjust the solarization to any part of the scene I desired on a tape which would then be transferred to film at Technicolor. It was thrillingly successful and allowed me to solarize sex scenes, for instance, that no British censor would ordinarily allow’ (1996: 242-3).
This technique contributed to The Girl on a Motorcycle’s reputation as expressive of the psychedelic era. Its relation to the sexploitation sub-genre, astute casting (Marianne Faithful and Alain Delon were both international stars) and extremely effective motorcycle shots (a stunt double was used for Marianne Faithful), made it a commercially successful film that only failed to please London-based critics (Bowyer, 2003: 196).
In keeping with the ‘double’ theme, the film was shot in two versions – French and British – and its mid-European landscapes and empty roads that Rebecca’s motorcycle breezes through, contribute to the film’s dreamy, disorientating mood. While solarized effects could be achieved with film by over-exposure or exposing the film half-way through development to varying degrees of artistic success, these effects are now easily achievable on a computer.
Our project is interested in how experimental film practices, psychedelia and pop art influenced more conventional cinematic forms. That Jack Cardiff continued to push the boundaries of colour design in the later years of his career is indicative of his indefatigable spirit to solve technical and aesthetic problems in every decade in which he worked. Seeing Prism certainly provoked me, and I am sure other members of the audience, to look again at his work, to see the double lurking behind every image and to appreciate his efforts again and again to film the impossible.
David Batchelor, The Luminous and the Grey (London: Reaktion Books, 2014)
Justin Bowyer, Conversations with Jack Cardiff: Art, Light and Direction in Cinema (London; Batsford, 2003)
Jack Cardiff, Magic Hour (London: Faber and Faber, 1996)
Raymond Durgnat review of The Girl on a Motorcycle in Films and Filming, 15:1, Oct 1968: 36-37.
Terry Johnson, Prism and Ken (London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2017)