Bruce Surtees

In the midst of yesterday’s Oscar hubbub I was alerted (via the Twitter feed of the excellent writer Peter Avellino) to the death of the cinematographer Bruce Surtees. His career was laudable and his passing can’t go unremarked.

Surtees came up in the family business, first working as a camera operator for his father, the great Robert Surtees, then moving into the big chair for Don Siegel on THE BEGUILED – not a bad first show, to say the least.  He’ll be remembered primarily as Clint Eastwood’s trusted collaborator as Eastwood embarked on on his directing career, and he should be; I believe him to be the equal to Leone, Dallamano and Delli Colli in his appraisal of Eastwood’s particular line and angularity.  Eastwood bathed in a Surtees shadow was, is, an evocative and complicated sight.

The compositions in THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID and, of course, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, are painterly without being fastidious, overstudied. And that quality of light, the cold dawns! The chill of the forests and scrubs in the first half of JOSEY WALES could make you want to throw a blanket over yourself on an an August afternoon.

Surtees was called the Prince of Darkness and, even if one believes that moniker to be now and forever the property of Gordon Willis, one has to see the point of that. But Surtees never lost bodies and faces in murk, as his successor at Eastwood’s right hand, Jack Green, would. Surtees was nothing if not a careful craftsman, one with surpassing sensitivity to the crag and curve of a face. (This fine touch showed in his lighting of black actors, who find themselves having to be constantly watchful of lighting and makeup artists who are not so mindful. Gordon Parks trusted Surtees with the camera for LEADBELLY – enough said.)

His work in LENNY is a high mark of monochrome cinematography in the modern era. The smoke in the spotlights and the like is obviously money, but the present day documentary work, the washed out light, the aged characters, is every bit as good as the dominant chiaroscuro.

Surtees gave us a lot: the varied stagings of performance in LENNY, LEADBELLY, SPARKLE, HONKY TONK MAN and his half of MOVIE MOVIE; the warmth of BLUME IN LOVE; the black waters of NIGHT MOVES; more dawn haze in BIG WEDNESDAY; his collaborations with Paul Brickman on the splendid RISKY BUSINESS and MEN DON’T LEAVE.

Remember Bruce Surtees. Watch the films.

(Two notes regarding the Brickman films: Surtees is co-credited with Rey Villalobos on RISKY BUSINESS. The comings and goings of light in the El scene seem very much like a Surtees thing – if any reader knows otherwise, do please weigh in below. Also, I couldn’t get my hands on a copy of the quite handsomely shot MEN DON’T LEAVE; the provenance of the screen capture above is Ed Copeland’s blog, specifically an awfully thoughtful piece on that film, a piece which I highly recommend.)

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Victor

My morning doings were stopped short when I came across notices that Francois Truffaut would have been eighty years old today.

I’ve always made an effort to not overpersonalize the effect certain artists have on me—that is, to feel unearned proximity to people I don’t know. Their expressions may hit you in ways that make you feel like you’re somehow inside them, but their lives are their own, and by bathing overlong in an empathic glow you risk your life becoming something that isn’t fully your own. That said: I gasped when Truffaut died; the mere mention of a round number never reached sent me inside myself for hours on a day which needed to be more verb than noun; and the thirty years between have been marked with more sadness than not when thinking on him.

The slow tides of reputation are, for an enthusiast, often depressing. Has a looser, more generous filmmaker, one whose work is so full of casual delights, ever been so quickly consigned to the waxworks? The only explanation that made or makes sense to me is that Truffaut died at a point when a particular idea of him was hardening, a sense that he had become what he beheld – a purveyor of tasteful entertainments.  With death the stance became an idée fixe, and the bathwater that was thrown out by opinion makers contained one beautiful baby. Within his life and writing and films are pointed lessons in how to discover and assert one’s own taste by burrowing deeply into the work of others (in short, how to grow up) and how to become an artist and public citizen with passion and grace. Any tide which brings with it a happy reconsideration of Truffaut, even one more severe than I’m capable of, is one that can’t crash in too soon.

One might think that mourning for films that will never be made is a base sentiment, but what is mourning if not the selfish wish for a sensation you’ll never have again?  I love the films that certain old people make, the Bunuels, Hustons, Eastwoods and Lumets, those who have the will and vitality to keep bringing it, to find new veins and angles in life, and I’ve always been (sentimentally, yes) quite unshakable in my belief that Truffaut would have been one of them. I think it’s because I just plain trusted him. How could you not trust someone who made something as nimble and complicated as JULES AND JIM, as volcanic as THE STORY OF ADELE H? Or as steely, yet tender as

Oscar…

Nestor…

Victor?

And, again, Nestor…

As an actor – the confident movement, the delicacy of the gesture with the apple, the tilt of the head, the smile…

Godard, whose friendship with Truffaut fractured publically,  famously, and is most certainly one of those who is, through some combination of volition, genetics, and plain cussedness, still kicking it hard, wrote in the foreword to Truffaut’s collected letters, “Francois is perhaps dead. I am perhaps alive. But then, is there a difference?” At the risk of being terribly literal with the words of a man who is anything but that, I would have to say that there is a difference. All the difference in the world.