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Camera-Ready : The Cameraman's Instinct Is to Watch, to Serve, to Capture, in an Expert Second

December 27, 1987|TOM MCDONOUGH | Tom McDonough is a cinematographer and a novelist.

SOME YEARS AGO, while shooting a commercial in L.A., I made a pilgrimage to F. Scott Fitzgerald's last apartment, on North Hayworth. The stucco was nostalgically peeling. The current occupant was too busy conducting a lawn sale to show me around, but from what I could see Fitzgerald had a splendid view of the Hollywood Hills.

It was here that he played out his last years, awed and humiliated by the manufacture of American fun. To the end, cranking out unsuccessful screenplays, he cultivated an attitude of great expectations and romantic disgruntlement toward the industry. "It was like visiting a great turbulent family," he wrote of the film crew that appears briefly in "Tender Is the Night." "They were a people of bravery and industry; they were risen to a position of prominence in a nation that for a decade had wanted only to be entertained."

It's still dumbfounding, this triumph of California craft over high seriousness. What movies mainly do is warp the shape and time of things in the world. Since they do this in a way that we regard as realistic--photo-representationally, narratively--we are soothed by the distortion. The movies' most profound power is their power to make us feel ecstatically smaller than what we see, to share in their bigness so that we feel heroically adjusted to our place in the scale of things. It's a religious effect--what the good sisters used to call "pagan awe." Cinematography, the actual making of moving images, is the basic tool of this magic. As with other forms of idolatry, the point most often fudged is mortality.

Gregg Toland, who shot "Citizen Kane," knew all about the voodoo of his trade. And because he also knew that when you're talking technique, you're probably not communicating, he assured Orson Welles that anyone could be taught the mechanics of cinematography in a few hours. This is rhetorically true: You can learn to drive a car by studying a motor-vehicle-bureau manual. The issue, of course, is not how cameras work, but how Gregg Toland works.

'What movies mainly do is warp the shape and time of things in the world. Since they do this in a way that we regard as realistic--

photo-representationally, narratively--we are soothed by the distortion.'

Happily, movie workers tend to be a garrulous lot, like ballplayers. Between takes, they are the sharpest, most judicious spectators I know--instinctive deconstructionalists. With the help of my friend and fellow cameraman Ted Churchill, I've been able to spend time on big-budget film sets without the handicap of being branded a writer. Writers working on celebrity profiles have to negotiate their way past the many monsignori clustered around the Pope. With Teddy, I was just "Duke," one of the guys hanging around the grip truck. In my old neighborhood, the nickname Duke was used as a tip of the hat, a pat on the back, now and then a sly twist of the arm, as in "How 'bout taking out the garbage once in a while, Duke?" The cameraman's instinct is to watch, to serve, to capture, in an expert second. Duke seems an appropriate nom de camera. . . .

FAT CHANCE FILMS Ltd. flew me out to L.A. to shoot a Subaru commercial that demonstrated the advantages of four-wheel drive in Beverly Hills. We spent most of the first day getting measured for custom-embroidered satin jackets, negotiating permits to shoot on a rugged stretch of Rodeo Drive and listening to Legendary Rooney's ragtime tapes. Rooney's theory is that music quiets the racket of cross talk and carpentry, helps the crew see better. Legendary Rooney is the soundman who talks to his plants. He shouts at his cactus because it's deaf. Weekends he works as a bartender; he wears breakaway bow ties so the drunks can't yank him across the bar. But the significant thing about Legendary Rooney is that he is bald and beardless, an uncommon combination these days. Hair is not important to him. Technology is. He wrote the first telecommunications program for portable computers. Life might take Legendary Rooney's hair but not his intelligence, nor his ability to install it in a machine.

I drove to the Sunset Marquis, ate room-service fried oysters, and went for a dunk in the pool just as the lifeguard was turning out the purple underwater lights. I went back to my room, bare soles slapping on the chilly tiles, brushed the battery chargers off my bed and tried to sleep in order to revise the day, which had been a damp dream of more things than I could make sense of.

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