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A Swedish realist

September 22, 2006

A DIRECTOR MAY REPRESENT the heart of a motion picture, but the soul of a movie belongs to the cinematographer. Sven Nykvist, who died Wednesday at 83 in his native Sweden, was arguably the most important cinematographer in the history of filmmaking. Known best for his work with Ingmar Bergman, which earned him Oscars for "Cries and Whispers" in 1973 and "Fanny and Alexander" in 1982, Nykvist's signature style was marked by his use of natural light and attention to the chiaroscurist nuances of black-and-white film stock. He shot grown-up movies for grown-up audiences. And even when the films weren't all that sophisticated, he made them look that way.

Nykvist began his career in the early 1950s, when movies tended to be highly stylized spectacles that reflected a culture still enamored with the exuberance of Technicolor. But his collaborations with Bergman were stark, understated and strikingly naturalistic. This ability to translate the concept of realism into cinematic terms influenced generations of filmmakers. Moreover, it lent a defining visual idiom to independent filmmaking -- which is to say, we knew it when we saw it.

Nykvist was a believer in the power of faces, often zooming in for intense, even unnerving close-ups that transcended an actor's glamour and forced audiences to reckon with psychology and even mortality. Woody Allen, whose sensibility draws heavily on Bergman, hired Nykvist for pictures such as "Another Woman" and "Crimes and Misdemeanors," among others. Even filmmakers who didn't work directly with Nykvist are indebted to him for the way he infused beauty into somberness and even despair. The films of John Cassavetes, Terrence Malick, Jim Jarmusch and Ang Lee carry heavy traces of the Nykvist vein. And there's hardly a film student alive, even if he's never heard of Nykvist, who hasn't tried to set up his lights in an effort to achieve Nykvist's effects.

Since Nykvist stopped working in 1998, the cult of realism has gone unequivocally mainstream as low-budget reality shows pass themselves off as "documentaries" and cable channels convince themselves that grainy-looking footage signifies true art. But the death of this cinematic legend should remind us that there's a wide gulf between "realism" and "reality." Nykvist may have cut close to the bone, but his vision always worked in tandem with his rigorous craftsmanship. You don't see that every day.

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