Monday, January 25, 2016

Film Festival 1988

Eric Stoltz, Toronto, Sept. 1988

BY THE SUMMER OF 1988 I HAD OWNED A CAMERA FOR JUST THREE YEARS. In that time I taught myself to develop film, got my first photos published and decided that this might be what I could do with my life. By the time I got ready to shoot portraits while covering my third film festival as a reporter, I had been on a steep learning curve from the moment I took a photo from the living room window of my mother's house.

I came across these negatives while scanning my portraits of director Todd Haynes. The 1988 Festival of Festivals was apparently a busy one for me - I also shot Abbie Hoffman there that year - but I don't know who I was working for, and I don't recall any of these photos being published anywhere until now. They're important to me, however, because they mark the moment when my apprenticeship had ended and I was out in the marketplace, competing with photographers with years more experience than myself.

Aki Kaurismaki, Toronto, Sept. 1988

Aki Kaurismaki was a film festival favorite - a Finnish director who made the sort of deadpan films that were once the specialty of Wim Wenders. He'd arrived at his first Toronto festival a few years' previous as a package with his brother Mika and a film version of Crime and Punishment. He'd have a hit of sorts with Leningrad Cowboys Go America a couple of years after I shot this, and is still working today.

My kit for this festival was pretty minimal; unlike the previous year, I didn't bother bringing along lights or a medium format camera. Everything was shot with whatever available light I could find, mostly in some variation of the "Anton light." I can't think of many places I might have sold such a dark, moody portrait like the Kaurismaki one, which is partly the result of very dim window light and a thin negative.

Evan English & John Hillcoat, Toronto, Sept. 1988

Evan English and John Hillcoat were an Australian writer/director team who showed up with a brutal prison movie starring Nick Cave, a particular favorite of mine at the time. I remember them being very dour and cynical but dryly funny; a vague twitch of memory suggests that I might have interviewed them in addition to taking their portrait.

If these photos are a record of anything, it's my frantic search for a style. The shot above wouldn't have looked out of place in a British music paper just a few years' previous; I was carrying around a creative Rolodex in my mind, picking out solutions I'd seen before in response to the challenge of each new shoot. Some worked, some didn't. I'm not sure what Evan English is doing nowadays, but Hillcoat went on to direct music videos for people like Depeche Mode and Crowded House, and movies like the 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

Dusan Makavejev, Toronto, Sept. 1988

Dusan Makavejev's Coca Cola Kid was a big favorite of mine a couple of years before I photographed him - probably because of Greta Scacchi's very sexy performance - and some Serbian friends had filled me in on his importance as a director in Tito's Yugoslavia. He was at the festival with Manifesto (also titled A Night of Love,) a Golan-Globus production with a mix of Americans, Brits and Yugoslavs in the cast that's almost unknown today.

A lot of my solutions to the hotel room shoot that year were fairly unoriginal, but this is one of the few that would become crucial to developing my own style in the years to come - the full-frame, tight close-up of the face, preferably with a short lens, forcing interaction between myself and the subject by invading their personal space. I also have a suspicion that this was the first film fest I shot with my Nikon F3, having graduated up from my Spotmatics when I decided that I needed to look more professional - the sharpness of shots like this suggests that I was working with much better lenses, in any case.

Eric Stoltz, Toronto, Sept. 1988

American actor Eric Stoltz was one of the stars of Makavejev's film, and he was thoroughly wired for my brief shoot with him, mugging and pulling faces and performing for my camera. At the time I was a bit put off by this - for some reason it made me feel like he was doing most of the work, not me - but I like the energy in these shots today. Stoltz was a young actor vaguely associated with the "Brat Pack" a couple of years' previous, who'd go on to have much more of a career than many of his peers, appearing in a wild variety of films and on Broadway, and on TV as both an actor and director.

While going through these negatives I noticed that I was still being parsimonious with my film, devoting just half a roll to each subject. I was a lot more careful with the shutter, re-framing and focusing with each new shot, a working style that was a lot more like medium format work than the rapid-fire shooting that I'd adopt when I finally got a motor drive for my 35mm SLR.

Fernando Solanas, Toronto, Sept. 1988

The film festival must have had a focus on South American or Argentine films in 1988, because I have portraits of two directors from Argentina in my files, and no memory of how they got there. Fernando Solanas was a very political director who had only returned to his country a few years previous after living in exile in Paris. Three years after I took this photo he was shot six times in the legs but survived and went on to run for government several times, winning office twice.

I must have known something about his story as I gave Solanas a very heroic treatment for this portrait - the 3/4 profile and thousand-yard stare in full effect.

Fernando Birri, Toronto, Sept. 1988

Fernando Birri was considered a key figure in Latin American cinema, and was at the festival that year with a film called A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings, based on a Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story. In 1959, he appeared at the Cannes film festival with a short film with probably the world's longest title: Vera historia de la primera fundación de Buenos Aires como también de varias navegaciones de muchas partes desconocidas, islas de reinos, también de muchos peligros, peleas y escaramuzas, tanto por tierra como por mar, que nunca han sido descriptos en otras historias o crónicas, extraídos del libro 'Viajes al río de La Plata', original del soldado alemán Ulrico Schmidl, miembro de la expedición capitaneada por don Pedro de Mendoza, quien publicó por primera vez estas memorias, bien anotadas para utilidad pública en la ciudad de Francfort el año 1567.

My portrait of Birri is another example of how mostly undigested influences were all over my work at this time - I knew as I was focusing my lens for this shot that I was echoing a Roman Vishniac portrait that had appeared on the cover of his book A Vanished World, which had come out a couple years before.

Sasha Mitchell, Toronto, Sept. 1988

Sasha Mitchell arrived at the festival as the star of Paul Morrissey's film Spike of Bensonhurst (also released as Mafia Kid.) I probably would never have taken this photo if it wasn't for Chris Buck - Morrissey's connection to Andy Warhol meant that Chris was desperate to get a portrait of the director, and I tagged along, somehow ending up in a hotel corridor with Chris doing tag team portraits of the young actor, who had previously been a model for Bruce Weber; I think that influence more than amply comes through in this shot.

A year later Mitchell would end up with a role on Dallas, and starred in a series of kickboxing films.

I did an awful lot of shooting at the 1988 film festival, and even if I can't remember any of it being published, it was probably the best week of work I might have done that year, if only because it made me shoot at least once a day for at least a week, responding to different subjects and situations and working through my influences on the way to trying to create my own style.

The film fest would continue to be my big week every year for almost two more decades. During the '90s I'd refine my festival shooting, working with medium format cameras and a tripod to get much more formal, carefully composed portraits, but the arrival of digital and the steady erosion of time for shooting with each subsequent year meant the fast, off-the-cuff shooting I did in 1988 would become the norm again, and I'd have to re-learn the lessons I first had here.


1 comment:

  1. I like Stoltz. He should have been cast in more comedies.