This June at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts sees a spate of new documentaries covering a wide range of art and artists, including fine arts, cinematography and literature. Capturing the essence of one artistic medium through the lens of another isn’t easy. Just look at the many dull film adaptations of good novels, content to simply remain “faithful” to the source material. The fact is, each medium is different, each with its own set of strengths and weaknesses in communicating an idea. It takes a special documentarian, then, to know that no matter what the topic, he must still make a film, a piece of art that will live or die not on the power of its subject, but on its own cinematic merits.
Two of the highest-profile films in the program are Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff and Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird. Together they make an interesting pairing of biographical art documentaries, each attempting to communicating the power of its subject’s craft in an engaging and interesting way. While Jack Cardiff is by far the lesser-known artist, Camerman makes a much stronger argument and also succeeds as a creative and energetic project in its own right. Made for neophytes and acolytes alike, Cameraman documents the career of legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff, known for his stunning Technicolor photography in films like The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. At the time of filming in 2009, Cardiff was a contented, friendly and remarkably articulate 94-year-old, who makes for an extremely personable guide through his filmography. Mainly comprised of interviews with Cardiff and his legion of industry fans, as well as clips of his films, Cameraman nonetheless shows real vitality, moving deftly and nimbly. Most impressively, the film also serves as a rumination on the power of cinematography as a visual art. Cardiff, himself a painter, drew inspiration from artists like Vermeer and the French impressionists, and director Craig McCall pushes Cardiff to analyse his own work in similar terms, making the art pop off the screen.
Compared with Cameraman, Hey, Boo has two major disadvantages: Harper Lee’s notorious decades-long media silence and the challenge of translating literature into images. Without the compelling presence of the artist herself, one of Cameraman’s greatest assets, the film relies too heavily on others to sign the praises of “To Kill a Mockingbird”. I love the book, and the interview subjects (mostly other authors and celebrity personalities) are often insightful, but the film becomes weighed down by hyperbole and empty hagiography. We’re constantly told of the novel’s greatness, never shown it. Particularly annoying are the emotional readings that fans give of select passages, accompanied by a raised eyebrow or a languid sigh, as if to say “see, isn’t this amazing?” They feel inflated at best and completely artificial at worst.
Cameraman manages to find a visual way to present Cardiff’s work, aided, of course, by clips of the cinematographer’s films. Director Mary Murphy’s task of animating a piece a writing, however, is considerably more difficult, and she never quite rises to the challenge. She uses pull-quotes from the novel and scenes from the 1962 film of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, but the tactics are not enough to make the writing come alive. Without the vibrancy and pace of Cameraman, Hey, Boo drags and ultimately fails to capture the power of its subject. It did, however, inspire me to re-read the book and let Lee’s prose speak for itself.
Documentaries pose a unique set of challenges to filmmakers. They must, of course, tell us a story, inform us or move us in some way, but they also have to engage us cinematically. Too often, documentaries focus exclusively on story, loosing sight of their effectiveness as films. The documentaries in the MFA’s Art on Film program, then, whether or not they entirely succeed, all have something to say, not just about one art form, but about two.
Art on Film runs through the month of June. Click here for ticket and showtime information.