sat 13/07/2024

Cinema Through the Eye of Magnum, BBC Four review - moving pictures | reviews, news & interviews

Cinema Through the Eye of Magnum, BBC Four review - moving pictures

Cinema Through the Eye of Magnum, BBC Four review - moving pictures

French documentary about the agency's film work sheds light on James Dean and Marilyn Monroe

The misfit: Eve Arnold's photograph of Marilyn Monroe on set ® Eve Arnold / Magnum Photos

Magnum was founded just after the war in 1947 as a co-operative that ensured both the quality of its members, and their clout in dealing with the media world. Its longevity is testimony to its success. The original founders were war-hardened photo journalists and included Robert Capa and David “Chim” Seymour; the first woman member was Eve Arnold, who joined in 1951.

The linking of its members to cinema was the hook for this fascinating French documentary on BBC Four, written and directed by Sophie Bassaler, with a delicate voiceover by Sharon Mann and evocative music by Harry Allouche. There are wide-ranging interviews with the photographers themselves, some now deceased, and various French historians and essayists, plus Magnum staff, all to illuminate the relationship of cinema from the 1950s to now and photography as practised by Magnum members. This made for an extraordinary capsule history both of changing times in cinema from Hollywood to the nouvelle vague to Tarkovsky, with extraordinary photo essays about actors (the latest feature Kate Winslet by Italian war photographer Paolo Pellegrin, and Jeff Bridges by Peter Van Agtmael). It was also an oblique study of documentary photography, the genre which Magnum more or less invented and which would have an influence on cinema.

We started with the charismatic war-addicted Robert Capa who had been introduced to cinema grandees by his war-time friend Ernest Hemingway. He embarked on a passionate liaison with Ingrid Bergman – they had met at the Paris Ritz (where else?). Bergman, as her daughter Isabella Rosselini told us, longed to marry the unmarriageable Capa who, befitting a surname which means shark in Hungarian, could never have stayed still. But he did pause in Hollywood, the lover photographing the loved one as she starred in Hitchcock’s Notorious.

In the back room, filled with luxurious coffins, James Dean tried one on for size

It was the personal connection that counted, and several extraordinary episodes were chronicled in mesmerising pictorial detail. “You did so well with Marlene,” Marilyn Monroe told Eve Arnold seductively. “Imagine what you could do with me.” Arnold photographed effort: Joan Crawford’s exhaustive efforts to get ready for personal appearances, Monroe in curlers. She was among nine Magnum photographers engaged over three months in photographing her last movie, The Misfits, in 1960. The results were informal yet incisive, empathetic yet reportorial. Even more, she followed Monroe into a ladies’ room at Chicago Airport during a layover and captured her, intimately and compassionately, as the star gazed into a mirror above a basin.

As David Hurn explained, Magnum’s rarefied ethos was to observe, which was a breath of fresh air in the static, posed and touched-up world of celebrity.  Arnold used no top lighting, no tripod, no best angle and achieved a captivating authenticity which still forms how we visualise Monroe. Arthur Miller’s marriage to Monroe was imploding on set, subtly hinted at in some of the photographs (Inge Morath was another Magnum artist at the scene and was to marry Miller after the film was finished).James Dean ®Dennis Stock / Magnum PhotosPerhaps even more astounding was the two-month odyssey of the Magnum photographer Dennis Stock and the doomed James Dean (pictured above ® Dennis Stock / Magnum Photos). They visited Dean’s family home in Fairmount, Indiana where Dean dropped in a local furniture home. In the back room, filled with luxurious coffins, he tried one on for size. Stock recalled intuitively refusing to go driving with Dean the day before his fatal car crash. He thought Dean an alienated soul.
Perhaps he was an ideal subject. Henri Cartier-Bresson, a Magnum founder, described Magnum’s portraiture as the ‘inner silence of a consenting victim’. And perhaps Monroe and Dean were the most elegiac of subjects because hindsight fancies it can see their tragic history imprinted in their hypnotically attractive faces and body language. 

Magnum followed the 1960s to London where David Hurn, photographing the Beatles at work on A Hard Day’s Night, was fascinated by their fans, whether middle-aged ladies or young teenagers. Others followed the fortunes of new wave cinema in Europe. Josef Koudelka allied himself to the Greek poet of the cinema Theo Angelopoulos, and declared perhaps in typical Magnum fashion that he had no home. A compulsive traveller, he declared that to stay more than three months anywhere was to become blind.

This was an imaginative documentary of documentarians, absorbing, surprising, informative and subtle.

It was the personal connection that counted, and several extraordinary episodes were chronicled in mesmerising pictorial detail


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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