June 16, 2006
This week's New Yorker features a nice piece on Gregg Toland, the innovative and influential cinematographer who revolutionized the look of cinema (article is not online yet) shooting film monuments like Citizen Kane and Intermezzo. Visually his films are shockingly fresh. In the article Steve Soderbergh says of The Long Voyage Home "It looks like it was shot tomorrow."
Back when I was working at Paramount I became friends with Piotr Sobocinski the cinematographer behind Kieslowski's Red and the Decalogue. Our friendship came out of a mutual fascination with Toland. Piotr would have me dig up old production stills to try to figure out Toland's lighting setups. Usually they were startling in their simplicity, many big lights bunched together. This was similar to the technique Piotr often used. "Only one big light, like the sun, I do the same" he would say in his heavily accented English obviously pleased. My boss had helped bring Piotr over from Poland where he was making a fraction of his Hollywood salary, but Hollywood did not suit him. His missed his family in Poland and he hated the Hollywood system which didn't allow for artistic experimentation and flow. He would brood and when he was feeling particularly down he would watch Toland's films to cheer himself up. Through my job I helped him screen obscure copies films not available on video. He always wondered aloud what Toland would have done if he had lived a full life (Toland died unexpectedly at 44 in his sleep), because "great cinematographers do best work after 60". The deep irony of course is that Piotr would die at 43, and like Toland leave behind a wife and children and leaving us to wonder what might have been.