Cinematographer and Director. Nationality: Spanish. Born: Barcelona, 30 October 1930. Education: Attended University of Havana, Cuba, Ph.D.; Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, Rome, 1956–57; studied with Hans Richter, City College of New York. Career: 1948—emigrated with his family to Cuba; 1950—made amateur 8mm film with Tomas Gutiérrez Alea, Una confusion contidiana ; 1957–59—taught Spanish, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York; 1959–61—made documentaries for Cuban film institute (ICAIC); 1960s—worked in France as cinematographer: also director of TV documentaries (some 25 films in all), 1966—first feature film as cinematographer, Rohmer's La Collectionneuse ; 1984—directed first full-length documentary, Improper Conduct . Awards: Academy Award for Days of Heaven , 1978; César award for Le Dernier Métro , 1980. Died: Of cancer, in New York, 4 March 1992.
La Collectionneuse (Rohmer); The Wild Racers (Haller)
More (Schroeder); Ma nuit chez Maud ( My Night at Maud's )(Rohmer); L'Enfant sauvage ( The Wild Child ) (Truffaut)
Domicile conjugal ( Bed and Board ) (Truffaut); Le Genou de Claire ( Claire's Knee ) (Rohmer)
Les Deux Anglaises et le continent ( Two English Girls ) (Truffaut); La Vallée ( The Valley ) (Schroeder)
L'Amour l'après-midi ( Chloe in the Afternoon ) (Rohmer)
Femmes au soleil (Dreyfus); The Gentleman Tramp (Patterson)
La Gueule ouverte (Pialat); General Idi Amin Dada (Schroeder); Cockfighter ( Born to Kill ) (Hellman); Mes petites amoureuses (Eustache)
L'Histoire d'Adèle H. ( The Story of Adèle H. ) (Truffaut); Maîtresse ( The Mistress ) (Schroeder)
Die Marquise von O . . . ( The Marquise of O . . . ) (Rohmer); Des journées entières dans les arbres ( Days in the Trees ) (Duras); Cambio de sexo (Aranda)
L'Homme qui aimait les femmes ( The Man Who Loved Women ) (Truffaut); La Vie devant soi ( La Vie continue ) (Mizrahi); Beaubourg (Rossellini—doc); Koko (Schroeder—doc); Goin' South (Nicholson)
La Chambre verte ( The Green Room ) (Truffaut); Days of Heaven (Malick); Perceval le Gaullois (Rohmer)
L'Amour en fuite ( Love on the Run ) (Truffaut); Kramer vs. Kramer (Benton); The Blue Lagoon (Kleiser)
Le Dernier Métro ( The Last Metro ) (Truffaut)
Still of the Night (Benton); Sophie's Choice (Pakula); Pauline à la plage ( Pauline at the Beach ) (Rohmer); Vivement dimanche! ( Confidentially Yours ; Finally, Sunday! ) (Truffaut)
Places in the Heart (Benton)
"Life Lessons" ep. of New York Stories (Allen, Coppola and Scorsese)
Billy Bathgate (Benton)
58–59 (+ d, sc)
El acqua (Gomez—doc); El tomate (Canel—doc); Construcciones rurales (Arenal—doc); Coopertivas agropecurias (Gutiérrez Alea—doc) (co)
Gente en la playa (+ d, sc)
"Place de l'Etoile" and "Saint-German-des-Pres" eps. of Paris vu Par . . . ( Paris Seen By . . . ) (Rohmer and Douchet); Le Père Noel a les yeux bleus (Eustache)
Les Bluets dans la tête (Brach)
Escuela rural (+ d—short):
Mauvaise conduite ( Improper Conduct ) (+ co-d—feature doc)
Nadie escuchaba ( Nobody Listened ) (+ co-pr, co-sc, co-d)
Un Homme à la caméra , Paris, 1980; as A Man with a Camera , New York, 1984.
"Neorealist Cinematography," in Film Culture (New York), no. 20, 1959.
Film Dope (London), no. 1, December 1972.
Cinéma (Paris), January 1973.
Dirigido por . . . (Barcelona), April 1974.
Filmkritik (Munich), January 1976.
Cinématographe (Paris), Summer 1976.
Film Reader (Evanston, Illinois), no. 2, 1977.
"Buñuel, cinéaste hispanique," in Cinématographe (Paris), September 1977.
Revue du Cinéma (Paris), July-August 1978.
Film Comment (New York), September-October 1978.
On Rohmer in Cinématographe (Paris), February 1979.
On Days of Heaven in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), June 1979.
"Témoignage: mon expérience américaine," in Cinématographe (Paris), June 1979.
Ecran (Paris), 15 December 1979.
On Kramer vs. Kramer in Millimeter (New York), March 1980.
On Kramer vs. Kramer in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), May 1980.
Monthly Film Bulletin (London), May 1980.
Film Français (Paris), 3 October 1980.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), September 1981.
Cinema e Cinema (Bologna), April-July 1982.
Mediafilm (Brussels), Winter 1982.
Millimeter (New York), February 1983.
Film Français (Paris), 18 March 1983.
Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), April 1983.
On Sophie's Choice in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), April 1983.
"Bronte-Buñuel," in Cinématographe (Paris), September-October 1983.
In Masters of Light: Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers , by Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salvato, Berkeley, California, 1984.
Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1984.
Cinématographe (Paris), March 1984.
"Sunrise," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), April 1984.
On Improper Conduct in American Film (Washington, D.C.), September 1984.
Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), vol. 7, no. 1–2, 1985.
Cinématographe (Paris), July 1985.
"Almendros and Documentary," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1985–86.
Films and Filming (London), June 1986 + filmo.
Film Comment (New York), vol. 23, no. 4, July-August 1987.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), September 1987.
Kino (Warsaw), vol. 21, no. 11, November 1987.
Films and Filming (London), January 1988.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), March 1989.
Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), April and May 1989.
Canby, Vincent, on Claire's Knee in New York Times , 28 February 1971.
Predal, R., in Cinéma (Paris), January 1973.
Film Français (Paris), 28 January 1977.
Avant-Scène (Paris), 1 November 1978.
Cinema 2002 (Madrid), December 1978.
Film Français (Paris), 2 February 1979.
Trusell, H., on Goin' South in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), March 1979.
Fieschi, J., in Cinématographe (Paris), no. 56, 1980.
Le Technicien du Film (Paris), 15 December 1979–15 January 1980.
Thevenet, Homero Alsina, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), May 1980
Williams, A. L., in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), July 1980.
Cinéma Français (Paris), January 1981.
Sarris, Andrew, "The Cinematographer as Superstar," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), April 1981.
Carlesimo, C., "Painting with Light," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), April 1981.
Guttierez, Tomas, "Cuba Si, Almendros No!", in Village Voice (New York), 2 October 1984.
White, A., in Films in Review (New York), December 1984.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), October 1988.
Filmcritica (Montepulciano), vol. 15, no. 391–392, January-February 1989.
* * *
Of the many splendid images Nestor Almendros recorded, two fleeting ones in Kramer vs. Kramer are remarkable for their pure visual power. The morning after Joanna has left Ted, he calls home from his office hoping she will answer, and the film cuts to two shots, one of their living room, one of the bedroom. Although we have seen the apartment earlier in the film, it is eerie how sad the rooms look without people: the colors are muted, the light is dim, the furnishings—the chairs, the lamp, the coffee table, the plant in the corner, the unanswered telephone on the bed—seem cold and oppressive in the semidarkness. The brief shots make the apartment's emptiness a metaphor for Ted Kramer's suddenly vacant life. Their poignant simplicity is not only a sterling example of Almendros's unaffected technical mastery, but an illustration of a common Almendros technique: producing telling images that capture a film's mood, crystalize its theme, and solidify its emotional content. One thinks of the rolling fields of wheat and the lone, erect farmhouse in Days of Heaven , Catherine Deneuve's luminously sculptured face in Le Dernier Métro , the dappled forest in L'Enfant sauvage , the spellbinding closeups of Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice , the crazed figure of Adèle H. wandering the sun-drenched streets of Barbados.
In his book of professional reminiscences, A Man with a Camera , Almendros demystifies much of the cinematographic process. For him, the images a director of photography records have less to do with technical trickery or special equipment than with sensibility. "The main qualities a director of photography needs," Almendros writes, "are plastic sensitivity and a solid cultural background. So-called cinematographic technique is only of secondary importance." Further, Almendros recognizes his responsibility of maintaining a cinematic tradition. The long-term function of the cinematographer, he believes, is to serve "as depository or transmitter of progress or discoveries in what has been called 'cinematographic language."' Accordingly, the sum of Almendros's film work is more than a list of credits for films he has lighted, composed, and photographed; it is, as François Truffaut says in the preface of Almendros's book, a lustrous chronicle of an artistic vocation.
Cinematically, Almendros used standard photographic conventions expertly. Menacing or disturbed characters in his films often move through chiaroscuro spaces (thus the night is identified with the schizophrenic Nathan in Sophie's Choice , and the love-obsessed Adèle in Histoire d'Adèle H . cloaks herself in shadows and half-lights). Film noir lighting is employed to heighten suspense in thrillers such as the moody Still of the Night , the more light-hearted Vivement dimanche! , and the romantic Le Dernier Métro . And foreboding occurrences are sometimes underscored by darkness (the coming of the storm in Places in the Heart , Sophie's horrifying nighttime monologues recounting her tortured past in the Nazi concentration camps).
But beyond the inspired use of photographic language, an equally striking aspect of Almendros's work is his inversion of cinematographic clichés. More often than not Almendros contrasted a scene's mood with his visual rendering of it. Again and again in his films, the more emotionally complex a scene, the more brightly, naturally, and evenly it is lit. There is, for instance, the tangled bedroom farce that plays itself out amidst the sunny serenity in Pauline à la plage . Or the simple blacks and whites of Maud's apartment (the set was purposely painted in only those two colors) in Ma nuit chez Maud , which contrast sharply with the wide range of gray ambiguities—moral, sexual, and psychological—facing the protagonist during his snow-bound night with Maud. A more emotionally charged instance is Joanna Kramer's disturbing departure from her husband in the full, flat glare of their well-lit apartment.
Almendros's use of this technique is subversive: undermining his pictorial perfection, he creates an unpredictable world. As a viewer you appreciate the visual grace of the images, but become wary of lingering too long over a striking composition lest it explode in your face. In the cinematography of Almendros, tranquility is tenuous and likely to be violently shattered, like the sudden gunshot in broad daylight which kills the husband in Places in the Heart , the shooting of Richard Gere in Days of Heaven that breaks the river's mirror-like surface, or the last repose of Nathan and Sophie, locked in a deadly embrace as midday's golden light pours through the bedroom windows.
Almendros undercut his formal elegance because he realized that sorrow, pain, and sometimes evil lurk just beneath the surface of the finest, most evenly illuminated compositions. There is more to Almendros than pretty pictures. His camera eye sees down to the core of things, sees life's duplicitous nature, the coexistence of beauty and treachery, the terror that can underly the wondrous. In Kramer vs. Kramer the uniform lighting of the courtroom sequence creates a measured calmness counterpoised by the increasingly painful proceedings. What gives Almendros's visuals their charge is this kind of collision of surface with substance.
Most of Almendros's earliest credits as cinematographer were on the films of French New Wave directors, especially Truffaut and Rohmer. Beginning with Days of Heaven in 1978, he began working on American as well as European films, most often with Robert Benton; Almendros was the cinematographer of Kramer vs. Kramer, Still of the Night, Places in the Heart, Nadine , and Billy Bathgate. He also was the cinematographer of Truffaut's final features. Almendros himself directed or co-directed only a few films, the most notable of which were very personal expressions of his political/humanist beliefs and abhorrence of oppression in Castro's Cuba: Mauvaise conduite ( Improper Conduct ), which offers evidence of persecution against artistic and political dissenters and, especially, male homosexuals (which Vincent Canby called "something very rare in films—an intelligent attack on Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution" and "the first legitimately provocative anti-Castro film I've seen"); and the revealingly titled Nadie escuchaba ( Nobody Listened ), which further chronicles tyranny and human rights violations in Cuba.
But Almendros, who succumbed to cancer in 1992 at the all-too-young age of 61, will be best remembered as a cinematographer. In the preface to A Man with a Camera , Truffaut wrote that Almendros "loves the cinema religiously; he obliges us to share his faith, and proves that we can speak of light with words." Turning Truffaut's words around yields another truth: Almendros could speak with words of light.
—Charles Ramírez Berg, updated by Rob Edelman