Cinematographer and Director.
Herefordshire, England, 1940.
Married the sound technician Judy Freeman.
1958–60—apprentice to director Alan Forbes;
1961—camera assistant to Brian Probyn; 1963—cameraman on
World in Action
Academy Award, for
The Killing Fields
, 1984, and
Leading Artists, 455 N. Bedford Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210, U.S.A.
No Place to Hide (Forbes and Knight) (camera assistant)
The Saturday Men (Fletcher) (camera assistant)
Poor Cow (Loach)
If . . . (L. Anderson)
The War Game (Zetterling) (co)
The Opium Trail (Cowell—for TV)
In Search of Opportunity (Hassan)
Beyond the Tropopause (Hassan); Abel Gance, the Charm of Dynamite (Brownlow—for TV)
Wild and Free—Twice Daily (+ d—for TV); Solo (Misha Donat); Kes (Loach)
Loving Memory (Scott); The Tribe that Hides from Man (Cowell—for TV) (co)
After a Lifetime (Loach—for TV); Talk about Work (Loach); Gumshoe (Frears); Black Beauty (Hill)
The Opium Warlords (Cowell—for TV)
To Be Seven in Belfast (Sheppard—for TV); Chicago Streets (Cokliss—for TV)
Busker (Pearce—for TV)
Auditions (Loach—for TV); Bloody Kids (Frears—for TV); Black Jack (Loach); Before the Monsoon (Grigsby—for TV)
(Loach—for TV) (co);
The Empire Strikes
(Kershner) (2nd unit cinematographer); Babylon (Rosso)
A Sense of Freedom (Mackenzie—for TV); East 103rd Street (+ d, pr); Couples and Robbers (Peploe); Battletruck (Cokliss); Looks and Smiles (Loach)
Angel (Jordan); Made in Britain (Clarke—for TV); Walter (Frears—for TV)
Local Hero (Forsyth); Rhino (Howell—for TV); Walter and June (Frears—for TV)
The Killing Fields (Joffé); Comfort and Joy (Forsyth); Winter Flight (Battersby—for TV)
Marie (Donaldson); Which Side Are You On? (Loach—for TV)
Fatherland—Singing the Blues in Red (Loach); High Season (Peploe); The Mission (Joffé)
Shy People (Konchalovsky); High Season (Peploe)
Michael Collins (Jordan)
The Boxer (Sheridan)
A Completely Different Way of Life (for TV)
Radical Lawyer (for TV)
A Family Doctor (for TV)
Fly on the Wall (for TV)
A World Apart
The Lost Son
Stills (London), no. 6, May/June 1983.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), February 1987.
In Camera (Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire), Spring 1988.
Positif (Paris), October 1988.
Sight and Sound (London), vol. 47, no. 2, Spring 1978.
Stills (London), no. 27, May/June 1986.
Film Comment (New York), vol. 24, no. 2, March/April 1988.
Films and Filming (London), no. 407, August 1988.
Film Comment (New York), vol. 25, no. 5, September/October 1989.
Oppenheimer, J., "Revolutionary Images," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), October 1996.
* * *
In the 1980s, Chris Menges became well-known as the Oscar-winning cinematographer of The Killing Fields and The Mission , and the director of A World Apart . But like so many British cinema "names" of the decade, Menges had enjoyed a long and distinguished career in television in the 1960s and 1970s. He built up a considerable and consistent body of work with two key directors in particular: Kenneth Loach and Stephen Frears. He also shot numerous editions of the trailblazing Granada documentary series World in Action , in which he found himself working under perilous conditions in some of the world's worst trouble spots. And he was the cameraman on such major contributions to the documentary genre as Mike Grigsby's Before the Monsoon and three remarkable films by Adrian Cowell: The Opium Trail , The Opium Warlords , and The Tribe that Hides from Man . In the cinema, Menges started as a camera operator on Lindsay Anderson's If . . . and Loach's Poor Cow . Since then he has made features with both Frears and Loach, and worked on such notable British films as Radio On , Babylon , Angel , and Local Hero .
Clearly, variety is one of Menges's hallmarks. As Michael Goldfarb wrote in The Guardian , "He has a sensitive eye for capturing a setting, whether it is the lingering, silver-blue light of a summer evening in Scotland's Western Isles, as in Local Hero , the tropical pastel salmons and greens of The Killing Fields and The Mission , or the sooty, fog-encrusted light of our own latitude in Fatherland ."
This stylistic variety is a crucial ingredient of Menges's working philosophy. As he put it in a revealing interview with John Wyver in Stills , "My personality is not ever to fight for a style. My feeling about all work is, it's not about style, but about what it's trying to say, what it's worth. The actual style should be an integrated part of the whole. . . . What are you interested in? What do you care about? That's the only message." In the same interview, he traced a continuity in the work of those with whom he had most enjoyed collaborating: "The idea that life is a real joy, but that the world we live in is a real struggle; that over the centuries man has learnt to be very unjust, and that it's just not good enough any more. So I've worked with people who tried to encompass a feeling and understanding about what life could and should be about."
One of Menges's earliest experiences was working with the American independent filmmaker Alan Forbes on a film about London's buskers. From Forbes, and from seeing the hugely influential work of Dennis Mitchell, Menges came to realize the importance of simply letting people speak on film. Indeed, what counts above all else for him is people and what they have to say. But equally importantly, he also took the advice of Canadian documentarist Alan King, who told him that "it doesn't matter if the person you're filming is not talking. Sometimes the person listening is more interesting than the person talking."
Ken Loach, with whom Menges first worked as a feature cameraman, is still the director whom he most admires. It is hardly difficult to see why this should have been such a successful and fruitful partnership, since both men care passionately about their subjects, and both share similarly democratic attitudes to the people they film, be they actors or the subjects of a documentary. Menges played a crucial role in achieving the remarkable feeling of spontaneity in Loach's films. As Loach himself declared to Stephen Peet, in an article in Eyepiece , "His feeling for light is related to his feeling for people. Because he has a warm appreciation of people he then finds a light that is sympathetic to them and doesn't intrude on them." In one of his earliest interviews, Menges described his way of working in a fashion which recalls Loach: "I like it when the circumstances dictate what I as a cameraman focus on. I go into a room and sit there and think about it and listen and talk and feel it all. When obviously the moment's come, I pick up the camera and let everybody there dictate, to some extent, how it's going to be done. They get on with their own business."
While working on The Killing Fields with director Roland Joffé, Menges hoped to capture the very feeling of authentic war conditions, "the instinct of how the actual physical locations felt," and decided to go for a "cruddy, grainy, ill-mannered and vital" look. Joffé chose him for the job mainly on the strength of his work on The Opium Warlords . After seeing The Killing Fields , it comes as absolutely no surprise to discover that the photographer Cartier-Bresson has been an enormous influence on Menges, for the work of both men is characterized by those all-revealing "decisive moments" seized from the flux of action, moments which are also found in the early films of Raoul Coutard, another cinematographer much admired by Menges.
The Killing Fields is a film that effectively counterpoints expansive and often extremely beautiful landscapes with the claustrophobic inner dramas taking place within them. If anything, The Mission (for which Menges also worked as Joffé's cinematographer) is packed with even more contrasts, from intimate close-ups to vast vistas, interior and exterior sets, and locations and battles on both land and water, making it a considerable challenge for director and cinematographer alike. The feel is far less documentary than in The Killing Fields , and Menges himself has described it as "operatic," a means of telling the story that "encompassed its grandness and also its simplicity." Menges and Joffé looked at Spanish paintings from the eighteenth century, the time in which the film is set, to glean a feeling of what it was like to live during this period, and in particular to see what kind of light was shed by the oil-wick lamps of the time. They also devised a scheme in which certain scenes were coded in particular colors according to the emotional feel of the scene and its place in the overall narrative. But however complex the filming, Menges and Joffé still manage to give the actors the freedom and space they need. Witness the fight scene between Robert De Niro and Aidan Quinn, where the camera never intrudes or causes complications, thus never detracting from the power of the scene itself.
Given the combination of Menges's empathy and tremendous concern for subject matter, it comes as no surprise that he should have chosen such a weighty subject as South Africa for his first feature film as director, A World Apart . It is a humanistic, deeply personal, and politically savvy drama about Molly Roth (Jodhi May), a girlish 13 year old whose parents are virulent antiapartheid activists. Her father, Gus, is wanted by the authorities and has gone into hiding. Her mother, Diana (Barbara Hershey), is so passionately committed to the cause that she disregards her family and neglects to directly communicate with Molly. In this regard, A World Apart is as much an intimate family drama as it is a portrait of the apartheid regime. As Menges has said about the excellent performances in the film, "The directing was knowing when to shut up and keeping the technical side to a minimum."
Of course, the film's feeling for its characters' plight under apartheid is a crucial aspect of its politics. Significantly, A World Apart is set in 1963, the year in which Menges first worked on World in Action . At that time, he even visited South Africa to cover the events surrounding the arrest of the leaders of the African National Congress and the imposition of the infamous 90-day detention act—-which, within the scenario of A World Apart , is employed to incarcerate Diana Roth.
Menges's follow-up feature, CrissCross , was less successful dramatically, but involves a similar theme to that in A World Apart : the manner in which a child is affected by a parent whose priorities are dictated by events outside the family circle. Here, he tells the story of an alienated 12-year-old boy whose Vietnam veteran father had abandoned the family years before. Ironically, in Second Best , his next feature, Menges tells the story of an adult eager to embrace the responsibilities of parenthood: a reserved, unmarried fortysomething Welsh postmaster who becomes determined to adopt an intensely troubled ten-year-old boy.
In 1985, Menges gave an interview, published in American Cinematographer , in which he summarized his personal, political and creative philosophies: "You do things that make you grow and make you learn, and I've always been interested in things that teach me something. That's where the politics comes in—[it's all about] learning and caring."
—Julian Petley, updated by Rob Edelman