Conrad Hall

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  • Topic: John Huston, Film, Cool Hand Luke
  • Pages : 11 (4515 words )
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  • Published : December 8, 2012
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    Cinematic brilliance can be defined in many ways. Some filmmakers, like Hitchcock or Kubrick, are obsessive planners who create meticulous blueprints in their minds. Others prefer more organic methods -- cutting loose with the camera in an attempt to catch lightning in a bottle, whether it be an actor's spontaneous gesture, a sudden reflection of the light, or the inexplicable poetry of a single moment in time.     Throughout his brilliant career behind the camera, Conrad Hall, ASC, had a keen eye for what he called "the happy accident, the magic moment." Like a dowser seeking water, Hall used his camera as a divining rod, following his instincts toward an existential font of imagery. His willingness to take risks resulted in a rich cornucopia of cinematic triumphs, an aesthetic legacy that earned him the unflagging admiration of both his peers and film lovers the world over.     Hall's greatest images are both timeless and sublime: a cascade of reflected raindrops that mimic tears on a killer's dispassionate countenance (In Cold Blood); the mirror image of a chain gang, trapped in the sunglasses of an impassive prison guard (Cool Hand Luke); a faceless, horsebound posse in relentless pursuit of two mythical outlaws (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid); a solitary, backlit figure entering the cavernlike tavern that symbolizes his spiritual defeat (Fat City); the Bosch-like decimation of Hollywood Boulevard (The Day of the Locust).     The list is endless, indicative of a mastery that seemed to grow stronger with each picture. After completing the beautifully crafted Searching for Bobby Fischer, a film that embodies both the wonders and terrors of childhood, Hall mused, "I'm looking for the accident, the joyous happenstance that comes with filmmaking, rather than going through some tortured manufacturing of the image."     That philosophy guided Hall throughout his earliest days behind the camera. During his college years at the University of Southern California, he discovered an affinity for visual expression, but only after switching his major from journalism to cinema. "I found that learning how to tell a story with words was really not my cup of tea," he said. "I really didn't think about being a storyteller, but I noticed that the school had a cinema course, and that was very interesting to me for all the wrong reasons. You could go to school and study about movies, which was nonacademic and an easy way of getting through life. But the problem was, once I shot film and told a little story and saw it on a screen, I was deeply affected. I knew that this was something more than just movie stars, free trips and fame. There was a great power to be used in telling stories through pictures. The fact that the potential audience was so extensive was a very heady and profound concept for a young, idealistic person. I immediately took it to heart."     His resolve was deepened by one of his instructors, Slavko Vorkapich, a Yugoslavian writer who had immigrated to Hollywood in 1922. Vorkapich, a master of visual montages, eschewed traditional modes of narrative storytelling in favor of pure visual expression, and he encouraged his students to tell their stories with pictures alone. Hall took his lessons to heart, and his career is a testament to the power of the Vorkapich philosophy. "In 1948 and '49, we were allowed 100 feet of 16mm film per semester," Hall remembered. "The rest of the time, our thoughts and ideas were realized on paper with stick figures and little frames -- storyboards that we drew. We did a lot of theorizing, and Vorkapich got us to think visually, to tell a story solely with pictures. I work on that basis still. I take and extrapolate a scene visually so that if the soundtrack were to stop, there would still be a sense of what the story is about."     Summing up Vorkapich's impact upon his nascent artistry, Hall offered, "He had the spirit and soul of an artist. He taught us that filmmaking is a new visual...
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