Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus,” going into limited release this week, is the second movie in a month (following “Flags of Our Fathers”) to deal with the power of the art of photography. It might seem ironic for movies (being a medium composed of moving images) to deal with the static form of still photography, but as these ten movies about photography and photographers show, there’s something inherently exciting, romantic and even sometimes deadly about the art of capturing life with a camera.
Friday Foster (1975)
Blaxploitation queen Pam Grier plays the title character, an ex-model turned photographer who’s sent to LAX to shoot the arrival of Blake Tarr, the highly-reclusive wealthiest black man in America. As Friday’s camera snaps, she captures an assassination attempt on Tarr, and soon finds herself investigating a conspiracy to murder all of the country’s most prominent African Americans. The film (based on the first comic strip to star a black woman) features over-the-top performances by Eartha Kitt, Jim Backus, Scatman Crothers and Ted (“Love Boat”) Lange as a scarlet-Caddy drivin’ pimp, Fancy Dexter!
In this Australian film, Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith from “The Matrix”) plays Martin, a blind photographer (!) with severe trust issues who constantly takes Polaroid pictures as evidence of what he believes (or is led to believe) are his surroundings. Martin finds himself in the middle of a power struggle between his smitten, controlling housekeeper and his new best friend Andy (Russell Crowe). The movie (directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse) is a powerful look at how the lies that we ALL tell can sometimes actually be benevolent and can sometimes leave lifelong scars.
Funny Face (1957)
In this Gershwin-fueled fantasy, Fred Astaire stars as Dick Avery, a high fashion photographer who discovers his muse in shy bookshop clerk Jo (Audrey Hepburn). Dick instantly recruits Jo as the model star of a shoot in Paris and the two fall in love (despite an age difference of 30 years). Loosely based on the relationship between model Suzy Parker and legendary fashion photographer Richard Avedon, the movie incorporates actual photos taken on set and off by Avedon.
The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)
The antithesis of the “Funny Face” fairy tale, “Eyes” is a fashion nightmare. Faye Dunaway plays the title role, a Manhattan fashion photographer known for controversial shoots that place women as the victims of violent crime (work by legendary photographer Helmut Newton is used for Laura’s photos in some places). Laura begins having visions of colleagues being murdered, as seen from the killer’s perspective. When the visions prove to be true, she has to convince the police that she’s not nuts, especially since the next murder she sees is her own. While widely panned, the movie is a nice snapshot (sorry) of the seedier New York of the ‘70s.
In this early Oliver Stone film, James Woods plays Rick Boyle, a photojournalist who made a name for himself in Vietnam, but as the ‘80s dawn he has fallen on hard times. He’s drunk, he’s broke and his wife has just left him. Thinking that the conflict in Central America is his ticket back to the big time, Boyle and his drinkin’ buddy, a DJ named Dr. Rock (James Belushi) head to El Salvador. But Boyle soon realizes that, as awful and complicated as the war in Vietnam was, it didn’t prepare him for seemingly random brutality on both sides of the Salvadorean conflict. Less polemic and more character-driven than Stone’s later films, “Salvador” shows how a camera can be as powerful as any weapon in war.
Under Fire (1983)
Making a perfect Central American Unrest double feature with “Salvador,” “Under Fire” tells the true story of Russel Price (Nick Nolte), a photojournalist covering the Nicaraguan civil war against President Somoza in 1979. Price’s journalistic neutrality is put to the test when guerilla rebels ask him to take a photo of their leader to refute the military government’s claim that he’s been killed. Contrasting Price’s chosen profession with both a radio and TV reporter covering the conflict, the film gives credence to the idea of a picture being worth a thousand words… and maybe even lives.
Fans of John Waters’ legendary ‘70s movies like “Pink Flamingos” and “Polyester” remain torn over the Baltimore director’s later output: Is it lame, tame sellout material or the maturation of an artist who knows he could never recapture the shocking immediacy of his early work? “Pecker” (Edward Furlong) is a budding photographer whose primary subject is the sometimes freaky denizens of (where else) Baltimore MD. When his work is discovered by a New York gallery owner (Lili Taylor), a show in the Big Apple turns the young Pecker into an overnight sensation. The movie is not a scathing indictment of high art, as you might assume, but rather a look at the pitfalls of sudden fame (for both the artist and his subjects).
The Public Eye (1992)
Loosely based on the work (if not the life) of photojournalist Arthur Fellig, better known as Weegee, “The Public Eye” is a neo-noir set in New York in the 1940s. Joe Pesci plays Leon Bernstein, a freelance tabloid photographer with a police radio under the dash of his car and a functioning photo lab in his trunk. “Bernzy” is legendary for often arriving at crime scenes before even the police, but he’s alone in considering his work “art.” The movie (directed by Howard Franklin) is a stylish, understated glimpse of a bygone era of hard boiled journalism decades away from competition from cell phone cameras.
David Hemmings plays a bored, narcissistic fashion photographer (unnamed in the film) who thinks that a photo he took of two lovers in a London park reveals something sinister: evidence of a murder. The photographer blows up the image repeatedly, but with each successive enlargement, the image becomes more grainy and distorted (if only he’d had a digital camera). Questions of perception and reality are raised, but not answered, driving some viewers crazy. Still, love it or hate it (opinions rarely sit in the middle), Michelangelo Antonioni’s stylish art flick is one of the most iconic British films of the ‘60s.
Rear Window (1954)
Regarded by many as Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest film, “Rear Window” is more about voyeurism than art appreciation or photojournalism, but the movie revolves around a camera. Jet-setting photographer L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), nursing a broken leg in his West Village Manhattan apartment, passes the time by watching the goings-on of his back-courtyard neighbors, using the telephoto lens of his camera as a telescope. His invasions of privacy are initially decried by both his nurse and his not-girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), that is until the wife of the burly salesman across the way mysteriously disappears. Jeff’s camera comes into play again at the climax, serving as a most unlikely defensive weapon. Even though we never see Jeff take an actual picture in the movie, he may be the most iconic photographer in film history.
But there’s still so many untold tales of the still photographer waiting to be immortalized in cinema. May we suggest Will Ferrell starring in a film about the trials and tribulations of a school portrait photographer? We expect Producer credit.
ORIGINALLY POSTED in REWIND on MTV.COM, November 2006