Thursday, September 21, 2006


Cinematographer Sven Nykvist has died at the age of 83.

As Ingmar Bergman's regular collaborator, Nykvist is one of the most important figures in film history. He shot The Silence and Through A Glass Darkly and Persona and Cries And Whispers and Fanny And Alexander--and these are are among the greatest works ever commited to film.

Bergman wrote the scripts and directed the actors, but the astonishing visual sense was largely Nykvist's. His philosophy was simple--he liked to use light as simply and naturally as possible, to make sure the actor's faces were visible so they could do their thing.

Ah, but he could do much more if asked. One of Bergman's most underrated films, Hour Of The Wolf, the story of an artist's descent into madness, is essentially a horror movie, and Nykvist pulls out all the stops, overexposing one key scene, creating expressionistic pools of darkness, bathing the whole film in a palpable sense of dread.

Much of the work Nykvist and Bergman did together was in black and white, but when they made the switch to color, the results were astonishing. Maybe the best thing they did together was Fanny And Alexander, the lighting and color so warm and inviting you want to move into the movie and live your whole life there. (As a portrait of a family in turmoil and harmony, Fanny And Alexander has always reminded me of Vincente Minnelli's Meet Me In St Louis, and I've often wondered if Nykvist was influenced by its rich but subtle color schemes.)

Nykvist worked in America as well, largely with maverick directors like Bob Rafelson (he provided a deep noir look for The Postman Always Rings Twice) and Bob Fosse (stylized sleaze for the superb Star 80). And he could even do glossy Hollywood crap, too, as his collaborations with Nora Ephron proved.

In the age of digital video, movies look both better and worse than ever. It's easier to capture the nuances of natural light, and let's face it, even the most craptastic shows on TV look better than a lot of movies from twenty years ago. Most movies today have a distinctive look.

But real artistry, that's harder to come by. Sven Nykvist could find a thousand shades of gray in a single human face, and knew that face told a story in itself. The art of film is immeasurably poorer for his loss.