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Directors in Focus
Henri Alekan: Master of Light and Shadow

This past summer at his home in Paris, the legendary cinematography Henri Alekan died at age 92, leaving behind one of the most distinctive bodies of work in the history of the medium. In a career that spanned some sixty-five years, Alekan photographed nearly a hundred feature films and more than fifty documentaries and dramas for television. He began work during the silent era as an assistant cameraman and operator in the French studio system and became a protégé of the innovative German cinematographer Eugene Shuftan. During the German occupation, his work shifted to shooting anti-Nazi films as part of the Resistance in the south of France, a service that earned him the Legion of Honor. The broad range of his creative work emerged in the immediate postwar years when Alekan worked on such diverse productions as Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast in France, an adaptation ofAnna Karenina in England, and William Wyler’s Roman Holiday in Hollywood. Alekan would continue an active career into his eighties and earned his greatest recognition for his work on Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire, when he was seventy-eight years old. Several lifetime achievement awards followed as the great master of light and shadow ended a singular career behind the camera.


October 13 (Saturday) 7 pm
October 17 (Wednesday) 9:30 pm

Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la bête)

Directed by Jean Cocteau
France 1946, 35mm, b/w, 95 min.
With Jean Marais, Josette Day, Mila Parély
French with English subtitles

French poet and Surrealist Jean Cocteau teamed up with Henri Alekan to achieve his vision of a cinema of “poetry with precision.” Setting out to reimagine the familiar fairy tale of the beautiful country girl who, for the sake of her impoverished father, goes to live as a captive in the palace of a terrifying beast, Cocteau and Alekan replace the soft-focused photography conventionally associated with the genre with striking black-and-white images, creative set and makeup design, and uncanny special effects that concretize the unreal. Often compared to Vermeer’s paintings of daily life that partake of an otherworldy, magic existence, Beauty and the Beast harnesses the shimmering light of its cloudy setting in Tourraine and the expressive details of costume and decor in the service of symbolism.

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October 13 (Saturday) 8:45 pm
October 14 (Sunday) 7:00 pm

The Perfect Kiss

Directed by Jonathan Demme
US 1985, 35mm, color, 9 min.

This music video for New Order, filmed by Alekan and directed by Jonathan Demme, is a masterpiece of understated elegance and precision that perfectly matches the group's real-time performance of the titled song.

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screens with The Perfect Kiss (see above)

Wings of Desire (Der Himmel uber Berlin)

Directed by Wim Wenders 
West Germany/France 1987, 35mm, b/w & color, 128 min. 
With Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Peter Falk 
German with English subtitles 

Inspired by a poem from Rilke and cowritten by acclaimed Austrian playwright Peter Handke, Wings of Desire follows a pair of angels who descend to earth to eavesdrop on the lonely, melancholy populace in the streets and buildings of pre-unification Berlin. Aided by Alekan’s haunting, mostly monochromatic images, Wenders creates a spiritual documentary of the city and a haunting portrait of what it means to be human. Alekan earned Best Cinematography awards for his work here from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the National Society of Film Critics, and the New York Film Critics’ Circle.


October 19 (Friday) 9 pm
October 24 (Wednesday) 8:45 pm

Topkapi

Directed by Jules Dassin
US 1964, 35mm, color, 119 min.
With Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell, Peter Ustinov

or Topkapi, Jules Dassin took a minor novel by Eric Ambler (The Light of Day) and turned it into a delightful and suspenseful comedy spoof of his own Rififi. A band of thieves, assembled by a deliciously intent Mercouri, attempts to steal a fabulous emerald-encrusted dagger from the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. The utimate theft is depicted in a long sequence reminiscent of his earlier heist scene—but this time with considerably more levity. Dassin assembled a flawless cast of charming rogues and charlatans, including Peter Ustinov in an especially humorous performance that earned him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

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October 27 (Saturday) 7 pm
October 29 (Monday) 9 pm

Golem, the Spirit of Exile (Golem, l'esprit de l'exil)

Directed by Amos Gitai 
France/ltaly/Germany/Netherlands/Great Britain 
1992, 35mm, color, 105 min 
With Hanna Schygulla, Vittorio Mezzogiorno, Sam Fuller 
French with English subtitles 

Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai set out to enlist Henri Alekan’s legendary cinematographic talents to recast elements from the biblical text of Ruth and its commentary on the theme of exile in present-day Paris. Drawing further on references found in the Spanish Kabbalistic story of the Golem as a spirit of exile and wanderers, Gitai cast Hannah Schygulla as the embodiment of the other-wordly spirit conjured from earth and clay and employed an array of international actors and directors—including Sam Fuller, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Philippe Garrel, in cameo appearances—as well as actors from Peter Brooks’s ensemble and dancers from Pina Bausch’s company. The superlative cinematography, at times referencing silent techniques, casts light on both the ancient and modern themes and the story’s various cinematic precursors. 

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October 27 (Saturday) 9 pm
October 28 (Sunday) 8 pm

On Top of the Whale (Het Dak van de Walvis)

Directed by Raul Ruiz
The Netherlands, 1982, 35mm, b/w, 93 min.
With Willeke van Ammelrooy, Jean Badin, Fernando Bordeu
English, Spanish, French, Dutch, and German with English subtitles

Shot in five languages (one of them imaginary), On Top of the Whale is a richly conceived satire of the ethnographic practices that the West has perpetuated on the rest of the world. Reversing the pattern of his own exile, Chilean-born filmmaker Ruiz situates his tale in South America as a European anthropological expedition heads to remote reaches of Patagonia to study a tribe of Indians that has dwindled down two surviving members who speak a strange language. With its title referencing the bestiary conjured up by Borges in his Book of Imaginary Beings, the film is filled with Alekan’s audacious visual effects, which parallel the uncanny character of this primitive culture in which “one is an even number” and language is shifting and changeable, like life.

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