Friday, February 03, 2006

Domo Arigato, Sensei

Last night I had a dream about Mark Irwin, one of North America's finer cinematographers, whom I got to know in the days when he worked frequently with David Cronenberg in Toronto. The dream was probably precipitated by me mentioning to Donna, the night before I had the dream, that I should add a word of thanks to Mark in the Bava book acknowledgements; the reason being that Mark had taught me more about cinematography, as a job and as a craft, than anyone I've ever known.

That's Mark up there, in a photo by Douglas Kirkland. As Paul McCartney would say, it's just like him.

When I visited the set of THE FLY in 1986, it was in part because I had been assigned to cover Mark's camera unit for AMERICAN CINEMATOGRAPHER. (The infamous issue that featured two FLY-related articles but made the not-too-bright decision to feature HOWARD THE DUCK on the cover.) When I got up to Ontario, I confessed to Mark -- whom I'd already seen at work on VIDEODROME and THE DEAD ZONE and knew to be a very nice guy -- that I really didn't know all that much about cinematography. With the responsibility of photographing a major motion picture already resting on his shoulders, Mark could have easily said "Well, it's not my job to teach you"... but that's not what he did. Instead, on his day off, he drove me to an office building and screened for me, on Beta cassette, two films he had recently photographed -- THE PROTECTOR (1985) and YOUNGBLOOD (1986). As the movies ran, he gave me a live, running commentary about both films, from a purely cinematographic point-of-view.

Watching a movie like YOUNGBLOOD, which is about ice hockey, my natural tendency at that time would be to get so involved in the action that I wouldn't give any thought to the picture's technical challenges -- which, of course, is the desired response on the part of all the filmmakers -- so listening to Mark was like being handed an extra set of senses. It was a great little four-hour education, and to say that it has been useful to me would be an understatement. More DVDs should offer cinematographer audio commentaries -- Mark shares a track with David Cronenberg on Criterion's VIDEODROME, a release to which I contributed as well.

I haven't been in Mark's happy company since he took me to lunch during one of my return visits to Toronto, when I went up to visit friends and pass around copies of the CINEFEX issue featuring my FLY coverage. (My god, has it actually been twenty years?) Some time later, around the time VIDEO WATCHDOG was getting started, I contacted Mark with a question about screen ratios and he sent me an illustrated chart of different screen ratios -- again, of great help to me in my work. I'm reminded of that jolly line from HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD: "I didn't use to know what an f-stop was, and now I am one."

Anyway, last night -- after a brief interruption of twenty years -- I dreamed that Mark Irwin and I were in the same building once again; we kept trying to sit down and talk but were consistently interrupted. That's as much as I can remember about it, except our mutual amusement at the interruptions, which escalated to Buñuelian proportions.

One of the first things I did today after waking was to get online and Google Mark, to bring myself up-to-date on his recent activities. I found a very good interview with Mark that told me things I either didn't know or had forgotten about him. Then... I noticed that the site also had a Tonino Delli Colli interview on file, in which he talked (among other things) about filming the first Italian color film, Totò in colori ("Totò in Color"). I've often wondered why Mario Bava wasn't invited to shoot the film; he was better established than Delli Colli at the time, and I imagined he would have jumped at such an opportunity. Delli Colli's Kodak interview explained why -- he didn't want the job either! And he wasn't the first to be offered the job. This interview turned out to be very useful, offering a few paragraphs of background about the difficulties involved in Italy's transition to color features... so whaddya know?! In the most mysterious of ways, in a way that perhaps only Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Dale Cooper would be quick to appreciate, Mark turned out to be helpful to my Bava book mission once again!

So, wherever you are, Mark -- domo arigato, sensei. I hope our paths will someday cross again. After all, what's twenty years?

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