Todd Haynes’ celebrated new film “Carol” begins rolling out in theaters this week, and as such inexorably towards the Oscars. The director’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price Of Salt,” regarding the love affair between young shopgirl Therese (Rooney Mara) and the wealthy, older title character (Cate Blanchett) is, per our Cannes review, probably one of the best films of the year and certainly one of the best acted. But even if you turn out to be one of the few that disagrees on those points, you’ll likely come away thinking that it’s one of the best looking movies of the year.
Credit is due (or at least should be shared with costume designer Sandy Powell and production designer Judy Becker) to cinematographer Ed Lachman, who’s captured 1950s New York in utterly gorgeous, incredibly rich Super 16 of reds and greens —his work in the film at once organic and perfectly composed. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, it should: though he’s not recognized by filmgoers in the way that, say, Roger Deakins is, Lachman’s long been one of the best working cinematographers.
The 69 year old New Yorker’s CV is certainly one of the most adventurous: with early credits on efforts by Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, he’s worked on everything from big studio movies to microbudget indies, racking up jobs not just with Haynes (this is their fourth project together), but also Paul Schrader, Sofia Coppola, Steven Soderbergh, Robert Altman and Todd Solondz. So with “Carol” in theaters, and having examined Haynes’ work in full last week, we thought it seemed like an opportune time to highlight the work of a master who deserves to be a lot better known. Take a look at the best of Ed Lachman below, and let us know your favorites of his work in the comments.
“Lightning Over Water” (1980)
Though he’s American, Lachman got much of his training with European DoPs like Sven Nykvist and Vittorio Storraro, before shooting Werner Herzog’s documentary “La Soufrière.” But he first turned heads when he teamed up with Wim Wenders (having worked as an assistant cameraman on his film “The American Friend”) for the fascinating documentary/narrative hybrid “Lightning Over Water,” a collaboration between (and portrait of) both the German director and his friend, influence and mentor Nicholas Ray. By the time the movie was made, the legendary director of “Rebel Without A Cause” had been virtually exiled from Hollywood due to his problems with drugs and alcohol, and Wenders, who’d cast him in a small role in “The American Friend” and was having a difficult time on his Hollywood debut “Hammett,” planned to team with Ray for another project. But it soon becomes clear that Ray’s health is on the wane, and the film turns out to be more a portrait of his final days and a meditation on mortality. Yet it’s not a documentary either: the film uses semi-improvisational acting, showy techniques and Brechtian highlighting of the process to make a movie that honors Ray’s experimental spirit without lionizing him. Lachman shares credit for shooting the film with Martin Schäfer, but it seems clear where his touches lie: it’s strikingly beautiful, inventively composed and expressionistically lit for a hastily put together experimental film. Jean-Luc Godard, for one, was impressed: he hired Lachman to shoot a project called “Anatomy Of A Shot,” a film essay that saw the pair filming on the set of Coppola’s “One From The Heart,” which proved to be a sort of workshop for the director’s 1982 film “Passion.”
“Desperately Seeking Susan” (1985)
On the surface, it might seem a enormous leap between the kind of experimental European movies that Lachman was working on in Europe —films with Herzog, Wenders, Godard and others— and a bright, breezy comedy vehicle for the world’s biggest pop star, Madonna. But “Desperately Seeking Susan” makes rather more sense once you dig into it a little bit. Director Susan Seidelman was an avowed devotee of François Truffaut, Godard and Agnes Varda, and brings a punkish New Wave energy to the film, which stars Rosanna Arquette as a New Jersey housewife who becomes fascinated with the titular Susan (Madonna) after seeing a series of messages to her in the personal ad section in a newspaper. It’s a raucous, featherlight picture, frantically plotted to a fault but with a immensely likable tone that brings the vibe (and much of the cast) of early 1980s American independent film to the studio world, with Madonna delivering her best-ever screen performance and an incandescent turn from Arquette. It looks glorious too, thanks to Lachman. Shot in the same year as his collaboration with Wenders on the Ozu documentary “Tokyo-Ga,” about as different a movie from this as you could imagine, he brings enormous life to his capturing of the big city, which is a reflection of his own relationship with New York. “I wanted to show the New York City I knew,” he would later say. “What was happening out on the street, and how it felt to be here. The city was enticing and foreboding all at once. There’s probably a version of that film that could have been made, just doing the Hollywood gloss on the idea of New York. But I was living in New York, so I decided to show the grit.” The result is a bright, vibrant picture, soaked with gels and neon nodding to German Expressionists like Otto Dix, but which doesn’t eschew the shadows either.
“Light Sleeper” (1992)
Perhaps the most Paul Schrader-ish film in Schrader’s career (dark underbelly of the city? Check. Bressonian neo-noir? Check. Semi-religious guilt and redemption? Check), “Light Sleeper” was the first and by some distance the most impressive of the two collaborations between the director and Lachman (though “Touch,” which followed five years later, isn’t so bad either). Willem Dafoe, perhaps the ultimate Schrader protagonist, stars as John LeTour, a mid-level drug dealer working for Ann (Susan Sarandon), whose clients mostly come from the Wall Street milieu. Lost and sleepless, his life is upturned when he meets his ex Marianne (Dana Delany), who’s still addicted and soon dies, seemingly at the hand of banker Tis (Victor Garber). The film tackles themes that Schrader’s been fascinated with throughout his career, but it reaches a sort of perfected form here: thanks in part to a titanic performance by Dafoe, there’s a huge vein of humanity and compassion coursing through the film, with few characters, bar perhaps Garber’s villainous financier type, painted as black and white. But if anyone deserves credit for the film’s evocative mood, encompassing the kind of spiritual crisis and deep, sad regret that hits you at 6am as you realize that you should have gone home hours ago, it’s Lachman. This is the film that confirmed him as one of the great New York City photographers, pulling off the trick of capturing the same kind of street life as he did in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” but in an entirely different way: swapping the brightness for muted, mellow colors and not shying away from warmth, but keeping it perpetually out of reach.
“The Limey” (1999)
To date, Lachman is the last cinematographer that Steven Soderbergh has worked with other than himself (or more accurately, his pseudonym Peter Andrews). One could perhaps take that as an insult, but given the influence that the two movies they made together have had on the director’s subsequent career, we reckon it should probably be taken as a compliment. A confluence of the experimental approach of “Schizopolis” and the styliized crime film of “Out Of Sight,” Soderbergh’s two previous pictures, “The Limey” sees Terence Stamp as a British ex-con who travels to L.A. to avenge the death of his daughter (Melissa George), seemingly at the hands of a record producer (Peter Fonda) with ties to the drug trade. It may seem to be an ordinary revenge tale on paper, but Soderbergh’s formal brilliance reaches new heights here, with a fractured, time-hopping narrative that remixes a potentially familiar story into something entirely fascinating. But as terrific and important as Sarah Flack’s editing and Cliff Martinez’s score are for the film, Lachman’s photography is just as crucial. Being shot almost entirely on handheld gives the camera here a mobility that converts to a kind of intimacy. When we see Stamp smoking in a hotel room, it’s like we’re there with him, looking him in the eye. When we’re pushing through a crowded party, it’s like we’re a guest. Yet there’s no shaky-cam to be found: Lachman’s frames are still somehow clear and precise, not least in the famous shot where Stamp runs back inside a warehouse to kill some thugs, only to come out and say “Tell him I’m fucking coming.” Lachman even finds an inventive way to film flashback sequences: throwing the shutter out of sync to cause a semi-abstracted, dreamlike distortion of the light.
“The Virgin Suicides” (1999)
Sofia Coppola’s movies have become simultaneously more opulent and also more insular as she’s now five films into an impressive career: her last two pictures, the underrated “Somewhere” and “The Bling Ring,” suggest that the director was retreating into the kind of hermetic environments that remain more or less unseen by the general public. Her astonishing debut “The Virgin Suicides” is a more recognizable, personal piece of cinema, and may very well be the director’s essential work (alongside the ineffably sad Tokyo fable “Lost in Translation”). The story of the sought-after Libson girls —a quintet of idealized blonde sisters residing in a sleepy suburb of 1970’s Michigan— and how they capture the imaginations of the boys they encounter, Coppola’s feature is also a remarkable time capsule that manages to capture the mood and texture of its period with effortless, sumptuous detail. Lachman’s creamy, old-fashioned images do a great deal to elevate this film’s persistent sense of yearning and loss: whether he’s shooting sun-flecked passages of the Libson girls wasting away their summer days to the sounds of French group Air, or staging the introduction of Josh Hartnett’s great heartthrob Tripp Fontaine like some old-school music video, he’s as instrumental to the film’s success as the director and cast. A delicate blend of angst and melancholy and one of the defining looks at the pains of young womanhood, “The Virgin Suicides” is one of Lachman’s most indispensable works and one of the very best films of the late 1990s.
“Erin Brockovich” (2000)
Many of the same techniques from “The Limey” and from other films lensed by Lachman were used again with Steven Soderbergh’s second collaboration with the cinematographer, even if the film itself is in many ways entirely different. Rather than a low-budget, stylized, experimental crime picture, “Erin Brockovich” is a comparatively expensive, naturalistic studio movie with Julia Roberts, one of the biggest stars in the world. The actress plays the title character, a single mother who ends up exposing a devious cover-up of environmental poisoning, resulting in a swell of birth defects and cancer cases, by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, aided by ambulance-chasing attorney Albert Finney. It’s a film that in some hands could have been a conventional crowd-pleaser at best (which is not to put down Susannah Grant’s spiky, smart screenplay), but while Soderbergh was an unlikely pick, Lachman doubly so to shoot it, they manage to make it both a populist hit and truly artful. The pair set out to make the film as close to a light-on-its-feet independent film as was possible for something starring the highest-paid actress in Hollywood: Soderbergh reportedly banished lighting trucks from his sight, as he was determined to shoot as fast and quick as possible (Lachman parked them away from the set, but eventually seemed to enjoy the more minimalist feel). As a result, it’s a film saturated with daylight, amber-toned and warm with California sunshine, with the filmmakers able to shoot scenes in over-exposed, backlit tones, or even in a few cases near-total darkness (one shot of a silhouetted Aaron Eckhart is remarkably unusual for a studio picture) that must have given executives aneurysms when they saw the rushes. But as is often the case with Lachman, the result is a film that contains a degree of reality that a more conventionally shot movie never could have captured.
“Far From Heaven” (2002)
For better or for worse, every cinematographer ends up associated with one filmmaker: Robert Richardson and Martin Scorsese, Roger Deakins and the Coens, Gordon Willis and Francis Ford Coppola. These days, Lachman’s probably best known for his work with Todd Haynes, though “Carol” is only their fourth project in thirteen years. But if you began a collaboration with a film as astonishing as “Far From Heaven,” you’d probably be best known for that. Haynes was drawn to work with Lachman because of the diversity of his work for his acclaimed melodrama, which sees Julianne Moore’s suburban housewife discover that her husband (Dennis Quaid) has gay tendencies just as she’s drawing closer to her African-American gardener (Dennis Haysbert). Lachman turned out to be the perfect choice for a project that tipped its hat to the films of Douglas Sirk while addressing issues that the Production Code of the classic Hollywood era ensured he’d never been able to do: as Lachman would later say in an interview, Sirk and his cinematographers “used light in an isolating, foreboding way, and color as an expressionist, psychological tool.” This played right into Lachman’s lifelong interest in German expressionism, and while the film’s undoubtedly gorgeous (particularly in its tungsten-coated autumnal moments), he’s more interested in using light to show the inner life of the characters. The nighttime shots, going from mauveish exteriors to acid-green interiors, prove particularly effective at creating a heightened reality that makes the emotion burst off the screen even when the characters can’t express them. The framing does the same: as he generally prefers, Lachman shot the film mostly with wide angles, trapping the characters in their environments. And what’s most remarkable, is that unlike a similar film like “Pleasantville,” Haynes and Lachman did it all without digital post-production tools, using only technology available in Sirk’s day.
“Ken Park” (2002)
Lachman’s second directorial credit (following his entry in the anthology series “Imagining America”) came in the form of Larry Clark’s most incendiary movie (the two share credit as both directors and cinematographers) —which, if you’ve seen “Kids” or “Bully,” is really saying something. “Ken Park” is 90 or so leering minutes of sweaty teen sex, graphic and meaningless violence and general depravity presented with not a single ounce of prudence or thematic remove. Kicking off with a gunshot-inflicted suicide in a skate park and growing only increasingly more insane from there, “Park” is another one of Clark’s voyeuristic exposés of teen hedonism, and while it lacks the raw, punk-rock immediacy of “Kids” (which was like this film written by Harmony Korine) or the gruesome air of tragedy that gives “Bully” its pulse, it’s arguably one of Clark’s most beautiful movies, even when presenting disgusting behavior. The film takes a freewheeling and nonjudgmental look at a pack of oversexed teenaged skate rats living more or less without parental supervision: they include a teen lothario who’s sleeping with his girlfriend’s mom, a pretty boy who must fend off grim sexual advances from his loathsome father and a vicious degenerate who derives satisfaction from autoerotic asphyxiation and berating his hopeless, sweet grandparents. So it’s another anything-goes wallow in unpleasant material from Clark, but Lachman’s work here grants the resulting movie a big boost. Clark’s movies are often deliberately flat and ugly, without affect or a pretense to any sort of cinematic style. But Lachman lends the same lush, dreamlike romanticism that he employed in Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides” here, even as the events we see depicted on-screen are anything but romantic.
“A Prairie Home Companion” (2006)
The official swan song for America’s foremost ensemble filmmaker Robert Altman, “A Prairie Home Companion” is far from his best work, but it’s a fitting send-off for the man who gave us “M*A*S*H*,” “Short Cuts” and “Gosford Park”: this behind-the-scenes musical comedy that takes its name from Garrison Keillor’s famous live radio program is a rambling, playful collection of indelible moments, featuring some rousing musical numbers and about a dozen or so principal players. While it lacks the acerbic bite of Altman’s best work, it’s a film that is more satisfying when placed in context and viewed as the grand culmination of a long, game-changing career spent studying the sprawling oasis of humanity that makes up America. The cast is a typically stacked Altman troupe: Virginia Madsen lends her earthy charm to the role of earthbound angel Asphodel, John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson play a couple of good ol’ boy country musicians named Dusty and Lefty, Lily Tomlin returns to the director’s fold after her grand, heartbreaking turn in his 1975 masterpiece “Nashville”… even Lindsay Lohan manages to get in on the fun! And all the while, Lachman’s sophisticated, understated camerawork captures the myth of a certain kind of American life that has mostly vanished from popular media. It’s not as striking as something like “Far From Heaven” or “ The Virgin Suicides,” but that shouldn’t do anything to diminish the renowned D.P.’s work here. Featuring original songs by Keillor and the directorial assistance of Altman’s friend and disciple Paul Thomas Anderson, “A Prairie Home Companion” is an imperfect but moving farewell from one of American cinema’s last real rebels.
“Life During Wartime” (2009)
Todd Solondz’s America is a spiritually barren, sun-bleached modern sprawl of generic suburban homes, endless strip malls, icky family restaurants and other harbingers of Western civilization’s inexorable decline: what the Dead Kennedys would refer to as a “Hellnation”. What’s so striking about Lachman’s work on Solondz’s fifth and arguably most complicated film “Life During Wartime” is how he is able to visually suggest that the film’s characters somehow manage to have everything and nothing at the same time. The homes they live are in are well-furnished but appalling in their tackiness. The American way of life that they have chosen seems fraudulent, garish and doomed from the start. Yet as always, Solondz’s signature compassion shines through the murk: it’s what prevents this thorny, disturbing comedy from becoming an outright freakshow. A sequel of sorts to “Happiness,” his unsettling and brilliant examination of suburban malaise, “Life During Wartime” re-casts the principal roles of that earlier film and adds a ferocious, socio-political bent that gives Solondz’s characteristic rancor an even more terrifying edge. Following the three maladjusted sisters from “Happiness” in their ongoing search for acceptance in an increasingly cruel and senseless world, “Life During Wartime” turns out to be a moodier, more somber film than its sort-of prequel, and ultimately an even richer cinematic experience. Cinematographer Lachman’s fluid evocation of middle-American banality is all the more effective for being so unvarnished, and his unflinching, compassionate eye is the perfect tool with which Solondz orchestrates his symphony of despair.
“Mildred Pierce” (2011)
With respect to Haynes and Lachman, it’s easy to think of “Mildred Pierce” as the middle-part of a trilogy of melodramas begun with “Far From Heaven” and ending with “Carol.” If that’s the case, their HBO miniseries epic is the sort of transitional second act, shifting from the Sirk pastiche of ‘Heaven’ to the painterly effortlessness of “Carol.” A five-hour adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel filmed memorably by Michael Curtiz in a 1945 film starring Joan Crawford, it stars Kate Winslet as the title character, a divorcee who opens a restaurant and falls for the charming and wealthy Monty (Guy Pearce), but continues to have her life soured by her spoiled, manipulative daughter Veda (Evan Rachel Wood). Critics were divided as to whether the generous running time was necessary, but you can count us firmly on team ‘yes’ —Haynes’ epic is immaculately wrought, doesn’t feel required to play up the noir overtones as the original, takes pleasure and pain in the extra breathing space, and centers on a quartet of phenomenal performances from Winslet, Pearce, Wood and Brian F. O’Byrne. And Haynes has Lachman on his side. Though this version moves away from noir and more into old-school melodrama, the cinematographer eschews both the bright expressionism of “Far From Heaven” or 1940s-style chiaroscuro black-and-white, taking its visual tones, as Lachman has said, more from real-life Depression-era photography and from 1970s neo-noir pictures like “Chinatown” or “The Day Of The Locust.” “Those films have noir elements,” he told Kodak, “but there is a relatability and frankness that comes from their naturalism, even when they are slightly expressionistic.” The result is a visual feast that won Lachman an Emmy nomination (inexplicably, it was beaten by “Downton Abbey”).
The “Paradise” Trilogy (2012-2013)
If you thought that Lachman working in Hollywood and with hip young American indie filmmakers would see him forget his early days of working in Europe, not just with Herzog and Wenders but assisting on films by the likes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlöndorff, you would be very wrong —just a few years ago, he was working with Austrian helmer Ulrich Seidl on his ambitious, impressive ‘Paradise’ trilogy. Lachman was turned on to Seidl by Herzog himself, who commented after a screening of “Ken Park” in Telluride, “Not bad, but that’s kid’s stuff compared to Ulrich Seidl.” Lachman teamed with the director for the first time on 2007’s “Import/Export,” and then returned for the three further films, again working alongside Seidl’s longtime DoP Wolfgang Thaler. “Paradise: Love” (about a middle-aged female sex tourist in Kenya), “Paradise: Faith“ (following a super-strict religious woman, the sister of the first film’s protagonist) and “Paradise: Hope” (following the ‘Love’ heroine’s daughter at a teenage fat camp) were premiered consecutively at Cannes, Venice and Berlin, a nearly-unheard of hat-trick. The films look at once look quite different from each other —the bright open African beaches of the first, bleak cityscape of the second, and the green forest of the third— but they’re united by Seidl’s view of the world, a darkly funny, no-taboo-left-alive place that stills has some place for humanity. And the work that Lachman did with Thaler on shooting the films is consistently excellent: shot on Super 16 (which he’s returned to again for the very different “Carol”), using mostly natural light and with immaculately, semi-symmetrical framing clashing against more chaotic handheld moments. It’s a sign that, even at the age of 69, the cinematographer is still pursuing new challenges.
We could have gone on, but even aside from some of the films we mentioned above, like “La Soufrière,”” “Tokyo-Ga,” “Touch” or “Import/Export,” there’s more that’s worth mentioning. Among just a few, Shirley Clarke’s jazz documentary “Ornette: Made In America” is fascinating, the David Byrne-directed “True Stories” is kind of fascinating, “Less Than Zero” is flawed (in that it’s based on a Bret Easton Ellis book) but looks terrific, and Stacy Cochran’s stylish indie-noir-comedy “My New Gun” looks great too. Mira Nair’s “Mississippi Masala,” starring Denzel Washington, is underrated, and looks gorgeous as well.
Lachman collaborated several times with director Gregory Nava, and while “Selena” and “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” aren’t great movies, they’re certainly handsome, and the same can be said of treacly Keanu/Charlize romance “Sweet November” and Andrew Niccol’s misguided “S1mOne.” And more recently, there was Deborah Kampmeier’s unpleasant “Hounddog” and James Franco-starring beat doc/narrative hybrid “Howl,” two indies elevated by the DoP’s work on them. And finally, some long-lost work recently saw the light of day, with George Sluizer’s “Dark Blood,” the movie that River Phoenix was working on when he passed away. Any other Lachman favorites you think deserve a shout out? Let us know below.
— Oliver Lyttelton, Nicholas Laskin