out of the coma again
by request: for love of the game (sam raimi, 1999)

film fatales #85: cameraperson (kirsten johnson, 2016)

Cameraperson has a fascinating premise. Kirsten Johnson is a cinematographer with more than 50 credits to her name, mostly in documentaries (Citizenfour, The Invisible War, This Film Is Not Yet Rated). Cameraperson is her solo debut as a feature director, and it is quite personal. It begins with the following statement on the screen:

For the past 25 years I've worked as a documentary cinematographer. I originally shot the following footage for other films, but here I ask you to see it as my memoir. These are the images that have marked me and leave me wondering still.

I felt an immediate affinity with this approach ... after all, the motto of this blog filled with my thoughts on movies, television, music, and the like, refers to the entire project as my memoirs. Just for starters, though, Johnson has been a lot more places than I have. The film takes us, among other places, to Afghanistan, Rwanda, and Bosnia as well as Washington D.C., Queens, and Alabama. Most of what we see, obviously, relates to the films she worked on. (The IMDB page lists Jacques Derrida at the top of the cast list, although he appears only briefly; Johnson worked on the film Derrida.) But she also includes footage of her family, in particular her mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer's, and who eventually dies. Johnson is ever-present in the documentary footage ... we can hear her talking behind the camera, but we don't see her face until the end of the movie, when she is talking with her mom. Her presence, combined with the opening quote about memoirs, provide something of a theme for the film.

But Johnson's methods seem to reject structure. Even people who love the film admit it's hard to follow at first, because Johnson moves from one brief clip to another, with title cards telling us where we are. Because the clips are taken out of context (whatever the movie Derrida was like, all we see here is him crossing a street and making a philosophy joke), we're left "wondering still", and because the order in which she shows the clips seems haphazard, it's not easy to understand just what she intends with Cameraperson. By the end of the movie, though, we appreciate the skill she uses in putting together the "story", and while I'm still not sure what her intentions were, it's clear she has them. Cameraperson is not haphazard. #230 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)


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