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Through the Looking Glass with Ed Lachman

Over the past thirty years, cinematographer and director Ed Lachman has established a fascinating and eclectic oeuvre. As BAM celebrates him this month, we talk to the trained painter about paying tribute to Douglas Sirk and catching Madonna on the Lower East Side.
LachmanAlthough it’s generally remembered as a sinkhole year for cinema, 1985 did manage to produce at least two films prepared to stand the test of time. Wim Wenders sent to screens Tokyo-Ga, his documentary homage to Yasujiro Ozu and the vanishing Tokyo that Ozu depicted in his films. Meanwhile, with Desperately Seeking Susan, Susan Seidelman gave the world a dark comedy of mistaken identity and Madonna that went from New Jersey to new wave. Released less than a month apart, these two movies are unlike in every conceivable way, bar one: They were both shot by Edward Lachman.


Cinematography’s king chameleon, Lachman, 60, has spent the last thirty-odd years hopscotching among films (The Lords of Flatbush, Less Than Zero, The Virgin Suicides, I'm Not There) and directors (Steven Soderbergh, David Byrne, Robert Altman, Werner Herzog, and Larry Clark are just a few) that seem to have nothing in common other than his presence behind the camera lens. Several of those films are screening as part of “The Cinematography of Edward Lachman,” a retrospective of Lachman’s work that launched last week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Dusting off both the renowned (Far From Heaven) and the forgotten (Blank Generation, featuring punk rocker Richard Hell), “The Cinematography of Edward Lachman” provides as good an introduction as any to its subject’s eclectic back catalog. The eclecticism onscreen, however, according to Lachman, reflects a consistency of approach behind-the-scenes. As the New York City-based DP and director explains, he goes into every new film project trying to get behind the looking glass of its world.


“The challenge is always the same,” says Lachman. “I’m trying to locate the visual grammar that tells the story. And the grammar is going to be different, film to film, because each story is unique—each one comes out of its own world, with its own internal logic. I always want to shoot from inside the world of the film, as opposed to filming from the outside, looking in.”


In the case of Heaven, Haynes’s post-modern period piece riffing on Douglas Sirk, getting inside the world of the film was anFar From Heaven intellectually rigorous process for Lachman. Not only did he watch and re-watch all of Sirk’s films, and steep himself in the codes and culture of 1950s middle-class America, but as Lachman notes, he also had to enter into Sirk’s very particular aesthetic logic.


“On a theoretical level, what Sirk does is fascinating because he uses melodrama to leapfrog over people’s emotional defenses,” Lachman notes. “And on a narrative level, he’s framing and lighting every shot to tell the story of a woman trapped. But then, on a completely logistical level,” he adds, “he had to shoot these movies astonishingly fast. There are very few set ups in Sirk’s films—it’s a moving master, then punch in for the medium close-up, and on to the next scene. So as artful and expressionistic as he was, a lot of his style developed out of a need to be efficient.”


As the plaudits for Heaven will attest, which included an Oscar nomination for cinematography, Lachman mastered Sirk’s style well enough to make it effective all over again. But other projects have invited a more organic process. BAM’s cherry-picked selection of films from Lachman’s oeuvre is heavy on New York stories, and in the case of that 1985 standout Susan, where scenes were set in the likes of Battery Park and the club Danceteria, all Lachman needed to get inside the world of the film was to go outside and look around.


“I wanted to show the New York City I knew,” Lachman explains. “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 verion of that film that could have been made, just doing the Hollywood gloss on the idea of New York. But, you know, I was living in New York,” Lachman says. “So I decided to show the grit.”


The Cinematography of Ed Lachman runs through May 20 at BAM Rose Cinemas. Lachman will be present for post-screening Q&As.


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