Evil Ash checking in again.
One of the really crappy things about growing old and facing our own mortality is losing those that we love, be they family members, friends, colleagues, or acquaintances. The same holds true for the athletes. I was devastated when Thurman Munson, beloved Yankee captain died suddenly. Also for creative artists that we grow up with, that we follow and admire from a distance.
2020 has been a rough year for everyone. A lot of us have experienced loss of some sort on a personal level. As fans we have also lost many from the world of film. We mourn emerging superstar Chadwick Boseman, who was taken WAY too soon. We mourn Diana Rigg, TV and film icon who had a long and illustrious career. The list is long for 2020.
This past Sunday, without much fanfare or notice, legendary cinematographer Michael Chapman passed away at the age of 84, due to congestive heart failure. Make no mistake, Chapman was one of the giants in the world of cinematography. His accomplishments are astonishing.
Chapman, born in New York City in 1935, spent some time in the army, graduated from Columbia University, and like so many great Hollywood stories, just sort of “fell into” the business when his father got him a job as an assistant cameraman.
It was in 1970 that “Chappy” as his friends and colleagues would call him, would find himself in the right place, at the right time; immersed amongst the American New Wave of filmmakers that would dominate cinema throughout the 1970’s. He was operating the camera for directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, John Cassavetes, Hal Ashby, and Robert Towne. Chapman was apprenticing for cinematographer legend, Gordon Willis, while working on such films as The Landlord, Husbands, Klute, The Last Detail, The People Next Door and The Godfather.
Chapman’s camera work on these films would come to define the cinematic look of the 1970’s. It was while working with Steven Spielberg on 1975’s Jaws, where Chapman would really standout and take his work to the next level. Director Martin Scorsese took notice and the two began a short but legendary run as director and cinematographer.
Scorsese issued a statement on Tuesday, saying in part:
“I remember when Taxi Driver came out and Michael became known as a “poet of the streets”–I think that was the wording, and it seemed right to me. Michael was the one who really controlled the visual palette of The Last Waltz, and on Raging Bull he and his team met every single challenge–and there were so many.
One of the greatest of those challenges was shooting in black and white, which Michael had never done before, a fact that still astonishes me. His relationship with the camera and the film that was running through it was intimate, mysterious, almost mystical. He was a great artist, and it saddens me that I won’t get to see him again.”
In this clip below, Chapman discusses his approach towards cinematography, noting that it didn’t need to be beautiful but rather needed to be appropriate. Perhaps, in no other movie of the entire 1970’s is this truer than in 1976’s Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese. The muted way that Chapman lit the grimy New York City streets of the mid- 1970’s, the grungy color palate that he uses; it’s iconic.
Chapman would go on to team up with Scorsese again a few years later in 1978’s seminal concert movie The Last Waltz, a chronicle of The Band’s farewell concert at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom.
While the concert is an absolute star-studded affair – with guest rockers including Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell and more – Chapman’s cinematography keeps the film grounded in reality, filming these music legends in a most unflattering way. Dylan looks like a white nosed alien in this concert documentary, but you can’t take your eyes off of him and its riveting.
That same year, Chapman would be the cinematographer for the superior remake of the 1956 science fiction classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Chapman does a stellar job of presenting a depressed and dirty San Francisco that is prime for an alien takeover. Donald Sutherland’s iconic ending scream and finger point has to be one of the hallmarks of Chapman’s career.
After teaming up with directors James Toback, Phillip Kaufman and Paul Schrader in the late 1970’s for a string of movies, Chapman would reunite for the third and final time with director Martin Scorsese, in what most would call the crowning accomplishment in Chapman’s long career; 1980’s Oscar winning Raging Bull.
The opening slow-mo sequence of champion prize fighter Jake LaMotta (played by Robert DeNiro), shadowboxing in gorgeous black & white to “Intermezzo” by Pietro Mascagni, is maybe the greatest sequence Chapman has ever filmed. The final collaboration with Scorsese is Chapman’s crowning achievement, and what cements him as a legend of the industry. Critic and author David Thomson would state:
“Michael Chapman’s black-and-white photography (printed on Technicolor stock) is like living in filth, and it aids and abets the lovely capturing of the 1940s—an achievement of soundtrack, clothes and décor.”
The 1980’s saw Chapman branching out; getting behind the directors chair, and getting involved in different genres.
He teamed up with comedic giant Carl Reiner to work as cinematographer on a pair of comedies that this writer holds dear to his heart; 1982’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (filmed in grainy black and white) and 1983’s The Man With Two Brains. Both movies are classic comedies, and have Steve Martin performing in vintage form.
That same year he would get behind the directors chair for the first time to direct the enjoyable, yet forgettable Tom Cruise high school football vehicle, All the Right Moves. On a $5.7 million dollar budget, the film grossed over $17 million, so Chapman did OK.
Throughout the 80’s and 90’s Michael Chapman would serve as the cinematographer on one solid movie after another: Personal Best, The Lost Boys, Kindergarten Cop, The Fugitive, Primal Fear, Doc Hollywood, Space Jam, Ghostbusters II, Scrooged, and others. He even reunited with Martin Scorsese in 1987 to work on Michael Jackson’s Bad video.
Chapman would work into his 70’s, with his final film being the 2007 Gabor Csupo film, Bridge to Terabithia.
In a long and fabled career dating back to 1965, Michael Chapman has worked with countless legends of the industry, and more importantly, he’s left his mark on the generations of directors and cinematographers to come. You only need go watch 2019’s Joker to see evidence of that. Michael Chapman is survived by his wife of almost 40 years, screenwriter Amy Holden Jones (Mystic Pizza, Beethoven, Indecent Proposal), and four children. I hope you can share a word or two about the incredible contribution this man has had on the film industry.
Sound off Outposters and let me know what you think!
Hugh “Evil Ash” Feinberg.