Michael Chapman last made a movie in 2007 with the coming of age film, Bridge to Terabithia. Like Allen Daviau (who we also lost this year), Chapman’s lack of activity for nearly a decade and a half kept him out of the conversation of the best living directors of photography. When you don’t have a career in front of the camera that can happen–people may know your images, but not your name or your face. Chapman deserves better than that. Cinematography is often thought of as a craft–and surely it is. But Michael Chapman is one of those laborers who raised his craft to the form of art.
One need only look at the list of the best films he made in his first ten years as a filmmaker to see my point. Just gaze upon all this bounty and then do your best to collect your jaw from your flooring.
The Last Detail (1973)
Taxi Driver (1976)
The Front (1976)
The Last Waltz (1978)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
The Wanderers (1979)
Raging Bull (1980)
Personal Best (1982)
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)
It’s a truly gobsmacking decade of perfect lensing. If all he had done was created the grit and grime of Taxi Driver and those silk-spun black and white images in Raging Bull, that would have been more than enough. But what of Personal Best? Robert Towne’s unjustly ignored tale of an Olympic-level athlete (a never better Mariel Hemingway) coming to terms with her sexuality against the backdrop of the United States’ boycott of the Moscow games in 1980? Has anyone ever seen a sporting event shot more realistically than in the track and field sequences shown in Personal Best? Or what of The Last Waltz ? (Boy, did he ever do right by Scorsese). Full of shots so intimate and musical performances so perfectly captured that you could almost feel Van Morrison’s sweat coming at you as The Band played Caravan.
Looking over his marvelous CV, you start to understand what Chapman did best: he brought you into the frame with the characters you were watching. You can practically smell the streets in Taxi Driver and The Wanderers. You can almost feel Jack Nicholson grazing your elbow as if you were walking beside him in The Last Detail. At his best, Chapman came as close as humanly possible to removing the onscreen barrier between audience and performer.
After Carl Reiner’s ingenious Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid in 1982, Chapman’s luck in finding great material seemed to wane. He was never less than assured and professional, but over the remaining quarter century of his career, only two films (1993’s The Fugitive and 1996’s Primal Fear) truly rose to his level.
And what a glorious level it was. Whether it’s Harrison Ford leaping from a water drain in The Fugitive, or Richard Gere standing lost in the middle of a crosswalk at the end of Primal Fear, Chapman captured both of those moments with an unshakeable authenticity.
Remarkably, only twice did Chapman receive Oscar nominations for his work: Raging Bull and The Fugitive–winning for neither. If you need proof that awards and nominations matter less than the collective memories of movie lovers, look no further.
Just four years ago, Chapman told Variety that cinema “shouldn’t be beautiful — it should be appropriate.” While Chapman’s cinematography was always appropriate, I will break with him slightly and state that his work was more than just that. It was beautiful too.
Michael Chapman died yesterday. He was 84 years old.