Tuesday, 16 June 2015

EIFF Focus on Mexico: Gabriel Figueroa (1907 - 1997)

Dolores del Rio in The Fugitive (John Ford, 1947), the film that Figueroa believed contained his best work.

    I’ve only had time to watch a handful of Gabriel Figueroa’s films, and I’m writing this before seeing María Candelaria (Emilio Fernández, 1944) and Macario (Roberto Gavaldón, 1960) in Edinburgh – so this is a general introduction to some of Figueroa’s (relatively early) work, but I hope to track down some of his other films in the future. I’ll say something more about the two films showing at EIFF once I’ve seen them.
    Gabriel Figueroa was born in Mexico City in 1907. Orphaned and without financial support, he and his brother had to go out to work at a young age, but he began his professional career as a stills photographer before using a moving camera for the first time in 1933 when Howard Hawks and James Wong Howe went to Mexico in order to shoot exteriors for Viva Villa! (Jack Conway, 1934). Two years later Figueroa went to Hollywood as part of a government-funded initiative to develop Mexican cinema, and with the aid of a letter of introduction from the Mexico-based cinematographer Alex Phillips he was taken on by Gregg Toland as his student. Although Figueroa returned to Mexico in 1936, he and Toland remained in contact, with the (only-slightly) older man continuing to serve as Figueroa's mentor up until Toland’s early death in 1948. Such was Toland’s regard for his protégé that when Samuel Goldwyn refused to release Toland to work with John Ford on The Fugitive (1947), Toland suggested Figueroa as his replacement – and when Toland died, Goldwyn offered Figueroa his contract (he declined). In fact Figueroa would find it difficult to work in the US as due to the combination of his union work (he co-founded the STPC - 'Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Producción Cinematográfica' [Union of Cinema Production Workers], the first such independent union in Mexico, in 1944) and a refusal to answer questions from US officials about his political affiliations, he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era and couldn’t get work permits (in an 'every cloud has a silver lining' situation, this did however mean that he was free to work with Luis Buñuel in Mexico throughout the 1950s and 60s).

    In 1941 Figueroa co-founded the production company Films Mundiales, which became the starting point for the team he was part of with director Emilio ‘el Indio’ Fernández and actors Dolores del Rio and Pedro Armendáriz. Figueroa and Fernández made 23 films together over the course of 13 years and the relationship is central to the kinds of images that the cinematographer is associated with. Figueroa said in interviews that Fernández was one of only four directors (the other three being John Ford, Roberto Gavaldón, and Ismael Rodríguez) who would instruct him as to the effects that they wanted the scene to achieve but then allow him to design the scene’s composition as he wished. Other directors with whom he is associated – such as Buñuel (they made 7 films together, including Los Olvidados (1950) and The Exterminating Angel (1962)) – expected him to change his style to suit their requirements, and he did not have the same sort of artistic freedom on all of the 200+ productions he worked on. In terms of world recognition, the Fernández/Figueroa partnership’s breakout film was María Candelaria, which not only jointly won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1944 (an award that would later become known as the Palme d’Or) but also won Best Cinematography (the first of many major prizes for Figueroa).

    What does a cinematographer do, and why is the style of certain films ascribed to Figueroa rather than their respective directors? Exploring the concept of 'authorship' in relation to cinematic images, Lieberman and Hegarty outline the responsibilities of a cinematographer:
[...] there are several duties that can generally be ascribed to the cinematographer: (1) devising a lighting strategy and supervising its implementation; (2) making choices regarding lenses, filtration, film stock, camera, and lighting equipment; (3) determining exposure, contrast, focus, and depth of field; (4) orchestrating and executing (or supervising the execution of) camera movement; (5) collaborating with the director on framing and all aspects of shot composition as well as on the breakdown process in which the scene is divided up into individual shots; (6) participating, oftentimes, in positioning the actors on the set and blocking their action; (7) placing, moving, or removing set dressing, and (8) consulting on wardrobe, makeup, location choice, and production design. In all of these ways, and many others, the cinematographer contributes to the authorship of the image, making creative decisions that [...] inscribe his or her sensibilities and vision onto the finished work [...] (2010: 33)
Certain visual commonalities across a significant number of the films Figueroa photographed highlight his own cinematic signature. Lieberman and Hegarty's article (which is very interesting but not available online without a subscription - the full reference is below) compares the 'technical and aesthetic convergences' between Figueroa and Toland - unsurprisingly, given that one was the pupil of the other, their work shares certain characteristics (most obviously deep focus compositions and chiaroscuro lighting - for example, several scenes in The Fugitive take place in near complete darkness apart from an outline of light around Henry Fonda's priest on the run) although that is also indicative of their shared influences (German Expressionism and Renaissance painting, for example). 
    But their analysis reveals that despite these similarities, 'both cinematographers used virtually every one of their overlapping techniques to quite different ends' (2010: 37) - for example, if in Toland's work deep focus / the use of multiple focal planes is used to convey shifting power relations, Figueroa (who composed scenes with shallow and medium focus as often as he did deep focus) was instead more likely to utilise it to connect characters with their environment, and likewise their respective use of low angles conveys distinct things about the onscreen characters (power versus empowerment and ceilings versus skies). The article goes into a lot of detail with the comparisons and interpretations. Figueroa's influences were also rooted in Mexico in the form of Dr. Atl (a.k.a. painter Gerardo Murillo), who had multiple vanishing points in his landscape paintings (which informed Figueroa's distinctive use of curvilinear perspective - creating a spherical, or three-dimensional, visual space), and Sergei Eisenstein's unfinished 1931 film Que viva México (which is out of copyright and viewable here - the commentary is in Italian, but it's the images that are important).  

    As I say, I've only watched a few of Gabriel Figueroa's films so far, so I can't expand on the topic any further at the moment. But I'll be reviewing María Candelaria and Macario, so when I link to those reviews on here I'll possibly write a bit more - but whether I return to him as a focus on the blog or not, I will be seeking out some of the films seen in these videos (there are more - each arranged around a different theme - here).

I've read a few good articles / interviews with Figueroa as their focus - 

These ones aren't freely available online but you should be able to access them via a library:

  • Dey, T. (1992) - 'Gabriel Figueroa: Mexico's Master Cinematographer', American Cinematographer, March, pp.34-40.
  • Feder, E. (1996) - 'A Reckoning: Interview with Gabriel Figueroa', Film Quarterly, 49:3, pp.2-14.
  • Lieberman, E. and Hegarty, K. (2010) - 'Authors of the Image: Cinematographers Gabriel Figueroa and Gregg Toland', Journal of Film and Video, 62:1-2, pp.31-51.

Online texts: