BIFF 2012: Show Me The Magic & Murch
Posted on Friday November 23, 2012, 10:27 by Sam Toy in Under The Radar
I’m a big fan of Australian cinematographer Don McAlpine’s work, so I was very interested to see the world premiere of Cathy Henkel’s documentary Show Me The Magic, which traces his life and remarkable career.
At 78 (although looking easily 10 years younger), for all his unassuming appearance, McAlpine has had an amazing time working in the movies. Born and raised in rural New South Wales, he worked as a teacher, before becoming a news cameraman (in which we see some of the most amazing footage in the film – Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt spearfishing at the exact spot where he later disappeared, presumed drowned), and then moving into documentaries as a means of working with colour film stock. From there it was short films, and then into a 45 year run of features including Breaker Morant, My Brilliant Career, Predator, Parenthood, Patriot Games, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, and many others.
Watching Henkel’s film, you immediately understand why her subject has been so successful on productions of all sizes and conditions: not only does McAlpine have a superb artistic eye and technical ability, but he has the right temperament for a film set – he absorbs nervous energy and converts it into down-to-earth problem solving (perhaps the most valuable skill anyone on a film set can possess). Unfortunately for Henkel though, I can only imagine that this is the reason her film can’t be more exciting. There’s not as many outlandish stories around the quiet, pragmatic, no-nonsense types. And McApline is, for all that he is obviously a very lovely man and a great artist, all of those things; almost the very definition of unflamboyant.
Henkel also makes the conscious (and perhaps for many people, wise) decision not to make the experience a technical masterclass on how McAlpine does what he does better than most – like most visual artists, his work speaks for itself anyway. Instead, we experience a nice, calm journey told mainly in McAlpine’s own words (and those of his dear, devoted wife Jeanette), as he takes a small sojourn, revisiting old stomping grounds from his early life, intercut with on-set footage from Wolverine and Mental.
But McAlpine is far too gentlemanly to big up either himself or his work, and to this end, I felt Henkel needed more interviews and anecdotes. The cinematographer has worked with a huge array of talent, and on at least a few highly-charged productions over the years (he was cinematographer on The Edge, for example, and we know Predator wasn’t without its flare-ups), and I would like to have heard more from other collaborators joining Baz Lurhmann, Gillian Armstrong and the handful of others who talked up McAlpine’s extraordinary work. What is there is enjoyable, but I was left wanting more.
Murch, on the other hand, is an extraordinarily well-judged, blisteringly paced masterclass from another industry great. I have been meaning to catch up with this 2006 documentary since it came out, and my only post-screening regret was that I hadn’t done so much sooner. It’s an extremely straightforward, one-on-one video interview with Walter Murch, the editor of choice of Francis Ford Coppola and Anthony Minghella. As you might from a film about an editor, none its 79 minutes is wasted: this is fried gold for anyone with so much as a passing interest in the artform.
Like Show Me The Magic, it’s not a wild ride, but it is packed with simple, personal explanations of how and why he makes his choices in scenes, and his career overall. He also gives great practical advice (the physical act of standing up to cut a scene sometimes helps; Do your first assembly of a scene without sound, etc.). See it if you want to get inspired - I can’t recommend it highly enough.