If you love hearing Martin Scorsese talk movies, don't miss "Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff." Craig McCall's tip-top documentary centers on the cinematographer who turned Technicolor into an incomparably vivid and fluid palette with movies like "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman" and "The Barefoot Contessa." (It plays at the AFI Silver at 2:45 p.m. Saturday and 8 p.m. Monday.)
No one is more passionate than Scorsese at paying tribute to fellow artists like Cardiff and his most influential collaborators, the writing-directing-producing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (aka "the Archers"). When Scorsese describes the exotic seductions of films like the Archers' "Black Narcissus" (set in a remote Himalayan mission), he gets at the way masters like Cardiff invade our dreams and expand our sense of the world beyond the theater.
With concision and flair, McCall's documentary covers Cardiff's career with the Archers ("A Matter of Life and Death," "The Red Shoes") and beyond the Archers. Cardiff, who died in 2009, had a life in movies that spanned most of British cinema. An amateur scholar of classical painting (and an amateur painter himself), he brought the insights and perceptions of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh — and everyone from the Impressionists to the Expressionists — to the soundstage or on location.
Scorsese and others (including Powell's widow, editor Thelma Schoonmaker), offer splendid counterpoints to Cardiff, a wise, matter-of-fact gent who sparkles with playfulness and curiosity, As dexterous as he was inventive, he performed magnificently on daunting locations for John Huston's "The African Queen" (filmed in the Belgian Congo) and Richard Fleischer's "The Vikings" (filmed in Norway). Film critics once quipped, unfairly, that the British could boast great cameramen, not great directors. Cardiff was a great cameraman who could be a near-great director himself, particularly in his adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's "Sons and Lovers."
Cardiff at his frequent best was an artist of poetic intuition. He proved that Technicolor's intricate light-splitting camera and three strips of film could achieve the limpidity of Old Masters or the delicacy of Degas. At 87, he became the first cinematographer to earn an honorary Academy Award. He earned it.
"Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff," plays at 2:45 p.m. Saturday and 8 p.m. Monday at the AFI Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road in Silver Spring. Call 301-495-6700 or go to afi.com/silver.