As a long-time film editor, I have to say that the documentary is far and away my favorite motion picture genre. There’s no script, no authorial point of view, no rhyme or reason in the way the film starts out. Two shots that go together in the final cut may have been produced months or years apart, with only the vague thread of presence on the part of the director and cinematographer, day after day, week after week, to assure their ultimate inclusion. The sheer bulk of material that arrives in your cutting room each day during production underscores the fact that, as screenwriter William Goldman so succinctly put it, nobody knows anything. The documentary-in-the-making is always a train wreck, and it’s up to the film editor, the director, and the myriad artists and technicians that support them to give the film its meaning and effect in the relative serenity of post production.
Getting the film in the can however, getting up before dawn and going to bed only after watching hours of dailies at the end of a very long shooting day, is the exclusive province of the film’s cinematographer. If the editor gives film its meaning, it’s the cinematographer that inscribes its soul.
We lost a great cinematographer a couple weeks ago. David Myers, whose five decade career encompassed George Lucas’s first feature, THX 1138, as well as the prototype rock n roll documentaries Woodstock and The Last Waltz, died in Mill Valley, California, on August 26th after suffering a stroke at the age of 90.
I met him once in a little theatre in Westwood, just down the block from UCLA, in 1978 or 9, where the studio had put together an exclusive screening of Bob Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara. The house was packed with elaborate sound gear on the auditorium floor in front of the stage; it was plain that the movie was going to sound like no other of its era, eclipsing even Woodstock aurally. But it was the quiet authority of David Myers, one of four cinematographers on the picture, as he examined the theatre’s projection equipment and quizzed the (in those days) union projectionist, that made me proud to be a member of that small group of humans God allows to make movies for a living.
Editing’s where you find and fix the documentary. Shooting is where you fight for it. Making any film is akin to making both love and war, and David Myers was like one of those quiet Lieutenant Colonels of the Hal Moore variety, slogging through the day’s misadventures with his eye always on the prize event of the evening.
He was a pro among pros, responsible, practically, for the entire genre of rock n roll documentaries. He had his hand and heart in Mad Dogs & Englishmen, Let the Good Times Roll, Wattstax, Johnny Cash: Live at San Quentin, Cracked Actor: A Film about David Bowie, Bob Dylan’s Hard Rain, Joni Mitchell’s Shadows and Light, Neil Young’s Human Highway and Journey Through the Past, Gospel, and Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic.
“There was nobody who captured the essence of rock ‘n’ roll and music more than Dave Myers,” said Mark Fishkin, director of the California Film Institute, which produces the Mill Valley Film Festival.
“The way he filmed, moving around with the camera on his shoulder, was like a dance, and that was epitomized by such fantastic concert movies as Woodstock, The Last Waltz, Neil Young’s films and Renaldo and Clara,” said Fishkin, the cameraman’s long-time friend.
Born in Auburn, New York, in 1914, Myers started out as a still photographer after viewing the work of famed Depression-era photographer Walker Evans at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936.
Evans' photographs were "distillations of the feelings and spirit of the times," Myers once told The San Francisco Chronicle. "They were cool but compassionate, a moral analysis of America in the Depression.
"Those two elements in Evans still turn me on: the ability to look at ordinary surroundings and people in ordinary surroundings, and distill the meaning out of it."
Myers worked for the Farm Security Administration (Evans’s production entity) himself while he was a student at Antioch College, photographing an essay on “the low life” of American federal civil servants.
Possessed of a fine-hewn sense of societal responsibility, he was a conscientious objector
during World War II
. He planted trees for the U.S. Forest Service
and also worked at a Spokane, Washington, mental hospital, where he photographed the patients during admission.
When his friend Imogen Cunningham refused to make a short film without Myers’ participation, his future was set. Before the epochal films of the 60’s, Myers was a pioneer in what we have come to term cinéma vérité. He traveled the world shooting documentaries for National Geographic and the United Nations.
Though he never stopped filming documentaries, Myers was director of photography on numerous Hollywood features in addition to Lucas’ first film. He shot Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to L.A., F.M., Roadie, UFOria and Zoot Suit, among others.
It seemed he was always markedly older than the filmmakers with whom he worked, and it is perhaps that gravitas, honed in the post-Depression 30’s, that gave the films he photographed their authority.
“Dave not only had a major impact on the local film community through mentoring,” said his friend Mark Fishkin, “but he also served as a tremendous role model for countless filmmakers. Dave was one of the finest artists who ever picked up a moving camera or a still camera.”
He shot Sarah Kernochan and Howard Smith’s 1972 Oscar-winning documentary Marjoe, a brilliant examination of child evangelist Marjoe Gortner, but it was THX 1138 that Myers considered perhaps his prime achievement. “Lucas once told me,” he said in an interview in 2003, “that he liked what he got out of THX much better than what he got out of Star Wars.”
I suppose, in terms of historical impact, it is Woodstock that stands at the top of Myers’ achievements. A veritable army of cinematographers worked on the film, and let’s not forget that Martin Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker edited it, but Myers provided a memorable bit of comic relief in a scene that is now considered a classic documentary moment.
Fifty-five year-old Myers, perhaps tiring of the raucous plethora of stage activity at the august “three days of peace and love,” focused on a middle-aged man pumping out one of the Port-O-San portable toilets and talking about his children; one was at the festival, and the other was in Vietnam. The sequence ends when a hippie comes out of another portable toilet smoking a joint.
When the hippie asks the filmmakers what they're doing, Myers tells him they're making a movie.
"What are you going to call it?" the hippie asks.
"Port-O-San," replies Myers.
That quick response was a classic example of Myers' sense of humor and "ability to relate to people," film producer L.A. Johnson, who was Myers' sound man on Woodstock," told The Los Angeles Times.
Woodstock director Michael Wadleigh also cited the Port-O-San sequence, saying it was "the sort of apotheosis of David."
"You can hear in real time the man's mind and camera clicking," Wadleigh said. "If you analyze that exchange, how swift he was and alert to ironies, societies and values, then what can you say? This man is a cameraman-director. He is a tuned-in person to what's happening before him."
Wadleigh, who also worked with Myers on other films, praised him as "incredibly idiosyncratic, intelligent, inventive and creative."
Johnson, who began working with Myers on a 1968 documentary about a student revolt at the University of Connecticut, called him "just a great documentary cameraman."
"He had the ability to draw in the subject matter and let the equipment disappear," Johnson said. "People in the business revered David."
David Myers Filmography
- Hard Traveling - Cinematographer
- Deadly Force - Cinematographer
- Gospel (documentary) - Cinematographer
- Neil Young: Human Highway - Cinematographer
- Zoot Suit - Cinematographer
- Shadows and Light (video) - Cinematographer, Camera Operator
- UFOria - Cinematographer
- Rockshow (documentary) - Camera Operator
- Roadie - Cinematographer
- Die Laughing - Cinematographer
- Rust Never Sleeps (documentary) - Cinematographer
- The Rose - Additional Photographer (concert scenes)
- No Other Love (TV movie) - Cinematographer
- And Your Name Is Jonah (TV movie) - Cinematographer
- Sammy Stops the World - Cinematographer
- FM - Cinematographer
- The Last Waltz (documentary) - Additional Cinematographer
- Renaldo and Clara - Cinematographer
- Forever (TV movie) - Cinematographer
- The Grateful Dead Movie (documentary) - Cinematographer
- The Man with No Name (TV documentary) - Camera Operator
- The Making of 'Star Wars' (TV documentary) - Cinematographer
- Harry Callahan/Clint Eastwood: Something Special in Films (documentary short) - Cinematographer
- Welcome to L.A. - Cinematographer
- The Mysterious Monsters (documentary) - Cinematographer
- Cracked Actor: A Film About David Bowie (TV documentary) - Cinematographer
- Up from the Ape (documentary) - Cinematographer (as David Meyers)
- Save the Children (documentary) - Cinematographer
- Let the Good Times Roll (documentary) - Cinematographer
- Wattstax (documentary) - Cinematographer
- Journey Through the Past (documentary) - Cinematographer
- Elvis On Tour (documentary) - Cinematographer
- Marjoe (documentary) - Cinematographer
- Bushman - Cinematographer
- Soul to Soul (documentary) - Cinematographer
- Mad Dogs & Englishmen (documentary) - Cinematographer
- THX 1138 - Cinematographer
- Woodstock (documentary) - Cinematographer
- Huey (documentary short) - Cinematographer
- Uncle Janco (short) - Cinematographer
The Los Angeles Times
The New York Times
The San Francisco Chronicle
On Hollywood and filmmaking:
Below the Line
sex drugs and divorce
a little life, interrupted
- Hecho en Mejico
- Sam's Song
- Hemingway and Fortuna
- Hummingbird on the Left
- The Long and Drunken Afternoon
- Safe in the Lap of the Gods
- Quetzal Birds in Love
- Angela in Paradise
- And the machine ran backwards
a secondhand coffin
how to act
Right. Me and Herman Melville
Scylla and Charybdis Approximately
snowflakes and nylon
I could've kissed Orson Welles
the broken dreams of Orson Welles
the last time I saw Orson Welles
The Other Side of the Wind
Below the Line
Final Cut Pro
king of the queens
Kubrick polishes a turd
movies from space
Persistence of Vision
Apocalypse Now Redux
The Jazz Singer
Six Feet Under
We Were Soldiers