To Jimmy Glasberg

By Philippe Ros, AFC

Contre-Champ AFC n°339

[ English ] [ français ]

Writing about Jimmy Glasberg could take the form of a book given the extent to which he experimented and searched. More modestly, I limited myself to films that seemed to mark two distinct steps in his career : the short films on Sam & Dave and Otis Redding, and the feature film Le Lien de parenté which I shot alongside him as a cameraman.

I was lucky to meet Jimmy in 1980, a few years before the end of my career as an assistant. I was used to working with English cinematographers, and one Frenchman, Bernard Lutic, who, with his unconventional approach and his experimentations, had already changed my own ideas about technique and artistry.
Jimmy continued to change my ideas, and that’s an understatement !
Through his work on rhythm, colours, and image, he totally modified my career and even my own life. His relationship to the documentary and to the musical documentary in particular pushed me to work as a director-cameraman in music for several years (a profession that I would have liked to do my entire life, but which, unfortunately, is not very lucrative !).

In order to understand Jimmy’s influence and particular talent, you have to go back to 1967, to the famous Stax tour of Sam & Dave and Otis Redding in England. Shot in 16-mm black-and-white, the sequence shots Jimmy literally performed on scene with a fixed-length 16-mm lens are, in my opinion, references for anyone interested in shoulder camera work and in the relationship between music and cinema.
The few still images below only give you a little idea of the hypnotic relationship you feel when you watch these films.

Photogrammes extraits de : ‘'You Don't Know Like I Know'' par Sam & Dave
Photogrammes extraits de : ‘’You Don’t Know Like I Know’’ par Sam & Dave

The permanent trance of the soul singers is totally sublimated by the closeness of the camera and its movements. The contrast between black and white, the shots illuminated by very unique flares, all give this camera dance an almost hallucinatory aspect. They are at the border of what one might consider a work of art : a work whose movements, fluid circular movements, extremely rapid succession of panoramic shots that end precisely on extreme close-ups, are, at times, almost at the limit of abstraction. It’s all done perfectly in time with the rhythm, which, for each of the songs shot in sequence shot, represents a tour-de-force, especially given that there were no rehearsals beforehand. Jimmy flung himself on stage and only trusted his documentary cameraman’s intuition.

Photogrammes extraits de ‘'(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction'' par Otis Redding - (Merci à Bruno Glasberg pour ces films)
Photogrammes extraits de ‘’(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’’ par Otis Redding
(Merci à Bruno Glasberg pour ces films)

Alain Coiffier, in his tribute on the CST’s website, gives us an exact reminder of how Jimmy defined himself : "I’m addicted to filming".

This film was a revelation for me. This instinctive, sensitive approach to music allowed us - me and many other "filmers" - to approach on-stage work differently, in a way that was as close as possible to the musician or actor. Listening to the rhythm of the phrasing of an actor allows you to decide on the camera rhythm and also the color of a shot. And even if the actor isn’t speaking, instinctively following him in relation to his body language became automatic for me, thanks to Jimmy.

Later on, I was lucky to assist Jimmy on many musical films, and this allowed me, obviously, to unlearn the very technical vision I had about focusing, and instead to adopt the rhythmic approach to the profession : instinctive or intuitive filming. Jimmy’s advice opened the way for me and allowed me to work easily with Claude Lelouch and Robert Altman where we’d shoot sequence shots at 35, 75, and then 100 and 150 mm without any rehearsals.

"Don’t focus, listen and follow" was one of Jimmy’s recommendations.

Later, he chose me for what was my first feature-film behind the camera : Le Lien de parenté. This Willy Rameau feature was shot in Provence in 1985 and was a unique experience. The film didn’t garner much critical success despite the fact that it was Jean Marais’ last starring role.
A low-budget film, it was shot in Panavision CinémaScope thanks to the support of Albert Viguier, who was the then-director of the rental company Alga Panavision.
Jimmy and the director and I chose - due to budgetary constraints - to only use three fixed-length lenses : the 35mm, the 75mm, and the 150mm. Jimmy began to note down the shooting script of the film on a large sheet of paper in order to classify each sequence in terms of image color, and, simultaneously, I wrote down the composition and intensity for each shot.
We shot outdoors above the gorges of Verdon and in studio in Paris for the indoor shots, and then a few days with a small crew in London.
Jimmy was engaged in research to modify the colors in order to find an alternative to Technicolor : at that time, there was no digital intermediary to manipulate contrast and colour. He’d heard that there were Didymium* filters being used by the Israeli army.
*Didymium is an alloy of two rare-earth metals

They made it possible to reinforce the primary colors, especially red, while strongly attenuating yellow. Jimmy had also had the D Filter manufactured in New York, which was a filter with a particular dose of Didymium. The effect wasn’t exactly the same as Technicolor, but it perfectly magnified the reds and blues on Kodak emulsions. This filter reappeared several years later in a "tamer" version, manufactured by Tiffen under the label "Enhancing Filter".

Affiche du film | Pascal Pajaud, chef électricien, et Jimmy Glasberg | Serge Ubrette, acteur principal et Jimmy Glasberg - Photos Max Rameau
Affiche du film | Pascal Pajaud, chef électricien, et Jimmy Glasberg | Serge Ubrette, acteur principal et Jimmy Glasberg
Photos Max Rameau

Debates about film were always based on a single question : what is the artistic position ? For the director, it wasn’t possible to have naturalist lighting. Jimmy, who adored the Provence light, wanted to give the film a particular aesthetic. We didn’t have the budget for a generator, so all the light outside the farm were created by the vans we were using, whose sides were outfitted with reflectors that could be deployed. They offered powerful lighting… but also provided an excellent target for the violent winds in that region. It was a true challenge, both for Pascal Pajaud, the gaffer, and Alain Benoist, the key grip, who had to stabilize the trucks with stays ! The side effects given by these reflectors wasn’t too far from the lighting style Conrad Hall used in the western film The Professionals.
For the indoor shots, only the color spectrum of a rainbow could satisfy Jimmy’s vision. The producer almost pulled out his hair during the 12-week shooting of this almost-experimental film.
It all happened within the wonderful atmosphere created by the director and particularly by Jean Marais, who was constantly making malicious yet friendly comments about this film’s many excesses.

Philippe Ros, cadreur, Pierre Bec, second assistant opérateur, Jimmy Glasberg - Photo Max Rameau
Philippe Ros, cadreur, Pierre Bec, second assistant opérateur, Jimmy Glasberg
Photo Max Rameau

Jimmy Glasberg | Jimmy Glasberg et Jean Marais, séquence à Londres - Photos Max Rameau
Jimmy Glasberg | Jimmy Glasberg et Jean Marais, séquence à Londres
Photos Max Rameau

Jimmy and I would enter the set to the tune of "You’re Under Arrest", Miles Davis’ last album, and we’d argue over how to film this type of music, fusional jazz. Jimmy’s obsession was to find solutions for shooting every rhythm, so the viewer would always be taken in by the camera.

I made many trips abroad alongside Jimmy, and we always had long theoretical debates about the power the camera had over the viewer’s unconscious. His favorite phrase, "Image has no laws, but we have to come up with rules", became the subject of many interpretations.
Of course, the references to The Man with a Movie Camera, by Dziga Vertov, were always given as the basis for this discussion, but that often ended in laughter. It was impossible, despite his passion, to take oneself seriously with him.

We continued to share films, books, and points of view, especially on his work with handheld cameras. A short while ago, he was railing against a musical series whose camera work he found unsatisfactory : "What is the cameraman doing ? There is just one master : the music !".

For everyone who worked with him, Jimmy Glasberg always seemed to be an extremely open man, always seeking something new, passionate about art in all of its forms. He was also profoundly human, with the steely gaze of a documentary filmmaker. He always said that a cameraman must not take people’s images if he gives nothing in return.

Jimmy gave me a lot, he was a friend and I’ll miss him terribly.

(January 2023)

(Translated from French by A. Baron-Raiffe, for the AFC)