Like the wind

[slideshow_deploy id=’19011′]

Multifaceted and renowned cinematographer Christopher Doyle speaks to Glass about the inception of his remarkable career and a life devoted to his art form

As Christopher Doyle’s Chinese name, Du Ke Feng (Like the Wind), would suggest, this is a man whom it is difficult to define, and even to find. Doyle is a chameleon, a nomad, but above all, he is an incredible story teller. His first break into film came in 1981 when Taiwanese director Edward Yang controversially overlooked salaried studio members to offer an inexperienced Doyle the position of cinematographer on his breakthrough film, That Day, on the Beach. Yang’s choice caused outcry in Taiwan’s film industry but the film’s phenomenal success certified Doyle’s place in cinema. His famed collaborations with filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai in movies such as In the Mood for Love, together with his breathtaking visuals and signature style have led Doyle to become one of the few cinematographers known worldwide by name and ensured his transition from maverick to master.

You seem to have fallen into cinematography completely by accident. How did you know what to do?
(Laughs) I didn’t, that’s the whole point! You learn by your mistakes. The mistakes illuminate the possible. The first time someone gave me a camera, I never had any interest in it. Any visual experience I had was physical, so when I first encountered images, which was in my late 20s early 30s in Taiwan, it was kind of a shock – because I grew up with words and the structures of literature. So that encounter, that conflict, probably is what sustains me even now. The encounter between one form and another, the ideas and giving the ideas form and making the mistakes and appropriating the consequences of that.

Your work is very poetic; what kind of literature inspired you?
I work in supposedly a commercial endeavour and there has to be a certain amount of financial support which implies bureaucracy or a set of rules. So how do you assume to work within the boundaries of those rules, if you don’t have an understanding of the rules, and yet, a poetic heart? The great wonder to me is that, if you understand the rules, they’ll give you a lot of freedom, then you get the funding to do something extraordinary – but you don’t tell anybody (laughs). The thing is, if one assumes the responsibility of art then one can achieve art and if one assumes the responsibility of poetry then you look at things poetically.

Nicely put. Also, your work has an honest beauty to it. Do you agree with Keats’s statement that “truth is beauty and beauty truth”?
(Laughs) You think I’m honest?

That’s the impression that I get.
I’m a man! We lie all the time! (laughs).

I didn’t say you were honest, I said your work seems honest.
Yes, that’s true. I mitigate myself through my work (laughs). People sometimes do not tell the truth, because the truth will be too hurtful. Hopefully art transcends that, because it’s beyond time and also beyond self – in terms of selfishness, or consciousness of self. I guess that’s why we indulge so much in it because all that you would have said to the ones you love, you can say to the people you don’t know through your work because you have the space.

It’s an astonishing process to grow through others, to be outside yourself, to encounter the basis of the communication that you need. Of course it’s an incredibly freeing experience, and therefore it has to be true. Art is what artists make; it’s not art because it’s art. It’s true because you care about truth or because the pursuit has been truthful. In my case I notice the incredible resonance of the people around me and the incredible pleasure that the crew seems to take in this process that we engage in.

Is it true to say that you seem to have found something in Asia that really connects with you?
I grew up in Asia. I left Australia in my late teens and then I travelled the world. I think that is the basis of what I do now. The encounters, the experiences and the incongruities of those experiences – I wanted to give them a form, and I thought that form should be language, and the language I chose was Chinese. It was all based in this culture because when I started I felt I should learn another culture from the bottom up; because I’d been in so many cultures which I knew from halfway through without any knowledge of the language. Language for me is the basis of everything. So I was doing everything normal people would have done twenty years earlier but I was doing it in my late 20s, early 30s.

It was delayed adolescence. We did all the things that young aspiring, energised, independent, nervous, questioning kids would do. We just happened to be in that environment. It’s where I grew up basically. So of course that is where I feel most comfortable. That is where I feel my voice comes from. I feel very much at ease in the way in which we process ideas and yet since I come from somewhere else I have a little bit of distance which I think really helps. I think it’s about that balance between subjectivity and objectivity, between knowing what you are talking about and yet removing one’s self enough to see it in a different light.

I have the great facility that actually my Chinese persona doesn’t exist in the real world – my Chinese me has done all this work and yet I am also Australian. It is exactly how one should be, as an artist. You have to come from elsewhere in order to see clearly.

I think the best artists are always outsiders.
Yes – all the great cinematographers in American film are not American (laughs). They’re all European.
You’ve had such varying professions; will you stick with cinematography, or do you think that you might find something that will drag you in another direction?

You mean like women? (laughs)
I don’t think they have to be mutually exclusive.

Where do you think my energy comes from? (laughs).
I feel that I have been blessed to have found something so apposite to my personality – the technicality of the work and being on your feet as opposed to being at a desk. I feel so much more comfortable turning ideas into images, or celebrating people in a space or trying to give form to an abstract idea. So I think what I do is extremely appropriate to who I am. For some reason what I do has some implications for other people, and in some cases actually helps get something done.

I am extremely proud of that, so yes, I’m just going to go full steam ahead, no holds barred. I have new books coming out and there will also be more exhibitions. I think what we do is about access. That’s why the internet or any of those forms are important because they give access to people who wouldn’t have had access in the system – I think that is incredibly important. I have a responsibility to give access to what I do and the way I think through, for example this conversation, through what you can do in this direction and what I can do in terms of putting as much of these ideas out there as often as possible for the kids who need it.

To subscribe to the print edition of Glass Magazine, please go here

From the Glass Archive – Issue Three – Promise

About The Author

Related Posts