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In 1970, when he called Orson Welles out of the blue and offered his services, Gary Graver was a young cinematographer who’d trained the hard way, filming the war in Vietnam for the U.S. Army. Welles politely brushed him off, at first. Luckily — for Welles and the rest of us who love movies — he called Graver back within minutes and invited him to meet, right away. “Only two cameramen have ever sought me out,” Welles later told him. “You, and Gregg Toland,” the ingenious maverick who’d shot Citizen Kane.
Over the next 36 years, up to and well beyond Welles’ death in 1985, Graver proved no less talented or indispensable to the great filmmaker. His crisp, elegant compositions appeared in F for Fake (1975), that pioneering “essay film” in which documentary elements are fused with thought-provoking mischief; The Other Side of the Wind (1970–76), Welles’ feverishly intense “lost” feature, which we can only hope will see the light of day in our lifetimes; the madly brilliant one-man reading of Moby Dick (circa 1976), in which, over roughly 25 richly staged minutes, Welles plays Ishmael, Ahab, Starbuck, and even conjures an unseen whale through the combined power of his voice and eyes and Graver’s gorgeous captures of the sunlit morning mist around them. Above all, there is the sublime half-hour that exists of The Dreamers (1983), an unfinished aria of romantic hope starring Welles’ longtime partner Oja Kodar and based on two stories in Isak Dinesen’s Gothic Tales. Graver’s mark upon the Welles archives abounds in countless other projects. One day in the late ’70s, Graver once told me, he showed up at Welles’ house and found him in the kitchen, with every frying pan going. “Get the camera, Gary!” Welles ordered. “Today we film a cooking show!” In Graver’s words, “You had to be ready for anything.”
Graver was a great teacher to filmmakers in matters of thrift and self-reliance. Look him up on any movie database and you’ll find his credit on a zillion and one films — exploitation pictures, mostly, high-end and low. This was how he supported himself, without complaint, while working pro bono — not just for Welles, but for Kodar, Curtis Harrington and any serious artist who had the sense to ask. I first met him when he cold-called me, over a positive hope I’d expressed in the Weekly for The Other Side of the Wind. He invited me to come see two hours of it the very next day. Late last spring, he drove straight over from a doctor’s appointment (suffering from cancer, it turned out) to speak with a group of students I was teaching at USC. The last time I saw Gary, mere weeks before his death this past November, he’d just returned from France, where he’d shot a feature for a young director in a matter of days. Despite the cancer and epic jet lag, he stretched out at ease on a sofa, giving advice to a dear friend of mine about how to make her feature: “You can make one for a thousand bucks, if you know what you’re doing.”
If! A world has died with this man, but film history was blessed to have him.
A public memorial service for Gary Graver will be held at the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre on Sun., Jan. 21, at 2 p.m.
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