The Lesser Works of Janusz Kaminski

Toward the end of my grad school experience, I was approached about an assistant editorship with Reservoir, a new, student-written publication designed to showcase the vibrant community of Columbia College Chicago. The following year I was promoted to Managing Editor and given an opportunity to mold the magazine into something cool, quirky and unique to that singular university. In a classic cliche, Reservoir folded after its third year under pressure from uptight administrators. I’d moved on by then, but I was still mighty sad to see it go. Here’s a piece I originally published in Reservoir Magazine, February 21, 2007.

With the Academy Awards just around the corner, Reservoir would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the work of Columbia College’s Oscar-winningest alum. That would be on Janusz Kaminski, a 1987 graduate who has been Steven Spielberg’s go-to cinematographer since 1991. Kaminski won Best Cinematography Oscars for “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan,” and his epic vision has colored everything from the dystopian prisonscapes of “Minority Report” to the slick office antics of “Jerry Maguire” to the lush river voyage of “The Adventures of Huck Finn.” Kaminski returns to the alma mater this May, when he receives an honorary doctorate of humane letters at Columbia’s commencement ceremony.

Not to diminish Kaminski’s achievements, but it’s easier to do great work when you’re given great material to work with. The true test of an artist’s ingenuity comes when he or she is tasked with sprucing up the subpar. Janusz Kaminski’s camera work has more than once been the only grace note in an otherwise forgettable production. Treat yourself to a showcase of Kaminski’s minor works as a reminder that even the best of us have bills — and dues — to pay.

“Grim Prairie Tales” (1990)
You don’t see a whole lot of Western/horror movies, and this flick is a pretty good illustration of why. It’s one of those no-budget scare anthologies with sort-of-famous actors collecting paychecks in none-too-demanding parts that sometimes turn up on shows like “Svengoolie” (See also: “Creepshow,” “Merlin’s Shop of Wonders,” “Tales from the Hood”). Here it’s former Oscar nominees James Earl Jones and Brad Dourif hamming it up as wayfaring Westerners swapping tales of moderate terror. Look for lots of flickering campfire shots from Kaminski.

“Pyrates” (1991)
This out-of-print Gen X obscurity is most notable as the first big-screen pairing of real-life spouses Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick. They play a star-crossed couple whose sexual encounters are so hot, they literally start fires each time they make love. No, seriously — that’s the actual plot. The early ’90s were a weirder time than they get credit for. This bizarre flick does have a bit of a cult following, probably due in part to Kaminski’s creative framing of those incendiary couplings.

“Little Giants” (1994)
Nowadays, a kiddie sports flick starring Ed O’Neill and Rick Moranis doesn’t sound that appealing, but in 1994? OK, it didn’t sound so great back then either. Perhaps the best thing to come out of “Little Giants” was Roger Ebert’s savagely vitriolic one-star review, in which he condemned the film as “a perfectly-honed retread of every other movie about how a team of losers wins the big game” that would make viewers “bitterly resent the fate that drew them into the theater.” For Kaminski’s part, he was saddled with the unenviable task of making guest star John Madden look photogenic.

“How to Make an American Quilt” (1995)
With a needlepoint-heavy plot and a cast including Maya Angelou, Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Jean Simmons, Alfre Woodard and a slew of other esteemed women of the theater, this quintessential girls’ night movie seems to have been conceived with an eye toward endless repeats on the Lifetime network. The acting is uneven and the storyline frustratingly slight, but Kaminski’s eye is put to good use in lustrous shots of Americana. Unfortunately, even the most flattering camera angles can’t make Winona Ryder appear more expressive than your average block of wood.

“Cool As Ice” (1991)
That’s right — Kaminski is one of the lucky few who got a ringside seat for the ultimate early ’90s ego-driven train wreck. Intended as the launching pad for Vanilla Ice’s film career, this debacle instead hastened his journey toward becoming a national punch line. Still, imagine the thrill of being on the scene when the Ice Man first delivered immortal lines like “I’m gonna go across the street and, uh, schling a schlong” and “Drop that zero and get with the hero!” Awards be damned, it’s moments like those that make a career in the arts all worthwhile.

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