OSCAR MONTH: BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY NOMINEE 2012 – SKYFALL
Nobody did it better than Roger Deakins. At sixteen years old, when I saw The Man Who Wasn’t There, saw a hubcap floating off a tire in slow motion in beautiful black and white, I understood for the first time that film could be art. Deakins’ style was so prominent that, for a blossoming cinephile, it became easy to connect the dots. Of course the lavish Kundun and the stark Jarhead, and the mesmerizing Jesse James were all shot by the same genius of composition and lighting. Look at the golden hues. Look at those unwavering close ups. Roger Deakins kept the Coen’s grounded and breathed life into the often questionable projects of Sam Mendes. On Mendes’ Skyfall, Deakins’ cinematographic aptitude does an incredible amount of heavy lifting, and helps elevate the latest entry in the James Bond franchise to something resembling, though not quite, art, but swept up in the changing tide of blockbuster aesthetics, the cinematographer abandons his stamp of confident nuance, delivering a film that is discernibly gorgeous, though, too often, stylistically derivative.
Skyfall’s abominable script-by-committee pits a rather lugubrious James Bond (Daniel Craig) against Javier Bardem’s Silva, a *yawn* former MI6 agent who attempts to kill M (Judi Dench) through *ug* cyber-terrorism. Oh, and Silva has a secret island. High five. Mendes and Deakins’ all but shove the script to the background, doubling down on the melancholy sexuality that has become a staple of Craig’s 007 projects. Deakins’ new penchant for the lightweight Arri Alexa digital camera gives the film a detached, voyeuristic look, rejecting the tired element of wish-fulfillment that has long been crucial to the James Bond franchise. The Skyfall audience only gets to watch Bond, never gets to be Bond and lose itself in the fabrication of the action hero archetype, but this approach is nothing new. The superhero movie has changed, and yeah, Bond is a superhero, and alienation is the new wish fulfillment, and murky is the new sleek, and this is all standard operating procedure for the genre post-Nolan, post-Pfister.
The Dark Knight looms mightily over Skyfall, in its textual grit and cynicism, in its protagonist’s laconic dread, and most importantly, in its visual pallet. Wally Pfister’s influence has been creeping into action cinema steadily since his game-changing involvement in Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboot, and on Skyfall, it almost threatens to overwhelm Deakins. Bond’s arrival on Silva’s secret island (high five…come on, don’t leave me hanging), a low angle shot that slowly rises as well-dressed men with pistols fill the frame, could have been any number of scenes from Inception. Bond standing atop the new MI6 building as a flag waves in the background is the iconic Batman redemption moment. During Skyfall’s climax, Deakins even takes pains to replicate the grit of film, which Nolan and Pfister insist on using, juxtaposing jarring source lights (a helicopter spotlight, bright yellow bulbs, a blazing red fire) against the pitch black of the Scottish countryside. Pfister shot on IMAX. Deakins blew up high-res images in post.
When it’s not Pfister and Nolan whom Deakins is aping, it’s Christopher Doyle and Wong Kar-Wai. Skyfall’s most impressive scene, in which Bond tracks an assassin through the dreamy lighting of a Shanghai skyscraper, would be even more impressive if it wasn’t so obviously imitative of Doyle’s work on Fallen Angels and 2046. Shooting through neon soaked glass, the endless reflection of bright greens and blues, it’s all stunning, but it’s not Deakins, it’s Doyle. The courtroom shoot-up? It’s Pfister. Deakins tries out every hat in the book only to lose his voice in the blockbuster realm, as if the project is too unwieldy, too haphazard, to adhere to any concept of auteurship. Where is Sam Mendes in this mess? A knockout Judi Dench performance gets shuffled from inane plot point A to inane plot point B. Craig looks absolutely miserable. Only the sound crew seems to be having fun.
I almost changed the above still when I looked back at my True Grit write up and realized the Deakins’ shots I’d chosen for both films were almost identical. A single, warm light source illuminates a dead body, or bodies, capturing the quiet of death, the almost unperceivable change that occurs in the air when a life is lost. In a film buckling under the weight of influence, it’s a moment that’s pure Roger Deakins, and a reminder of why I fell in love with his body of work in the first place. Will I be frustrated if the Academy hands Deakins the award on Sunday? No. The cinematography is consistently striking. It’s not as if Roger Deakins has lost his talent, not one iota. The framing is perfect, and the lighting is perfect, but that natural evolution of an artist whose vision has towered over his peers for so long is missing. Like Skyfall is so keen to reiterate, sometimes the old ways are best.
OSCAR MONTH: BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY NOMINEE 2012 – SKYFALL
OSCAR MONTH: BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY NOMINEE 2012 – ANNA KARENINA
In 2007, director Joe Wright and collaborating cinematographer Seamus McGarvey delivered one of the finest long takes that film had seen in quite some time, a five minute ballet of violence on a war-torn beach, the centerpiece of Atonement. McGarvey was nominated for an Academy Award, but as fate would have it, he was in contention against Janusz Kaminski, Robert Elswit, and Roger Deakins, twice. Any other year, it would have been a fighting battle, but 2007 was an uncanny testament to visual storytelling. This year, Seamus McGarvey is back in the ring with Anna Karenina, Joe Wright’s latest, and while the odds are stacked against him (again in the form of Kaminski and Deakins), McGarvey deserves the win, having pulled out all the stops to turn a thrifty, set-locked period piece into a tour de force of movement and momentum, rivaling anything in the lauded Atonement, five-minute Steadicam shot included.
Wright, taking a break from the stark pallet of The Soloist and Hanna, reaches back to his David Lean and Baz Luhrmann inspired roots, indulging in a bevy of color and sound, elevating Leo Tolstoy’s emotionally complex story of adultery and faith to operatic heights. Whereas to achieve the unique visual rhythm of Life of Pi, Ang Lee and Claudio Miranda experimented with several aspect ratios, Wright and McGarvey’s method utilizes the small, but elaborate, set designs of Katie Spencer to frame the characters in shot. Anna (Keira Knightley, a woman made to be on screen, aesthetically, like some lost beauty from the French New Wave) plays with her sister’s daughter in a miniature palace, the walls of which appear to box Anna into the standard 1.37:1, a suffocating square of domestic space. McGarvey’s camera reveals restraint in every room, in the rectangles of doorways, in the calculated gaze of Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), through the crook of a statue, as he watches a group of young girls leave a schoolhouse. In the thinnest of bedroom mirrors, Anna is waif-like, a sliver of the woman she once thought she was. When the film cuts to a party or a horse race, there is the suggestion of space, but as McGarvey’s dollies continue to remind the audience, the entire world of Anna Karenina is a set. For the eponymous heroine, escape is impossible.
There is no better illustration of this than during the spectacular ball at which Anna first gives herself over to the sexual wiles of the scumstachioed Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) on the dance floor. In another long take, and the film often gives the impression of being a succession of long takes, as set pieces are repeatedly removed, and erected, on screen to make way, and articulate, the fluidity of McGarvey’s camera, the lovers glide effortlessly through a room of dancers, frozen in anticipation, who dare to move only when the couple, and the scandal, has passed. Vronsky lifts Anna, and the camera rotates (and there is nothing obnoxious or reckless about it, there is only McGarvey’s elegance and composure) and moves in for a close-up on Anna, her features boiling with erotic tension, before pulling back to reveal a void. The dancers have left, the light dims, and there is only Vronsky and Anna in the dark, and etiquette be damned because for a brief interlude, it is perfect. Then the crowd rushes back and scorned Kitty (Alicia Vikander) is sick with anger, and her stares are whips, whips, whips of the camera, and everyone is gossiping, and their moment of abandon is now fraught with confusion and tension, and yes, suffocation. Anna breaks off (mid-song, total faux pas), and storms out, but there’s that mirror, and its distorted reflection, and what’s that noise? It sounds like a train. It sounds powerful, phallic, and unstoppable.
However, there is space for one, Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), lovelorn landlord and Tolstoy surrogate, a character who exists outside of the restrictive sets, in the vast planes of the country where he pines and toils and comes to understand himself and God. After Kitty rejects Levin’s awkward marriage proposal, the suitor steps out onto the stage and, finding the theater empty, turns his back with defiance. The rear doors open and Levin is outside, in the snow, heading toward his humble country home, while around him, peasants schlep bundles of hay, and he searches for a connection in their eyes. There is freedom in his loneliness, and if he could only step far enough away, past the limits of society where Anna and Vronsky live locked, trapped, struggling in vain against social mores, the world could finally embrace him, and he it.
The last image of the film is one of the most striking of the year. Anna’s husband, Alexi (Jude Law) enjoys a contemplative day in the country with his two children. The sky is blue and the pale green grass, flecked with white flowers, sways lazily in the breeze. Then, McGarvey cuts to a wide shot, the theater, overflowing with country grass and flowers, singing with country wind. The rear doors are open, and Alexi’s moment of peace is contextualized beyond the stage, a stage that will always exist, but one that is ever changing, ever evolving, with new sets and costumes and actresses, with new rules. The play goes on and on, indefinitely, hurtling with an ageless momentum, but every once in a great while it nurtures a spark of life, and there is something like silence in the air, a pause in the proceedings, and outside the sun is shining, and inside the sun is shining.
OSCAR MONTH: BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY NOMINEE 2012 – LIFE OF PI
“What are you looking at?” Asks Pi.
“Talk to me,” he says.
“Tell me what you see.”
The tiger turns. He has been watching the heavens, staring into the blackness of night. Perhaps he is contemplating their vastness, their depth, or perhaps, like the starving, shipwrecked boy, he is waiting. Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a Rorschach test of a film, an opaque pool of religions and philosophies, to be stared at, into, deciphered, or ignored. It is an adventure of the soul, a two and a half hour digital vision quest, a heroic dose, but to what end? What do we find in the darkness? Perhaps there is no “we.” Perhaps it is a journey of self, for self. Will you see God? Do you want to?
Claudio Miranda, whose last foray into the Oscar tide was 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, another film existing almost solely in the digital realm, has the enormous talent of composition foresight. He understands how to frame Brad Pitt’s face even when Brad Pitt’s face won’t enter the picture well into post-production, and he can construct a convincing visual parallel between Pi and his tiger when the tiger, and the water, and the weather, are miles down the road. He sees the forest for the trees.
Much of this precognition is attributable to Ang Lee, who since film school desired to push moviemaking outside of its visual template, which meant for Life of Pi, utilizing a wide array of aspect ratios to compliment the film’s 3D format, as well as its thematic notions of unexpected enlightenment. A school of fish, flying through the air in a wondrous rush is given the horizontal space to “wow” in 2.35:1, and Lee’s knowledge of the spherical process of film printing allows his digital creatures to exist off the frame, in the area of 35mm normally wasted when shooting widescreen. Later, an overhead shot of Pi and the tiger sleeping on the boat while, unknown to them, a magnificent whale glides underneath the water, is presented in a standard 1.33:1 ratio, infusing the scene with a raw, provocative power that calls attention to the true nature of Pi’s isolation. When the film cuts back to 1.85:1, Miranda’s camera has moved into a close-up of the protagonist on his side, reciting the infinite digits of pi in a whisper. Boundaries are an illusion, it seems to say. Everything is connected.
“Tell me what you see.”
The tiger looks into the ocean, and so does Pi (Suraj Sharma), and between the two erupts a multitude of essence, of life, and love, and beauty. One whale diverges into an entire zoo, the zoo from Pi’s youth, which sank with the ship what now seems a lifetime ago. The camera pushes deeper, past lights and stars and Gods, and Pi’s lost love, and her bindi, and her Ajna, which conceals all the wisdom of tragedy and peace, and when it finally emerges, it is through the eyes of Pi, and he is the tiger, his gaze is the tiger’s gaze when the scene began, but he is also more than that, much more, because when the camera cuts again, the tiger’s gaze is now on Pi. They have completed the circle.
Tell me what you see. A carnivorous island in the shape of Vishnu? One man saved from the great flood? The Nirvana that exists just under our feet, if we would only look? Tell me if you see a boy who, through storytelling, learned to cope with the worst trauma of his life, pushing out the demons of human suffering and replacing them with unparalleled feats of heroism and marvel? Tell me you saw the animal that made Pi lose his faith in God return to restore it. Tell me you saw guardian angels. Tell me you saw rebirth. Tell me you saw magic, not some nickel and dime show skullduggery, but real magic, the kind that makes your skin flush and head woozy, the kind that makes you want grip the hand of the person sitting next to you in the theater and never let go, not ever. Tell me you saw it in widescreen. Tell me you saw it in full screen. Tell me you saw it in the glory of IMAX at twenty dollars a pop. Tell me you saw it in three dimensions and that it made you weep.
But don’t tell me you saw nothing. Just don’t. There’s no room for that.
OSCAR MONTH: BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY NOMINEE 2012 – DJANGO UNCHAINED
Quentin Tarantino never met a rotating shot he didn’t like. Straight out the box, Reservoir Dogs, scene one – rotating shot. Jackie Brown, mall heist – rotating shot. Kill Bill, Grindhouse, yep. Django Unchained features two of the horrible things, and the second one, in the film’s final act, when Django (Jamie Foxx) is lying his way out of capture, is as obnoxious as anything Tarantino has ever done, and it’s probably the most obnoxious shot of cinematographer Robert Richardson‘s career, and the man worked with Oliver Stone. In 2012, Richardson took home the Best Cinematography award for his groundbreaking work on Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, the visual style of which took director and camera crew well out of their comfort zones. The same can’t be said for Django Unchained, which offers up more of the stylized violence and madcap Basterdsesque exploitation that has long been Tarantino’s bread and butter, but the director is relentless, and he never stops throwing everything in his arsenal against the wall, and everything in Tarantino’s arsenal? Well, that’s pretty damn entertaining.
No, the rotating shot of Django and his abductors doesn’t work, it’s far too tight, and lasts about a minute too long, but in the madness of Django Unchained, in its cojones-for-days frenetic pace, it can be forgiven. Without that madness, there would be no fast dolly of Django, rifle held high above his head, speeding toward his love on a stolen horse as a fire blazes in the background. There would be no whip toward a group of startled children in a window immediately before Django does some whipping of his own. There would be no epic overhead pull back during Django’s surrender (to the sound of Richie Havens’ Freedom!), a pull back that replicates Michael Chapman’s famous take from the climax of Taxi Driver with the love of a true film geek.
Beginning with a wide shot of Django emerging from under a pile of furniture used for rifle cover, behind a pair of corpses and a blood stained foyer entrance that would spook the elevators from The Shining, Richardson moves tighter, to a medium shot of the hero as he tears off his coat, a moment that echoes the film’s opening sequence in which a newly freed Django tosses off his slave blanket. Here, when he casts off his jacket, it is the jacket of a free man, and when the shot cuts to Walton Goggins’ Billy Crash with a pistol pressed to the forehead of Django’s wife, Hilda (an underutilized Kerry Washington), the choice is clear. No matter the outcome, Django will die, but if Hilda dies with him, his quest will mean nothing.
Django steps forward, deliberately into capture, and Richardson’s camera pulls back and then upward (of course, while rotating 90 degrees) to reveal a bloodbath, the bodies Django has left in his wake on his road to emancipation. Yesterday, we examined Lincoln and the moment of profundity which falls upon the president when he witnesses the battlefield for the first time. There is more blood in every millimeter of Django’s film stock than there is in the entirety of Spielberg’s biopic, but this overhead shot, which holds its final stillness, manages to find a delicacy, amid the dizzying onslaught of action and gleeful splatter, akin to Lincoln’s moment of grief for the dead, a few seconds to reflect on the cost of freedom.
Or, maybe not. Maybe the film says nothing about the cost of freedom, and the shot is homage to Taxi Driver, and little more. Maybe Tarantino’s work has become something of a celluloid Ouroboros of genre nods and navel gazing, of aesthetics and formalism, off on its own axis of cinema, remote from anything resembling humanity. In my series of write-ups for Kill Bill in 2011, I praised the director for keeping alive the spectacle of cinema without any cheap tricks, but then again, Kill Bill climaxed in a moment of unexpected contemplation, and Django Unchained is one House of Leaves showdown after another. Still, I’d like to think there’s room for growth, that Tarantino will find some sort of purpose for his brilliance beyond the love for shallow excess. I’d like to think that the glass is half full. Or, in the vernacular of the grindhouse, that it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.
OSCAR MONTH: BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY NOMINEE 2012 – LINCOLN
Last year, Steven Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s work on War Horse reached a level of visual excellence that towered over the other nominees for Best Cinematography. The canvas was lush, hallucinatory, and sweeping, and, when given space beyond the saccharine plotting and oppressive John Williams’ score, pure cinema. The duo’s follow-up, Lincoln, takes a decidedly more naturalistic tone, in pacing, in lighting, and the difference is apparent immediately. Jettisoning the bold hues and impressionistic set designs of the War Horse battlefield, Lincoln’s opening scene and, surprisingly, its only scene of conflict, is an unceremonious affair, not quite the 90 degree shutter and image shaking pandemonium Kaminski employed in Saving Private Ryan, but sloppy, brutal, and dark, with no apparent use of lighting rigs. Though, to some, the scene wafts the air of a perfunctory biopic establishing shot (how will the audience know it’s the Civil War unless we force it down their throats?), the short battle sequence makes explicit the primary point of Democratic contention against the 13th Amendment. Every day peace is not negotiated, more men die.
It’s important that the audience be struck with this harsh fact from point one, long before even Lincoln (the incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis) fully comprehends the enormity of the carnage outside of its political ramifications. For Lincoln, the battle on the field and the battle in the House are, have to be, wholly separate. Confronted with the truth, how could he not buckle under its severity? Instead, the President tells his jovial stories and parables to rebuke statistics, and Kaminski keeps Day-Lewis’ face in the shadows, as the man keeps the truth at bay, all the while striving for the greater good. This is the sacrifice of the American Civil War, the sacrifice for which Spielberg’s reverence of Abraham Lincoln comes across in every frame of film. If War Horse is about the tenacity of the human spirit, Lincoln is about the conscious surrender of that spirit, of the individual, even when the individual is myriad, to the possibility of the human concept.
There are consequences, however, as there always are. Lincoln’s wife, the already unstable Mary Todd (Sally Field), threatens to come apart at the seams when her eldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) returns home from college to enlist in the Union army. She’s already lost a son, William, and unlike Abraham, she’s never been able to compartmentalize that loss. Her grief is immediate and constant. Like the soldiers slain in the film’s opening sequence, William’s ghost hangs over every waking moment, an agonistic throb, as fitting a harbinger as any. When Abraham and Mary Todd’s argument comes to its climax, the president confesses that he never permitted himself to grieve for William, that his sorrow is so tremendous that every day, he wants to “crawl under the earth, into the vault with his coffin.” “Don’t speak to me about grief,” he tells her, as Kaminski’s camera slowly zooms in on Lincoln’s face. For an instant of disturbing clarity, Mary Todd, as well as the audience, is forced to recognize the weight of his horrible burden.
In a key sequence, when Lincoln and Robert visit a hospital for wounded soldiers, in part an attempt by Lincoln to damper the boy’s enthusiasm for battle, the president makes his rounds, greeting the amputated, learning their names. He doesn’t talk about the war, or acknowledge the soldier’s deformities, out of politeness and respect, but just behind the hospital is a pit of limbs, a loaded image that Spielberg, as a chronicler of the Holocaust, presents with intent to unnerve and unman. Robert, his curiosity having led him to the scene, turns his back, but finds himself unable to roll his cigarette, his tobacco carried off by a sudden wind.
Then there is Tad, Lincoln’s youngest son, played by Gulliver McGrath. When Lincoln finds Tad asleep next to photograph plates from slave auctions, he has them taken away, deeming them too distressing for the boy’s perusal. “I’ll have worse nightmares if you don’t let me look,” Tad whines, his thinking running parallel to Robert’s. “Perhaps,” Lincoln responds, for he well acquainted with nightmares, and with what can happen to a man who turns his back on his fear. It is Tad who Spielberg and Kaminski are with when Lincoln is slain, when a stranger steps on stage (the boy is also at a theater house) and announces the president’s assassination. Tad’s face is pale in the darkness. He screams, and it fills the theater, which is so much like that other theater, but not quite, because Tad is not there to have witnessed it. What dreams plagued Tad’s sleep the night Lincoln surrendered his spirit to the cause absolutely? The spirits of his family, did he surrender them, too?
When Lincoln does look, after all, once peace has been drawn and the 13th Amendment ratified, upon the decimation of the battlefield, at the young men slumped in heaps, their insides nothing more than hollow caves, the coats that cloak the soldiers are the same dull color. Lincoln takes his hat off, allowing in, finally, all the muddy waves of grief. When Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris) tells Lincoln he looks like a man who has aged ten years in one, Lincoln nods. “I’ve never seen the like of it before,” the president insists.
“You always knew that,” Grant replies, “what this was going to be, intimate and ugly.” Lincoln wavers, a great man for the first time face to face with his choices, and their repercussions. Is he culpable in these deaths, did he know, really, and does that fact mar his greatness? Given a chance, would he have done the same again? In the film’s final scene, a flashback to his second inaugural speech, Lincoln reminds the audience that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous, altogether.” There is a pause after “righteous,” and the last word seems to be a reassurance of sorts, not only for the grieving American people, but for himself. Altogether. After so much hopelessness, it is a word much needed.
OSCAR MONTH: BEST COLOR CINEMATOGRAPHY 1966 – A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS
Fred Zinnemann’s A Man for All Seasons opens on The King’s Beasts, stone engravings of lion, dogs, and dragons, monuments of power and virility. Commissioned by Henry VIII in 1536 to celebrate his long, and hopefully fruitful, marriage to Jane Seymour, The King’s Beasts have survived countless reigns, complete obliteration and reconstruction, and a rather garish repainting, while the King and his wives are, of course, long dead. Flesh is only flesh, but stone is stone. Elsewhere, a man rots in a cell in the Tower of London, the walls cold and immutable. He is Thomas More (Paul Scofield) and he has clung to his beliefs and his faith and has lost everything, his job, his church, his family. Only the Tower remains.
Ted Moore, the cinematographer whose sleek aesthetics shaped the look of the early Bond films, shoots A Man for All Seasons with a controlled confidence, eschewing the 007 bombast in favor of methodical pans and zooms that creep around the film’s protagonists as they talk, as they think and plot. Political and religious processions move at a snail’s pace and Moore captures them at great distances, the humanity of these moments lost in the ritual. Thomas More’s appointment to chancellor is filmed in one take, a crane shot that slowly descends toward More as he is donned with the ceremonial gold chain of office. The shot ends on the chain, not the man. More doesn’t know it yet, but the office is little more than an elaborate bribe, and More is worth only as much as his loyalty to that bribe.
More’s devotions are to his faith, to God and to the Papacy, and his naïve refusal to get into bed with Church and State leads to his imprisonment, and finally his execution. The Roman Catholic Church finally awarded More the honorable title of sainthood in 1935, only 400 years too late to be of any use to More or his suffering family. Despite this, Zinnemann and playwright Robert Bolt lionize the “man for all seasons,” a motif that’s visualized by a short time-lapse shot of the prisoner’s view from the Tower of London.
Thomas More is beheaded in the spring, a season of renewal and rebirth. It is, Zinnemann implies, the righteous death of a martyr, and Scofield’s More is at peace, knowing that heaven will hold him close, because flesh is only flesh. As the executioner’s axe comes down, the camera tilts skyward, promising a kingdom far vaster than any in England, and a legacy not beholden to crowns or to stones. Ted More’s final shots, however, are of stone, The King’s Beasts, as the sky darkens ominously, and an emotionless voiceover describes the heretical immolation, corruption, and further beheadings that followed More’s execution.
Like, can I get an Amen?
OSCAR MONTH: BEST BLACK & WHITE CINEMATOGRAPHY 1954 – ON THE WATERFRONT
Proving that integrity still had some sway in the Academy following the game changing introduction of widescreen, Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, bursting with urban grit in the standard ratio of 1.37:1, swept the Oscars in 1955, taking home eight awards, including Best Black & White Cinematography. Director of photography Boris Kaufman (who would later work with lead Marlon Brando in Lumet’s The Fugitive Kind) finds incredible strength in subtlety, never forcing a real moment in favor of technique, allowing each scene to unfold naturally before his lens. Critics site Kaufman’s cool ease during the taxicab confrontation, and his use of angles during Karl Malden’s famous monologue as examples of the quintessential Waterfront style, but the essence of Kaufman’s approach, and Kazan’s direction, is in the set-up, and this is nowhere better illuminated than in Brando’s one on one scenes with Eva Marie Saint in which convivial conversation barely masks the couple’s grief, rage, and desire.
After whisking Edie (Marie Saint) away from a brutal political bust-up by corrupt union workers, Terry (Brando) probes Edie with innocuous questions about her parochial schooling, as if men weren’t bleeding in the streets a few hundred yards away, as if Terry wasn’t partly responsible for the death of Edie’s brother, Joey. A homeless man approaches, stopping between the two, and asks for change. He recognizes Edie, and gives condolences, and he recognizes Terry, and knows what he’s done. He calls Terry a bum. It’s a small world, and everyone is connected, and this fact wedges itself between Terry and Edie from the first moment. Terry can bridge this gap only by denying the horrible truth, to Edie and to himself.
When the two are finally alone, at the fence above the PATH tracks, Terry is able to exert his nonchalant machismo in full force, a machismo which ignites Edie’s blossoming sexuality. When Terry recedes into the background, Kaufman’s camera stays with Edie, her mind a whir of conflicting emotions. Edie eventually, cautiously, joins him, but as one scene dissolves into the next, she looks back at the camera, to the safe distance at which she was standing only a minute before.
Later, in a dank gangster swill-hole, after Edie has downed her first whiskey, Terry expounds on his nihilistic philosophies. Here, Terry is raw, and the smoldering power he employed above the train tracks, where his raised arm threatened to embrace Edie at any moment, has almost completely dissipated. When Terry abruptly denies culpability in Joey’s murder, Edie begins to break down, but so does Terry, as he kneels by Edie’s side imploring her to drink her beer. The scene parallels a similar offer at Waterfront’s opening, when Terry’s brother Charlie attempts to buy Terry a drink immediately after Joey’s death. It’s an offer of compliance, to play “deaf and dumb” and cool it with that morality talk. Get drunk. Stay quiet.
Boris Kaufman keeps Brando in sharp focus, lingering on his pained face as he tries to force Edie to drink, physically raising the glass to her lips, but Edie is unresponsive and Marie Saint’s foreground image is blurred. Her grief is both enigmatic and eerily familiar to Terry, who lets the glass down pathetically as he struggles to comprehend this woman sitting in front of him. The shot cuts back to Edie briefly before she gets up, assured that Terry would help the situation if he could. Terry, alone, still kneeling, broods with humiliation and anger.
The turning point in the relationship occurs on the train tracks, beyond the fence at which Terry and Edie’s casual flirtation previously halted. Terry implicates himself in Joey’s murder and Kazan and Kauffman pull out all the stylistic stops as the tension that’s been building between Terry and Edie finally breaks open. Beginning with a wide shot of the two standing at odds behind a heap of rubble, Kauffman goes in for a series of close-ups, a technique used only sparingly up to this point. Steam hisses violently, drowning out a confession the audience doesn’t need repeated. Edie covers her ears, the noise is too much, and she covers her mouth, a twisted call back to the “deaf and dumb” motto of the dockworkers, and maybe she screams, but we can’t hear it over all that cacophony.
This is the genius of On the Waterfront, its set-ups of unpredictable stillness, quiet scenes pregnant with violence, violent ones pregnant with meaning. The film ends on a bombastic high note, one that might not be entirely earned, but rousing nonetheless, as the noise and the passion and the angst come colliding together in a spectacular show of defiance. “Am I on my feet?” Terry asks in the finale, as he staggers forward, bloodied but not broken. He is sure of only one thing now – integrity at every cost.
nb – the stills presented above are from a widescreen presentation of On the Waterfront, and do not accurately represent the image as originally intended.
OSCAR MONTH: BEST COLOR CINEMATOGRAPHY 1953 – SHANE
For cinematographer turned director George Stevens, Shane’s sole 1953 Oscar win must have stung. Audiences and Academy members lauded the epic scope of Shane’s western vistas, projected in “flat” widescreen, a brand new technique for which Paramount installed a custom screen at Radio City Music Hall, but widescreen was never Stevens’ intention. Stevens and DP Loyal Griggs shot the tediously mawkish gunslinger yarn in the Academy ratio of 1.37:1, but the duo’s compositions were matted in post and blown out to adhere to Paramount’s daring new format. It’s possible that Academy voters saw past the stunt, and after careful consideration presented the award to Griggs for his extensive use of close-ups or his carefully illuminated night shots, but not likely. The western was bigger now, grander, and everyone ate it up. It was the stunt that won the Oscar.
Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. Studios, to compete with the surge of excitement over the widescreen format, and the growing television market, invested heavily in new lenses and projection techniques. 20TH Century Fox’s studio branded CinemaScope, an anamorphic widescreen process that squeezes the image in frame instead of blowing it out, resulting in a higher quality print, entered the market almost immediately with a trio of widescreen films. The Robe and Beneath the 12-Mile Reef, both shot in Cinemascope, contended against Shane in the 1953 Best Color Cinematography category. Colombia’s From Here to Eternity, filmed in a non-anamorphic widescreen format (with no squeezing, but more film waste) nabbed the Best Black & White Cinematography award, among countless others.
There was no turning back. Widescreen was king, and anything else was as cheap as TV.
In an attempt to eliminate the grain and brightness issues of early anamorphic formats, studios began implementing a variety of widescreen techniques, higher quality lenses and film stock, combination anamorphic and hard matte presentations, and larger film formats. 70mm meant epics the likes of which were never see, and auteurs whose foundations were in visual storytelling (Wyler, Lean, Kubrick, and yes, Stevens) pushed the boundaries of widescreen, taking 70mm to beautiful and unexpected places. Newer, lest costly presentations, such as Super 35, which utilizes film space previously reserved for audio, as well as digital moviemaking, have cemented widescreen as the industry standard everywhere from film to television to video games.
Coincidentally, the one place you won’t find widescreen is Shane, its DVD and Netflix prints existing only in 1.33:1, much closer to (but not quite) the original Academy ratio. What does this mean for cinephiles, exactly? Are you missing out on the widescreen experience that wowed Radio City patrons in the 1950s, or does getting to the core of Griggs’ original cinematography better reflect George Stevens’ vision of masculine virtue on the old frontier? Maybe all that lonely, expansive landscape is there for a reason. Without it, Shane might be just another white hat bests black hat western, an Old Hollywood relic in a genre that was desperately in need of a little perspective.
OSCAR MONTH: BEST BLACK & WHITE CINEMATOGRAPHY 1945 – THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY
There was no better time for Albert Lewin’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. The horror of the Second World War was slouching toward its terrible apex in Japan, and the American public was seeing it all on the big screen, but not in the newsreels. The ten minutes of lifeless propaganda, presenting a clear through line of hope and righteousness, to which film audiences were subjected before A-Pictures reflected little of the complexity and carnage on the battlefront. No, the truth was in the B-movies, the crime films, the noirs. Two sides to every story, and so on.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Hurd Hatfield’s laconic portrayal of the title character finds its footing in aesthetics. Gray is an Adonis, high cheekbones, perfect hair, his suits simple and elegant, but there is nothing behind his eyes that resembles the nuance of the human soul. Dorian Gray’s body is all form, restraint; he is a walking void. Upstairs, in his boyhood room, his spirit rots on canvas, the degeneration of the human condition splayed out in all its maddening truth, as complex and visceral as any noir film, and, in brief, terrifying glimpses, pulsing in full color.
Director of photography Harry Stradling is no stranger to the world of noir. Stradling’s work on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 thriller Suspicion set the groundwork for the intricate on and off-stage lighting and the strong emphasis on negative space and shadows in Dorian Gray. Gray’s greeting parlor, like the man himself, is stark and clinical, but the stairwell leading up to the hidden room, bright white with a bold black core, looms in the background, dominating the frame in every shot it’s featured. The hidden room in question is bathed almost completely in shadows, its small lamp and the vague implications of streetlights bleeding through window lattices providing little respite from its oppressive gloom.
Much of Harry Stradling’s technique concerns the deliberate obfuscation of facial features, especially eyes, focusing alternatively on the backs of character’s heads and torsos as they enter and exit rooms, or sit down for a round of vapid conversation, and always lingering in darkness. In the scene following Dorian’s farewell to his fiancée Gladys (Donna Reed), the shadow from Dorian’s top hat blackens his visage entirely. The next shot of Dorian approaching a waiting carriage is filmed at a downward angle through a looped whip, its resemblance to a hangman’s noose unmistakable, and Dorian’s gaze never turns to meet the driver, or the camera, while giving his destination. Later, in the seedy enclosure of a dive-bar, former Dorian acquaintance turned drug-addict, Adrian, sketches a chalk portrait of Gray on a table, the eyes nothing but vacant ellipses. Which portrait is a more accurate representation, the oozing color bedlam in the locked room, or the nothing? Is this art a simulacrum of one man, or a microcosm of humanity? Just how dangerous is it? Art, I mean.
There’s no moral here. Dorian Gray is just one of a number of men in his circle who have given themselves over to the lifestyle of hedonism, and unlike Lord Wotton (played impeccably by George Sanders), who tellingly goes unpunished throughout the story, Gray seems to have started his arc as a genuinely good person, a philanthropist who had no place enmeshed in the rigmarole of painting related curses. Instead, Albert Lewin’s adaptation ruminates coolly on societal dualities, what is perceived and what gets hidden away, in the underbelly of London streets, in the hypocritical colloquy of rich men across the dinner table, and in strange, sad rooms, locked up forever, clinging to the unperceivable texture of shadows. By 1945, filmgoers knew these shadows all too well, the duplicities they hid, and those they brought to light.
OSCAR MONTH: BEST BLACK & WHITE CINEMATOGRAPHY 1941 – HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY
“I learned whatever I knew in the projection room – from Ford.” – Orson Welles (This is Orson Welles)
At the 14th Academy Awards, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley beat out Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane for Best Art Direction, Best Editing, Best Black & White Cinematography, Best Director, and Best Picture. Rumors of ornery Kane template William Randolph Hearst bribing and threatening Academy members to shut out Welles’ beloved classic, and Kane’s current shadow over the film canon, have only solidified the critical vitriol for Valley’s egregious win. How Green Was My Valley is no Citizen Kane (to say nothing of The Maltese Falcon, the year’s true masterpiece), and Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland’s contributions to the art in terms of POV shots and deep focus techniques are unparalleled, but Ford’s film is an extraordinarily accomplished piece of cinema, and it deserves examination on its own accord.
Originally intended to be a Technicolor William Wyler epic, How Green Was My Valley’s dreary monochrome pallet suggests none of the lushness of its title, and the film is better for it. Ford and collaborating cinematographer Arthur C. Miller introduce the eponymous valley, an impoverished Welsh coal mining community fifty years in economic decline, with a series of static shots of houses turned hovels, street urchins, and a shawl-wrapped octogenarian staring wistfully at nothing. As the scene moves backward in time, protagonist Huw Morgan contemplates, in a soothing voiceover, the glory days of his childhood, when the black slag of the coalmines had only begun to cover the valley’s hill, “not yet enough to mar the countryside, or blacken the beauty” of the village. Despite Huw’s warm words, the subsequent image of Huw (Roddy McDowall) and his father (Donald Crisp) poking around a slope of blackened rocks while trails of smog pipe from coal chimneys in the background betray the narration’s sentimental notion of pastoral purity, suggesting much of Huw’s youth was “colored” by naivety.
Miller’s wide shots of soot-coated miners trudging home after a hard day’s labor and singing a traditional Welsh ballad evoke the newsreel grit of Eduard Tisse’s work with Eisenstein, but though the film has a decidedly socialist slant, Marxist ideals of solidarity and the blue-collar pedestal are deconstructed as Miller’s camera gets closer to the colliery. When, against his father’s wishes, young Huw abandons his schooling to work the mines, perpetuating his family’s poverty cycle, his first day underground proves relentlessly backbreaking. Though Huw can’t help crack a smile at the thought of becoming a man and a provider, Ford and Miller’s commitment to source-lighting, and the claustrophobia of the shooting space, anticipate the film’s horrific climax. There, weak lanterns struggle to break through the blackness of a cave-in, and the meditative surreality of death finally overwhelms Miller’s stark compositions, as Huw embraces the dying Morgan patriarch against a coffin of black rock, and for a moment, they are one with the mines.
This dream-like tone finds root midway through the film, when Walter Pidgeon’s moralizing Mr. Gruffydd breaks the spell of Huw’s paralysis (his legs immobile after a fall through the ice) by bellowing “Huw, walk!” It’s a miracle in the biblical sense, and Huw’s slow ambulation across the flowery field, his dark coat and trousers crisp against a backdrop of the Welsh countryside, is perfectly serene. It’s a shot that finds its parallel in the final moments of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film, Wild Strawberries, and Gunnar Fischer’s striking use of greyscale, bringing to mind the grace and beauty of death.
The final moments of John Ford’s film exist in a similar valley, as the entire Morgan family reunites on a landscape that is half memory, half fantasy. It is the space to which Huw has longed to return his whole life, a prelapsarian ideal that exists right outside the toils of the quotidian, forever above the smoke, above the ruin.