The Usual Suspects (1995, Bryan Singer; Cinematographer: Newton Thomas Sigel)
“And like that, he’s gone.”
Ill Stills 2011-2013.
Posts tagged Ill Stills
The Perks (and Burdens) of Being a Wallflower
“She was not equal to her own writing. And, on the highway like this, speeding toward some tawdry destination, she had the sudden terrible conviction that language itself didn’t matter and that nothing mattered ultimately except the body, the human body and the bodies of other creatures and objects; what else existed?”
- Joyce Carol Oates (“Accomplished Desires”)
“You think too much.” I get this all the time, from bosses who don’t comprehend the miasma of hazardous conditions on the road from point A to point B, from women who’d like to experience a moment of closeness without the derisive nitpicking of every look or kiss, from friends who worry. This thing that is essentially me, this cleverness and aptitude for analysis, not just of films, or novels, or art, but of people and situations, it’s also a trap. The ability to construct with language and the hypersensitivity to the sensations of existence, it spills over. To “be” becomes a verb for another, imaginably happier, set of people.
As the title suggests, Stephen Chbosky’s film adaptation of his breakout, young adult novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, situates the artist, budding author and high school freshman, Charlie (Logan Lerman), firmly at the fringe of society, as someone who watches, takes in, but can never partake. His friends, a homosexual, a punker, a “slut,” theater kids similarly living fringe existences, watch with him, their gazes equal parts contempt and longing, their minds, tail eating snakes of damaged logic that compound rejection and guilt in ways only hormonal adolescents, or writers, can. They are Charlie’s family, and they “get” him, but The Perks of Being a Wallflower is also Charlie’s narrative, the novel and film being constructed as a series of letters Charlie writes (to himself, or to his psychologist) in an attempt to understand his role as cerebral spectator of a world that refuses to acknowledge him, and this is where Chbosky’s romansbildung finds its complexity and sadness. In order to act as medium between reader and world, Charlie must disappear, become nothing.
Charlie’s story then, is one of inaction. His first relationship, with entitled punk princess Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman, her?), is a one-way conversation, signified by Charlie’s long absences during Mary Elizabeth’s phone calls, in which Charlie relegates himself to a boyfriend-as-concept, a character who knows when to hold hands, or to fool around awkwardly after dances. He is a prop, and Mary Elizabeth is merely a simulacrum for another love, one that hasn’t yet happened, or has, but was sullied, or is impossible in the way that love often seems to be. The true object of Charlie’s unrequited affection is Sam (Emma Watson), whose raw effervescence, and penchant for spontaneous bursts of emotion, seems to transcend the boundary between thought and being. Charlie, high for the first time, watches Sam as she stands in the back of a pickup truck, her arms outstretched, blissful, as it rockets through a tunnel He says he feels “infinite.” He thinks he is a part of that bliss, and maybe he is, but he’s still only watching.
Throughout the second and third act of Wallflower, Charlie will take everything vibrant about Sam and distill it through his thoughts and letters, until she’s nothing but a series of contradictions on the page. This is the only way he can have her, he believes, can have anything. In his world of words, he finds understanding. He interprets, but does not live. It’s a problematic approach that not only leads to further alienation, but depression and questions of accountability. Charlie’s burden, the burden of being a wallflower, a man of inaction, is one of guilt, the feeling that if he had only done something, anything, he could have saved the day. He harbors guilt as a victim of a childhood incident of molestation by his aunt, and blames himself for her death, a car crash, because of the resentment he’d built up in the aftermath of his premature sexual awakening. He could understand his aunt’s pain, but could do nothing to alleviate her malady, the ramifications of which would negatively impact his entire young adult life.
It’s interesting to note that during Charlie’s one moment of heroism, physically defending his gay friend against a closeted lover, his mind goes completely blank – a blackout. It’s what Charlie has always wanted, in a way, to live without process, without analysis, or reinterpretation, but his blackouts, symptomatic of his swelling depression, terrify him, as if the only thing worse than too much control is none at all. When Charlie attempts suicide following the reemergence of his repressed sexual memories, a shot of his typewriter, alone, detached from its author, presents itself as a chilling indication of Charlie’s desire for, and fear of, total selfhood.
There is hope in this image, as well, though, the hope of connection, that perhaps through interpretation, Charlie acts for all of those on the fringe unable to articulate their own fears and dreams, and there are a lot of us, aren’t there? On the fringe, I mean. This is why Stephen Chbosky’s quirky coming-of-age novel amassed such a following in the first place, how it became one of 2012’s most critically lauded films. Drugs, alcohol, neuroses, despair, violence, and sexual turbulence might not be in the dictionary next to classic childhood experiences, but guess what? That’s life. Most of us didn’t get to be the prom queen. Most of us cried and trashed in bed the night before, working up the courage to even go to prom, to face the masses of young women and men who didn’t understand us, and who we, in turn, didn’t understand. So we dressed up, and we sipped from flasks, and we pined, and we hated it, and we danced, but then again, maybe we didn’t.
Warrior: The Intimate Spaces of Pugilism
Two men circle and jab, lock bodies, and careen to the floor. Sweat drips over swollen eyes. Lungs take desperate, cutting breaths. Bones bend to fracture. The audience, seething swells of testosterone and rage, goad annihilation. Nervous television viewers strain through their hi-def, through the snark of announcers and roar of the crowd, through the thin, wire cage, where blood is spraying, jonesing for a drop of immediacy. Inside that cage, one man will rise victorious and one will not, simple as that. Outside, the city bricks ooze poverty and rancor, and the spaces in which a human being can face another human being recede to point zero. This is the America of Gavin O’Conner’s Warrior, an America in which the men who fought to the bone integrating themselves into this country never learned to stop beating the shit out of each other, while the country industrialized, digitalized, moved on.
The film’s two protagonists (antagonists?) are estranged brothers, Tommy and Brendan (Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton), but the film’s singular title is no misnomer. The essence of mixed martial arts is reductive. There is no place for convolution, no time for the battery of tangled relationships that exist outside of the cage. A warrior’s opponent is nothing, a momentary blip in a solipsistic ascension to Godhood, and even in defeat, he is safely inside himself. These cages, the warrior needs them.
Tommy is the warrior, in the reductive sense, AWOL from the Marine Corp, refusing to engage with anybody, with any conflict, that threatens to become emotionally present. Tommy’s deadbeat, alcoholic father, Paddy (Nick Nolte, whose beautiful sad-sackery makes me rue the cancellation of HBO’s Luck all the more), on the road to recovery, struggles for reconciliation with his sons, but for Tommy, Paddy is merely a tool toward his end goal. For Brendan, Paddy is a non-entity, the bad taste of a past that’s best forgotten.
Brendan, who, surprise, surprise, will oppose Tommy in the film’s decisive MMA competition, is the warrior’s antithesis, a man so multifaceted that he is ruled by the emotion that combat requires necessary to jettison. His is a plural existence, one of the family, supporting and connecting with a wife and daughter, connecting to students, connecting to friends, and one as a fighter, alone, hurtling toward decimation, or redemption. Masanobu Takayanagi, Warrior’s director of photography, finds an aesthetic niche in the fundamental voyeurism of sport, extending the scopophilic yearning, and its inherent barriers, to the fighters’ most private encounters. When Brendan confesses to his wife, Tess (Jennifer Morrison), that he’s moonlighting as a parking lot prizefighter, Takayanagi positions the camera outside the bathroom doorway, setting up an emotional bulwark between Brendan and the audience, the breaching of which becomes both an invasion of, and invitation to, his moment of intimacy and the space it occupies.
Compare this to the film’s opening scene, in which Paddy returns home to find an inebriated Tommy waiting on his stoop. Despite the fact that this is the only glimpse of each other the men have had since Tommy’s childhood, O’Conner and Takayanagi are careful not to include the two in focus in the same shot. The film’s title card, bold white lettering that appears after Paddy invites Tommy inside, alerts the viewer that this is the film’s first bout, and one that perhaps takes precedent over sport. The camera here, and throughout the entirety of the movie, is handheld, personal, but isolating. The audience dances around the cage, rarely inside.
Of course, there is redemption, both for Tommy and Paddy, and Tommy and Brendan, through battle. Tommy’s admonishment of Paddy in a casino puts Paddy back on the wagon (the Paddy wagon?), which is what Tommy has subconsciously wanted from moment one, to return home to find the villain he left, and face, and overcome him. Paddy as born-again twelve-stepper was unexpected to, unacceptable for, Tommy, so he keeps Paddy at arm’s length, until Paddy is roped back for the KO. Paddy’s relapse is a disheartening moment, or would be if the same tactics that O’Conner has utilized to distance his audience in the film’s first two acts hadn’t sterilized its characters completely, complicated by the fact that at the moment of Paddy’s defeat, Tommy embraces his father, for the first time, perhaps ever, and comforts him at the nadir of his malady. Tommy has won, and he moves forward, on to Brendan, toward actualization, in only way actualization is understood by impoverished young males – fighting.
Brendan forces his empathy into the cage with Tommy, despite Brendan’s trainer screaming that Tommy is not his brother, and that Brendan should do right by the warrior’s credo and destroy with prejudice the object that stands in his way. To Brendan, as warrior, there can be no familial past with Tommy, because there can be no Tommy-as-person, but when Brendan takes his brother to the floor, he offers up love, in the immediate sense, apart from any sort of biased forgiveness of past wrongs. Tommy taps.
Again, through defeat, there is rapprochement. The brothers exit the cage, Brendan’s arm around Tommy, compassionate. They move straight toward the camera, one that has found stability, until they are past it, and that final barrier to connection is overcome. The two share the frame, pointedly. Bloodied and shaking, they are exhausted, but unified.
Ivan’s Childhood: Reflections Beyond the River
There are things that will always be out of our grasps. Some of these things are tangible objects, a beautiful man or woman, a better job, more money, and the struggle seems all the more fruitless because you know, deep inside, these things can be obtained, have been by others. But not you. Then, there are those dreams for which we reach that we will never touch, impossible goals, conceivable, but, ultimately unattainable, and the struggle seems all the more beautiful for it. Andrey Tarkovskiy’s Ivan’s Childhood exists in this dreamscape. It is a film of smoke, of water, of substances that refuse to take shape. It is the past that can never be altered. It is the future that will never come.
Still, we reach.
Ivan (Nikolai Burlyayev) is a child of war, a soldier, courageous and agile and headstrong the way only an adolescent can be. He crosses through enemy swamps undetected. He refuses to cough up answers. Around him, his temporary guardians plot to send Ivan to military school, away from the front, and the inherent dangers of the battlefield, but Ivan will not be swayed. He has no concept of Ivan as child. There are vague recollections of youth that come to him in dreams, in which he’s playing with his mother, or a young girl who might be his sister, but these moments are gone. These people are dead. Ivan finds counterpoint in the company of adults. Will he be the braggadocios Captain Kholin? Or, perhaps he is more like the young Galtsev. Director of Photography Vadim Yusov shoots Galtsev and Ivan as equals from the moment the two are introduced, and Ivan stands tall in frame against Galtsev’s interrogations. Ivan meets his gaze. They are doubles. Later, as Ivan tells his story of escape from boarding school, Galtsev is seen in the mirror, listening intently, as if he, himself, is Ivan, reflecting back a decade, to some distant past, when he was someone else entirely.
Or maybe Ivan will turn out like the derelict he meets while attempting to go AWOL. The man is a crazy soul in wont of a nail, which he has misplaced ages ago. Still, he searches amongst the rubble of the house where his family, like Ivan’s, has been killed. “Oh, Lord,” he says. “When will this all end?” He locks himself behind what’s left of his gate. For him the war is lost. It has been for some time.
When Ivan dreams, he is staring down a well with his mother, looking at the impossible reflection of a star in the shape of a cross. He reaches, and his hands are in the water, so close, but the star is a mirage. Even in his sweetest dreams of youth, salvation is an abstract concept. “You needn’t get so worked up over the smallest things,” a voice advises, and now Ivan’s mother is gone, too, has become a symbol, far above Ivan, who, trapped by his longings, cannot escape the well he’s crawled into.
Ivan is a symbol, though, too. He is youth, and he is vitality, and for this reason Kholin (Valentin Zubkov), against all better judgment of, hey, having a prepubescent boy on the front-line fighting Germans is a stupid idea, keeps him close. When Ivan is around, there is still some semblance of hope and innocence. He is a glimpse beyond the war, perhaps to Kholin’s own childhood, when things were simpler. Kholin is trapped also, exhausted by battle, by disappointment and death. A beautiful nurse, Masha (Valentina Malyavina), catches his eye and Kholin pursues her in the woods, but there is nothing genial about his seduction. He is verbally aggressive, physically imposing. When the two kiss, it is against Masha’s will, and Kholin holds her tight, above a deep crevasse, as if, could he will himself to let go, she would disappear forever, perhaps never having existed to begin with.
A song, played in a devastated bunker on a battered phonograph, reminds the men of her. “They tell Masha not to go beyond the river” a voice croons, as Kholin and Galtsev sit in silence. “They tell Masha not to love the young man.” It is a song of transgression, of lost innocence, an innocence which Kholin destroyed in the woods, which the war destroyed in Kholin. The real Masha enters the room while the song plays, but Masha is being transferred, and Ivan has disappeared, and only the record is there to comfort them that, yes, at one time, there was more to life than this terrible bunker, this omnipresence of war, the quantity of which can only be measured by its own stinking void of loss.
The film ends with two juxtaposing sequences. The first is documentary footage of the aftermath of World War II, blown out buildings, corpses lining the street. The wife and daughters of the infamous Nazi, Joseph Goebbels, whom he poisoned with cyanide, lay next to his charred body. Ivan is now just a photograph in on a report, disposed from whatever file it was kept in. He’s been captured, tortured, killed. What did they expect?
Part of Ivan, though, is elsewhere, on a pristine beach, with his mother. He drinks from a bucket, a body of water easily consumed, contained, not like the well with its illusion of heaven, or the river of the song with its mysterious dangers, or the swamp, which looks so much like the sexual awaking of the woods, but offers only gunfire and bloodshed, or the ocean Ivan runs along in his dream, or in his death, chasing a young girl, his sister, his mother, Masha, until he outruns her (and what’s he chasing now?), his arm outstretched, so pathetic, so inexperienced, and we see ourselves in him, and he is real.
Real Talk: Before Sunrise and the Connection of Nostalgia
Three months into 2013, and already one of the most buzzed about films of the year is Richard Linklater’s long awaited follow up to his Sunrise trilogy, Before Midnight. Do I care? It’s been over a decade since I first fell in love with Linklater’s vérité style of urgent philosophizing, characters frustrated with identity, and society, and growing up, and wanting to talk endlessly about it all. Like a lot of high school students, I connected deeply with this search, and knew that somewhere inside the confluent streams of ideas and voices, maybe there would be answers, maybe even the, capital-A, Answer.
So, I bought every Linklater film available, most of which I still own, The Newton Boys gathering dust in a stack against the wall, and subjected my closest friends to repeated basement screenings of Waking Life and Dazed and Confused. I shelled out forty pounds and took a date to the premier of Fast Food Nation (terrible, terrible idea), and sat rapt at an inspirational lecture Linklater gave on filmmaking. When I finished Before Sunset, one rainy afternoon my freshman year of college, I was inflicted with a strange melancholia that lasted for days, and thought, yes, this is love.
Smash cut, 2013. Linklater hasn’t made an interesting film in six years, and I’m staring at a snap-case DVD edition of Before Sunrise (there’s even a full screen option!). Ethan Hawke’s disgusting 90s goatee lurches dangerously close to Julie Delpy’s face, and seems to be a terrible harbinger for a one-night-stand, philosophical or otherwise. What did I see in these two? Was this romantic in the 90s? Did it move me then? Would it now? What was the deal with goatees?
And the DVD is in, and the train is moving, and an old German couple are arguing, and it’s jarring because there’s no subtitles, and Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) are about to begin a romance that will span three films. The two put aside their pretentious novels and get to talking in the dining car, and despite looking like a junkie from a 1950s PSA, Jesse convinces Celine that she should impetuously get off the train and hang out with him in Vienna until morning. I guess charisma goes a long way.
Delpy is the much stronger actor of the two, as Hawke sort of mugs and makes awkward transitions between thoughts, but for some reason I’m completely engaged in these two young lovers, younger than me now, who are so hungry for self-discovery they throw caution to the wind at every chance. Let’s talk to strangers and visit a graveyard and make out, because who knows about anything? Life is a swirling orgasm of excitement and ennui and you might as well get your kicks in while you can because the other three hundred and sixty four days you’ll probably be parked in front of MTV with a bong and a bowl of cereal watching popular music piss itself down the drain. Ah, to be young again.
Sunrise has more to offer than nostalgia, however. Though Jesse and Celine’s colloquies, which are often fascinating in themselves, take up ninety percent of the screen time, Linklater uses subtle visual and editing techniques to explore the nature of communication in a vague though impactful manner. The tactic of dropping an audience into the film during a foreign conversation is given extra merit midway through the movie at a restaurant filled with foreign conversation. Cinematographer Lee Daniel, whose perfunctory work on Linklater’s walking and talking pictures always keeps dialogue in the foreground, lingers on various couples speaking French and German and English, each exchange as important as the last. While this is a trick that emulates a similar scene in Linklater’s breakout, Slacker, the global setting of Before Sunrise, and the restaurant in particular, takes the film briefly out of its own closed circuit. In the morning, a sterile tracking shot, indicative of the couple’s reemergence into “real time,” follows Jesse and Celine to a cellar window where, inside, a man is playing Bach on a harpsichord. The camera cuts to the couple’s POV, in their naïve voyeurism, and the sense of magic is rekindled. Celine and Jesse dance to his music, and the man plays away, unaware that right above him hearts are beating in ¾ time.
Perhaps this isn’t an accurate depiction of life, or love. It’s not the life, or love, I know, anyhow, with its miasmas of antagonism and confusion. Love, as a whole, is too complex for one night of romance, too complex for romance in general, probably. Jesse and Celine aren’t in love, no, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t truth in their infatuation, in their passion for life, and each other, and themselves. This is just one moment, a marvelous moment when two people meet and anything can happen, when the mystery of life seems to contradict everything else, every harsh reality, every disappointment, and open itself up, and in six months, in ten years, in twenty years, who knows? Who knows about anything?
Ill Stills Episode Six – The Grand Oscar Month Podcast
In episode six, Kevin Hinman and Arison Cain give Oscar Month a glorious send off by venting their frustrations about Argo, the Academy’s penchant for blandness, and why the sassy old man archetype is as uninspired as a little kid who swears. Also, bad puns galore and a third act twist that’s sure to disappoint almost everyone. It’s an Ill Stills podcast for the ages!
Spoiler level: none.
Rebel Without a Pulse,
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 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 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.