Friday, June 25, 2010

Writing with Light - 5 amazing achievements in cinematography

The best way I can imagine to describe the wondrous art of filmmaking is through a combination of two poetic phrases uttered by two men who are among history's most skilled and sensitive masters of film. The first is Andrei Tarkovsky, the great Russian director, who described his craft as "Sculpting in Time," adding that "The time in which a person lives gives him the opportunity of knowing himself as a moral being, engaged in the search for the truth." Film, therefore, in utilizing time as the very raw material of the artist's expression, is directly linked to our search for the truth, to our spiritual and philosophical realization. In enabling us to explore heretofore hidden possibilities of knowing and seeing, of broadening our empathy, our humanness and our wisdom, film - like all good art - allows us to break free of the limits of our own ego.

The second quote is by the great master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro who characterized his art as "Writing in Light." This beautiful rendering was actually the inspiration for the name of this website. In the light with which men like Storaro write we might perhaps also find the light of wisdom, the phos of the nous spoken of by Plato in his "Republic," the opening up of the spiritual dimension of the human being. And perhaps, within the light of the artist that illumines the everyday, infusing it with awe and allowing us to see things anew as beautiful and true we may even see the light spoken of by mystics both East and West, the divine light of God. This Light Within Light represents the highest potential of art, the accomplishment of the human vocation, the bridging of heaven and earth, human and divine.

The following are five films that represent what have struck me to be among the highest accomplishments in this Writing in Light, dazzling displays of awe and beauty that stand among cinemas greatest accomplishments in visual grandeur. All of these films are so majestically beautiful that they could inspire the spirit and heal the soul with the sound turned off, so great is the power of the image. Cinema is, after all, primarily a visual medium, a truth that is often forgotten due to our unfortunate fascination with abstraction and theory which in turn makes us respond more easily to linear plots and characters rather than visuals. This has led to the fact that a great many films are basically photographed plays where the visuals are dull and uninspiring at best or crude kitsch and spectacle at worst.

These five films are not flawless works of art (such a thing is, of course, an oxymoron - beauty must always have its blemishes to be truly a fine thing) but they all contain exceedingly marvelous visuals and exemplify the heights to which the talent of sensitive and spiritual cinematographers can ascend.

Godfather Part II - Gordon Willis

One of the great crimes of the highly-dubious Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is their failure to nominated Gordon Willis, one of Americas most talented filmmakers, for the majority of his career. Willis was finally nominated in 1983 for Woody Allen's Zelig and then again in 1990 for Coppolas Godfather Part III and he received the Honorary Academy Award in 2009 for his life achievement in cinematography. But it was in the silver age of Hollywood filmmaking, the exciting and turbulent 70's, that Willis' star shone the brightest. His work on Coppolas first Godfather film, Alan J. Pakula's All the President Men and Woody Allen's masterpiece of comedy and romance Annie Hall cemented his legacy as one of the most inventive and visually interesting cinematographers of not only his generation but of all times.

But it was his work on Coppolas sequel to the Godfather that will probably stand as Willis' crowning achievement. Willis' work on the first film had befuddled and angered studio executives when they were shown the dailys during production due to his fascination with shooting in extremely dark conditions (which earned him the moniker "The Prince of Darkness" from his friend Conrad Hall). The suits complained they couldn't see what was happening and that the film's visuals were a mess of shades and shadows. Even the young Francis Ford Coppola fought bitterly with Willis on this, shouting at him to increase the light so people could see the power of the actors performances. Fortunately cooler (or at least thicker) heads prevailed and Willis' decision to shoot the film as dark as possible resulted in one of the most beautiful and visually stunning American films ever made. The sequel, a superior film to the original in many ways, showcases Willis' talents even further, especially his keen eye for the mythical and mystical "magic hour" where the sun's rays have receded enough to allow the beauty and play of shadows to dance across the land. This is especially apparent in the scenes with the young Vito Corleone, masterfully played by Robert DeNiro, where the harsh and cruel realities of organized crime merge with the nostalgic beauty of an era where tradition, family and honor meant more than greed and satisfaction. The acting of both films is, of course, among the most excellent, subtle and complex of any films ever made, yet it is made all the more powerful, all the more resonant, due to Willis' masterful eye. He literally manages to reveal to us the shades, the shadows, the layers and depths of the human psyche, most horrifyingly and beautifully in the character of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) whose descent into a symbolic and literal hell is brought to vivid realization through Willis' camera.

Manhattan - Gordon Willis

Originally I had intended to limit myself to one film by each of my favorite cinematographers but it was impossible for me to choose between the above-mentioned Godfather Part II and this wonderful film by Woody Allen, meaning that Willis has the honor of holding two spots on this brief list.

The power of art, I believe, lies largely in its ability to transform our vision. Spiritual practices, askesis and the practice of philosophy are all ways in which we can transform our selves and - subsequently - our vision of the world but our strivings are all in vain lest we also open ourselves up to the experience of beauty and to its significance in our spiritual transformation. This is why, I believe, the most powerful spiritual and philosophical traditions of the world all put such a heavy emphasis on the role of beauty in our lives and its power to open us up to the divine. This film is a perfect example of this fact, I believe, even though it is made by a filmmaker who is an outspoken atheist. It seems clear to me that Woody Allen (whether he wants to admit it or not) is an extremely spiritual person, one who sees the subtleties and shades of grey in life, the interplay between shadow and light, more clearly than almost any other 20th century artist I can think of. Nowhere is this spiritual vision of his more apparent than in his obvious love and admiration for the city of New York. In Allen's eyes New York is a merging of the symbolic and the factual, a carnival ground of the imagination where anything is possible and the potential joys and sorrows of human beings can be explored in myriad ways. Many cinematographers have conveyed this vision of New York beautifully but no one will ever come close to what Willis accomplishes in this film. At any point during the film one could pause it and hang the frame on one's wall as a work of art. The opening montage is especially majestic. Seeing it as a young man in Iceland it made my heart throb for the excitement, the vigour, the possibilities of such a place. Having recently visited New York for the first time I felt blessed having seen this film as it allowed me to see this beautiful city in a deeper, more meaningful light, a microcosm of human greatness and failure.

The Third Man - Robert Krasker

One of the great moments of cinema: Having searched for clues to the circumstances of his friend Harry Lime's death in war-torn Vienna, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) exits a building into one of the city's darkest squares. You have never seen shadows as deep and dark as in this city of lost hope and ideals, perfectly representing the descent into crime and depravity of Martins' friend. Up until now Lime, though never seen, has been the film's primary focus, the wheel around which questions of good and evil revolve. As Martins crosses the square he notices a man standing in a doorway. A cat strolls up to the man, the camera following it. Anton Karas' exotic, seductive and almost-depraved zitar score starts to play. A light from a window comes on, momentarily illumining the man in the doorway. It is Lime, played by Orson Welles in one of his greatest roles. He seems bathed in darkness, reveling in it, only his mischievous face revealed in the light. And then the light is gone, immersing him once again in pitch black.

There are many more moments like this in The Third Man, a film of such exquisite beauty that it sparked my interest in visual art as a young man. Krasker was primarily influenced by older film noir films which in turn were influenced by German Expressionism. The spiritual and moral lives of the characters seem not so much represented as fully revealed in the visuals, perfectly complementing and enhancing the pitch-perfect acting, directing and astounding screenplay. The chase scenes in the tunnels of Vienna at the end of the film remain among the most visually exciting images ever shot in cinema.

Barry Lyndon - John Alcott

I had the pleasure of seeing this film for the first time in a pristine restored film print at a cinema quite a few years ago. Even though I much prefer many other films from Kubrick's ouvre to this one due to certain thematic and narrative problems I must say that I have seldom, if ever, been as enthralled by any visual art as I am by this film. The experience is almost erotic, in the original meaning of the Greek word eros, where one is elevated outside of oneself to a different plane of seeing and knowing. The film was shot largely without the use of electrical lights and most often only candlelights were utilized, which is nigh impossible in still photography, let alone in cinema. The patience and meticulous eye for detail that is necessary for such a task is almost unimaginable, demanding the note-perfect harmony of director, cinematographer and editor. All of Stanely Kubrick's films stand among the most visually inventive of world cinema but this film may be his most visually striking, a moving painting on par with the great European masters such as Van Gogh and Cezanne.

Apocalypse Now - Vittorio Storaro

One of the most striking combinations of philosophy, storytelling and visual brilliance, Franics Ford Coppola's film is a haunting and surreal trip into the heart of darkness, both literal and figurative. The film is amazingly beautiful and visually exciting without ever falling to the level of sheer spectacle. Each image speaks to the viewer in a language that is somehow striking and subtle at the same time. One can simply marvel at the composition of framing, light and camera movement or become immersed in the spiritual journey of Willard's search for the doomed Kurtz, perfectly conveyed through Storaro's camera. It is a film that is rewarding on multiple levels and that literally demands multiple viewings, a complex, difficult, flawed yet masterful work of art that stands among the most poignant and interesting statements about war ever made, be it in literature, painting or film.


rabidcow said...

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agust symeon said...

Thank you for the kind words, sir.