Friday, May 13, 2011

Pictures Worth a Thousand Words: part three

Mr. Sandman

#2 Citizen Kane

©1941 Mercury Studios/RKO Pictures
I realize I’m the worst sort of blasphemer for not listing Citizen Kane in the number one spot, especially considering the eternal worthiness of Welles’ meticulous genius, but this is my list and my heart belongs to another man who will not be denied. That being said, I also must stress that the gap between the number three spot and one and two is an insurmountable chasm of Olympus Mons proportions. 300 shouldn’t be next to Citizen Kane on any list, regardless of the expanse between, but due to an epic fail of brain function, some idiot (me) forgot about Schindler’s List until today.

The first time I saw Citizen Kane I sat in fifth period theatre, three rows back from a 17” tube TV on wheels and I still remember the mix of awe and respect it elicited from my seventeen-year-old-with-the-attention-span-of-a-grapefruit self. Ten years passed between that viewing and the next and several of the images still burned in my memory. The pan up Kane’s gate, the shots through broken glass and shadows, and the infinity mirror where we see a late-in-life Kane cascaded in the eternal continuum of reflection and possibilities of what might have been. The standard of greatness here may be impossible to beat, or even touch, but this is a pristine example of mood made the way it was meant to be: acting, camera and light. No computers involved.

There is so much exquisite showing, so much sub text involved in the cinematography of this film that it’s easy to understand how it’s remained atop Olympus these decades. There are simply too many ground breaking shots, techniques and genius moments of perspective to discuss in anything less than a doctoral thesis.

But soft, Peter O’Toole calls my name…

#1 Lawrence of Arabia

©1962 Horizon Pictures
I cannot, I will not, deny Lawrence this spot. The cinematography and the wonder it inspired carried this film across barren sands and into the heart of Damascus. I admit it’s about as exciting as the other dialog and information heavy epics of the day, but as T. E. Lawrence meandered through the wilderness he carried me with him in wide-eyed awe. Across landscapes I have never seen and through an Arab world of distant memory. All with wide angles and burning shots of sun and sand and the villain of the elements mercilessly present. Discovery off the edge of the map. And I love him for it.

But amongst all the shots of sand and camels and man versus the pitiless sea of dunes, one shot stood out. Perhaps one of the most famous in film history.
The moment Lawrence, dune messiah tenacious, held out that simple wooden match and watched it burn down to his fingertips, the moment he blew it out and the next shot opened with the desert sun rising with the creep and crescendo of the Arabia theme… well, I knew I had just seen the most spectacularly genius thing ever to be put on film. I forced people to watch it. They weren’t as impressed as I was, but then they weren’t as smart as I was either. Lawrence of Arabia kindled my desire to become a cinematographer, a dream that never came to pass for this southern Illinois girl, but it forever opened my eyes to the power of a lens in the hands of a master. The power of an image.

©1962 Horizon Pictures
The question that comes to mind at the end of this, the writer’s angle, is how to bottle that inherent power, the sense of wonder and brilliance of cinematics with naught but vellum and ink and the English tongue. It takes more than fair words standing up in all in a line, it takes the right words at the right time arranged in just the right way. Sometimes you have to twist them on their heads and make them aim to misbehave, and perhaps some things can never be achieved across the mediums, but the point of all of this, of images and the emotions they elicit, is to capture the essence of what a powerful image can be. The lifelong impressions they can leave. So, go. Be a student of great film and sear your brain with a match, some mirrors and for goodness sake, please go watch Schindler’s List. I owe Spielberg one.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Pictures Worth a Thousand Words: part two

She makes me move

#4 Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

© 2007 Jerry Bruckheimer films/Walt Disney Pictures

Like the Godfather II image, Pirates might not qualify in the larger sense of great cinematographic moments, but for myself, when you combine Hans Zimmer’s particularly well done score, it captured my imagination and kindled genuine excitement. So much so, that this snapshot served as the cinematic inspiration for my own lip-locking-in-the-midst of-hell work. It birthed one image that would not be ignored and everything else in the scene sculpted around it. So I have to give this moment credit.
Also similar to Monday’s pick, there is the palatable contrast of two extremely competitive emotions visible in the shot: utter we’re-all-going-to-die chaos, and a complete overflow of bliss. And just to drive the rise above the noise point home, instead of simply sealing the marriage with a 360 degree shot of A-list kiss in the midst of battle, the camera pulls the wide angle of a forty foot wave crashing over the prow of the ship, reminding the audience of oh-yeah-and-they’re-all-going-to-die-in-the maelstrom-in-about-fifteen-seconds. Whatever. Everyone is just happy those two finally got a wedding.

#3 300

© 2006 Warner Bros. Pictures

300 is one of those films that despite a lot of complaining about the oversimplification of the story and bad script or acting (which I don’t entirely agree with. I think 300 was exactly what it wanted to be and not pretending to be anything more.) you cannot say it isn’t making a very loud visual statement. Does it make too much of a statement, clashing spears and screaming to the point of near blood boil to be noticed? I’ll concede to that, BUT there are some specific images buried within the noise that shine. More than one, if you ask me. One of my favorite overall cinematic moments even came out of it (thank you Mr. Daisy Wenham), so it is not all noise and Spartan shield banging. But the singular image that stands out and elicited an appreciative ‘whoa’ out of me was the Oracle of Delphi’s trance dance. With all the previous talk of digital tampering on Monday’s post, and the obvious digital touch (ok, grope) to every single scene in 300 I feel I should clarify that the fluidity and the elegance of these few moments of drug induced undulation were not the work of digital animation, but of underwater filming. Ramping (the speeding up and slowing of the frame rate) and digital color correction were involved, but the lady and the gossamer were tangible elements. Whoever the marketing people were for 300 were so proud of the image that it wound up being used as a one sheet poster for promotions. Good call, I say. Naked chick and a really artsy shot? That should get both genders heads turned. (I apologize for not italicizing '300'. It was causing a coding issue)

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Pictures Worth a Thousand Words: part one

The Judas Kiss

Cinematography -noun :the art or science of motion picture photography. Aka: that thing that thrills my heart when done right.

The rise of digital technology has brought about some debate in the Mills household as to what constitutes cinematography. The way most folk think of it is as ‘the way a movie looks.’ Fair. Fifteen years ago I would have said the same, but then something happened. I’m not sure whether to solely credit Lucas for spurring it on (though I should in part. In 2002 I sat in on a panel discussion with Star Wars producer, Rick McCallum, where he extolled the benefits of the digital future and how they would purposely run the non digital theatres out of business) or if it was Gladiator’s jaw-dropping resurrection of Oliver Reed to finish his role as Proximo that came two years earlier, but digital technology gives a studio a literal finger of God to paint people and pallets that otherwise involve photographic geniuses to execute. A tremendous gift in some hands, a garish exercise of excess in others.

Which brings me to my point. How much (if any) tangible reality need be present in camera to qualify as cinematography? Does an image that’s completely falsified qualify as cinematography? There is, after all, no photography involved. Or is the problem in the definition itself? Is the new definition of cinematography ‘the art of storytelling through moving images’, thereby removing the necessity of the photographical aspect?

In some cases I want to argue on behalf of the digitally achieved. It is a vision in someone’s mind after all, and as a cinematic writer I appreciate that immensely. Some of my favorite cinematic moments, ones that have shaped my own creative work, have been achieved by means of digital altering. As have some of the worst moments imaginable. But either way, a photographer has a whole different skill set than someone who’s figured out how to utilize color correction software. Should they be grouped together? After all, Avatar won best cinematography at this year's Academy Awards, yet the aspects and images that caused it to win were entirely digitally created. Is that fair to the artist working in what is essentially a completely different medium? Should they invent a new category for ‘best digital painting’?

More on all of this in weeks to come, but for now I’d love to hear your opinions on the matter, especially from the viewpoint of a photographer. Right now I leave you, and for the rest of this week, with a list of my favorite moments of cinematography in film. The ones that took my breath away.

#5  Godfather II- the Judas Kiss

If you just crawled out from under that same rock as the Geico dude (shame on you if that’s the case), you need to know that despite appearances, this is not a picture of two men locking lips. Far from it. This is a kiss of death. The kiss of death second only behind that of Judas himself. I realize this moment from The Godfather II doesn’t strictly qualify as cinematography (hence its falling in at the number five spot instead of the number two it deserves as a purely cinematic moment). The actors contribute the largest part to the power of this moment, but there has always been something about the crowd, the jubilation of the New Year celebration going on in the background. The confetti flying. Two emotions running in such stark contrast to each other, yet, to the passerby on the ballroom floor, the meaning of the kiss would be lost, presumed revelry. For me, that genius, that moment of perfection on the screen was alive. Passionate. And Unforgettable.

Next up: #4 and #3… no hints!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

God of Thunder, Hear me Thor

The Epic Thor and Tolkien

Aulë the Destroyer by Ted Nasmith
Any devotee of the works of Tolkien understands his affinity for merging the mythos of the north with the mythos of his own universe, Arda. He desired something greater than the escapades of Arthurian legend to serve as the root of his beloved England’s identity, and succeeded in that act of creation in epic fashion. But even with that knowledge under ones belt, the evidence of Tolkien’s sometimes direct requisition of names and places can cause one to blink in a moment of reader confusion. Or elation.

There are multiple examples of this, but the best, the most obvious, is seen in the Icelandic Poetic Edda, Völúspo. In it Odin seeks knowledge from an oracle of sorts. She tells him of the creation of the world, of men, of the future fall of the gods and the creation of the dwarves. Which is where we see some familiar names: Gandalf, Durin and almost every dwarf that accompanied Bilbo to the den of Smaug.
(Great. Now Hugo Weaving’s ‘Gimli, son of Gloin’ line won’t leave my head.)

As for Thor, his inclusion in the tomes of Arda is not so obvious. Tolkien took his essence and molded the thunder god into a somewhat faith-influenced version of mythos by putting him in a submissive, well-rounded role in his relation to Ilúvatar (God). Instead of a hotheaded hero, Thor finds his Norse likeness born instead as a Vala (angel who decided to be involved with the shaping of creation). He takes the name Aulë.
Aulë is associated most directly with craftsmanship and skill for all things of earth. He wields the hammer of his gift and, like Thor (who’s mother was Jörd/Earth), is thematically associated with the same. The shape and make of the land. Stone. Metal. And most famously, the dwarves.

Aulë, like the other Vala, participated in the creation of Arda by adding his melody to the will of Ilúvatar. To his dismay though, Arda sat empty, uninhabited by elf or man. In his impatience to have other beings to impart his knowledge and skill to, Aulë created his own race of peoples in the form of seven dwarf lords. But he did not possess the authority to grant life or spirit and so the dwarves were no more than puppets of Aulë’s will, incapable of thought or reason outside his direction.

Ilúvatar saw this, and was not pleased with the impatience of Aulë, but Aulë was remorseful of his folly and, with tears, took up his hammer to destroy them. Seeing this, Illúvatar had compassion, stayed Aulë’s hand and imbued the dwarves with life and spirit.

Aulë’s struggle with and likeness to Melkor (Lucifer equivalent) in his specific powers and design and love of craft, also lends a great deal of likeness to the enmity between Thor and the god-turned-enemy, Loki. While it is clear Melkor/Morgoth is fashioned around the idea of Lucifer/Satan, Loki is a character whose story arc is so similar to both that some wonder if hints of Christianity did not weave themselves into the Norse mythos before the first oral traditions were penned. A topic for another day.

The connections within the scope of the Poetic and Prose Eddas, Biblical themes and Tolkien’s body of work are almost endless. So, please, dig deep. Think. Enjoy. But if you don’t want to spend days of sunny spring goodness burrowing in this fascinating, but endlessly layered mesh of mythologies, I suggest you take the blue pill. You are probably going to take an Advil to combat the information overload anyway.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

God of Thunder, Hear Me Thor

Myth and Mortals
OK, so they are scary goats, but still goats.
Traditional myth tells the tale of Odin's greatest son as a fierce-eyed, red bearded god who drives a cart pulled by goats. While this might seem like the equivalent of a Vespa by god standards, when you wield the great hammer, Mjollnir, that iconic mountain crusher tends to tie tongues.

The essence of Thor first appears in historical recordings of sacrifice dating back to the Roman conquest of Germania during the time of Christ, but it isn’t until the Viking age of the 11th and 12th centuries that his popularity peaked. Scandinavians from Finland to Iceland revered Thor as almighty god and the emulation of their favorite deity earned them a reputation of brutality and abandon in battle.

But it wasn’t just nasty sharp pointy objects they had brains to wield. No. They fought the persistent spread of Christianity with ideas as well. Pendants fashioned in the shape of Mjollnir were especially popular in places where crucifixes flourished. Towns and children continued to take on the rebellious name of Thor long after the official shift to Christianity. Even in modern times, the Norse gods have not completely faded. Thor’s hammer is still a religious symbol of power, though nowadays it’s sported more frequently by death metal bands than tombstones (Hey, whatever helps one channel Skwisgaar’s mad guitar skills. Extreme!).

As for Marvel’s myth The Mighty Thor, his quarterback cockiness gets him grounded on Earth in the body of a medical student. A crippled one, bereft of most of his memories. . . a mercy when you consider how short his end of the stick is.  But even pagan gods can grow a heart and Thor develops a soft spot for humans. He becomes a doctor and like any smart young man, soon finds himself involved in an office romance. If only that were the extent of his issues.

One day he hears the call of Odin and travels to Norway. Unbeknownst to him he finds the cave of his god-self’s birth along with Mjollnir. For a brief flash the god in him returns and saves Earth from an invasion of. . . wait for it. . .  aliens. Thirty-four years later Will Smith does the same thing, but Thor gets extra points because he wore a suit of silver nipples and still made it look cool. Rock on prince of Asgard. Rock on.

Up next: The Epic Thor and Tolkien.