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.

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