Computer generated imagery unfortunately continues to gain more prominence in mainstream films. From the latest animated “cash ins” to big epics like Avatar and 300, it seems that the art and brilliance of photographic cinematography is being pushed away. When Wally Pfister won the academy award for cinematography for his work on Inception, I viewed that as a win for celluloid cinematography. Shot on 65mm, VistaVision 35mm, and Anamorphic 35mm, Inception‘s cinematography allowed your eyes to move into a space – a very rare occurrence these days. For me, cinema is not so much about stories, plots, and characters – it’s about environment, movement, and light. Ideas conveyed poetically through visuals supersede narrative. When I was asked to write a “Five Film Favorites” column, I felt a need to express my love and admiration for “true” cinematography – films shot on motion picture film and exposed through a lens which captures the beauty of the world we live in. These pieces wash over you and immerse you in atmosphere that transcends time and place. I suggest watching any one of these films on the largest canvas possible – anything less than blu-ray will not be sufficient. For me, these works define cinematic. If you notice a 35mm screening happening near you, drop everything and go!
5. Empire of the Sun(1987) Dir. Steven Spielberg, Cin. Allen Daviau, ASC
Empire of the Sun is easily Spielberg’s most underrated film. Allen Daviau’s cinematography sweeps you through the streets of Shanghai during the Japanese invasion in 1941. The film opens with light reflecting off the water as the coffins drift on the wakes of the Yangtze River. Every moment in young Jamie’s life flows with emotion – the sunsets romanticize his dream of flying and the bright back-lights burst with a spiritual essence.
4. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) Dir. Robert Altman, Cin. Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC
Robert Altman and Vilmos Zsigmond re-invented the Western and pushed the boundaries with photographic imagery. Shot on location in West Vancouver, the film encapsulates the essence of Western life – a struggle against the weather and against each other. In particular, I love the melancholy palette of the film that was created in part through flashing the stock (lightly exposing it before photography). Flashing the film negative reduces contrast and flattens the image. Add in a color palette of browns and yellows mixed with the Vancouver precipitation and you have a dreary feeling unlike any other.
3. Lawrence of Arabia (1961) Dir. David Lean, Cin. Freddie Young
Wow, the direct cut from the lit match in Lawrence’s hand to the sun rising over the sand dunes – this is pure cinema! Lean and Young are natural cinema poets. There are just so many moments here to choose from, but its hard to top the sun streaming through Lawrence’s white robes while he’s on top of the rail car.
2. Days of Heaven (1978) Dir. Terrance Malick, Cin. Nestor Almendros
Pure magic – this film displays the stunning and fleeting moments in life. Shot mostly during magic hour when the sun just dips behind the horizon, Days of Heaven captures the early 20th century and the move to industrialization. There’s a distance between the characters which is shown in the way the landscape envelopes them. When Bill (Richard Gere), Abbey (Brooke Adams), and Linda (Linda Manz) arrive at the Texas pan handle farm, there’s an erie quality to the farmer’s home that can only be expressed visually. Haskell Wexler also photographed scenes on this picture. One of his contributions included the opening scene inside the Chicago steel mill – a scene where the fire embers illuminate Bill’s murder of a co-worker. Truly, there’s nothing more breathless than the roaring fire that eats up the wheat fields and the grasshoppers that hearken the plagues of Egypt. Once you witness the chaos as people rush to put out the flames, you will be brought back to the heart of cinema. All those digital flames and synthetic backgrounds you see today will seem even shallower.
1. Baraka (1992) Dir. and Cin. Ron Fricke
A poetic documentary unlike any other, Baraka‘s tag line “A world beyond words” holds true. The word “baraka” means “blessing” in many languages. Slowly and brilliantly the viewer embarks on a journey through numerous countries and cultures to witness religious rituals, exotic landscapes, and the interconnection between humans and our world. Having no actors, no plot, no dialogue, and no voice over Baraka represents a high achievement in thematic structure built on the strength of the visuals. Long slow dolly shots draw us into intimacy with indigenous peoples early on in the film. Later, time lapse photography reveals the mechanics of urban life before drawing us back towards nature and spirituality with places of worship and streaming stars. Human faces become vast landscapes that reveal soul and divinity.
Please do yourself a favor and check out Baraka on blu-ray. Shot in the Todd-AO 65mm format and printed to 70mm, Baraka displays the possibilities of the art of cinematography. Color, fine detail, exposure latitude, and movement are unmatched. The 1080p blu-ray was created from an 8K scan of the 65mm negative. There’s nothing out their like it. Boy, I hope to see the 70mm print someday!