What inspires a Cinematographer? Which films infiltrated their unconscious and helped shape their vision and approach to their craft? An article at Empire asked 21 top cinematographers exactly that. John Toll, the DP on such memorable films as The Thin Red Line, Braveheart and Legends of the Fall chose The Night of the Hunter. This striking film from 1955 was shot by Stanley Cortez. It’s black and white images are film noirish, expressionistic, and very powerful. They stick in your memory not only because of their beauty, but in the way that they enhanced a powerful story. One sequence that Toll references has Lillian Gish sitting on the front porch and Robert Mitchum outside the screen. It’s eerie, suspenseful and totally captivating.
Jess Hall is a younger cinematographer. He has just finished filming Transcendence for Wally Pfister. He chose the opening battle scene in Saving Private Ryan. He chose it for “the gut-wrenching feeling in my stomach.” He goes on to explain,”Although I’m not a big Spielberg fan in some respects, I do think it’s a significant sequence and quite masterful. It puts you subjectively into a battle sequence in a way that nothing else I’ve seen has. It has that great opening, which starts on the close-up of the hand and you tilt up to find your protagonist and from there you go into quite a subjective vision of battle. What Janusz Kaminski did with the violent shutter and the bleach bypass adds an extraordinary quality to the sequence. And then there’s the brilliant handheld camera work of camera operator Mitch Dubin, who I sought out to work with on the strength of that scene and who’s become a collaborator. It was shot before the advent of lightweight cameras too. If you see a wide shot, it’s from a bunker. Everything is from ground level, or lower, because everyone’s crouching down, and all the views are partial, obscured by things people are hiding behind. Right the end in goes into an overhead shot which reminds me of that powerful aftermath shot from Gone With The Wind, and there’s lovely symmetry in the way the sequence opens and closes on Tom Hanks’ shaking hand.”
Reading this inspirational article, I thought about what movie I would choose. The first one that came to me was the amazing Blue from the Three Colours Trilogy by Krzysztof Kieslowski and shot by the talented Slawomir Idziak. To me this is the quintessence of film making. All the elements coming together to create a captivating work of art. The script, the acting, the cinematography, the music, the editing are all master classes in their fields. I go back to it often and am immediately drawn into the luminous but broken character played by Juliette Binoche. The script has very little dialogue, but we understand and feel everything going on. We are taken on a journey into the heart of a grieving woman who has lost everything and must find a way back to living. The image of her dragging her knuckles along a stone wall to punish herself and to just try and feel something comes to mind. The story also involves her coming to grips with the score that her composer, husband was working on before he died. It keeps invading her consciousness no matter where she tries to hide. A pool, a cafe, a new apartment offer no escape from her painful memories. The cinematography of Blue is not flashy, drawing attention to itself, but perfectly enhances the tone of the story. It guides us with a sure hand through the emotional lives of the characters and leaves us with a greater empathy to the human condition. The third clip I’m including sadly has less picture quality than I would like, but includes some more of the great score created by Zbigniew Preisner, which stands next to the cinematography and is actually a character in the film. If you ever get the chance to see Blue on film, take it. The Criterion blu-ray is the next best thing. While you’re at it, check out the also beautiful Three Colours-Red, another masterpiece.
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