The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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A memorable encounter in a dive bar leads to an epiphany about cinematography.

 




A couple of weeks ago, I was out for dinner with some friends at a place an unenlightened person might refer to as a dive — a locals-mostly bar/restaurant where the food is marginal and the decor somewhat less so. That is not to say it has no appeal. Fresh off the beach, after your eyes have adjusted to the T1.4 lighting, the wood-paneled ‘70s makeover of this ‘50s original will keep you scanning the red banquettes for Jimmy Page and the rest of Led Zeppelin. Even though you don’t smoke, the native vibe makes you wish you did, and when you park two blocks away, the wafting smell of beef on the grill promises more than it will deliver.

Making up for that, it’s a serious no-hipster zone — there’s not a “hate the man” beard or touch of smarmy irony within flame-thrower range. The unpretentious patrons are more concerned that you mind your business and check your nonsense at the door. House Rule Number One: Noise-making and attention-seeking of any variety are discouraged by the governing barflies.

About an hour into my visit, just as the Manhattans were kicking in, something happened that was so extraordinary an exception had to be allowed. Three men and two women, middle-aged and respectful of the prevailing code, were ensconced over their meal in one of the booths. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more unassuming group in a place filled with purposefully low-key souls. However, their anonymity ended when one of the gentlemen chose just the right moment to voice a rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Under normal circumstances, he would’ve been shushed into silence by the village elders or, worse, told by the staff that the kitchen had closed and the lights were about to be turned off. Instead, this man, clearly a trained vocalist, continued with a warm, rich baritone that froze everyone in mid-sneer. It came from deep inside his chest and communicated a profundity of emotion rarely encountered in daily life. I can think of only one word to describe the way he sounded: exquisite. And as the mesmerizing effect washed over the room, I was not alone in feeling that I was hearing this most familiar of melodies for the very first time. As he finished, the initial sideways glances of the gin-mill Taliban had been turned to full, outward appreciation. Their applause was every bit equal to his performance.

But our new friend wasn’t finished. A few minutes later, after the drinks were freshened and the ambience resettled, he once again piped up, this time with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Unlike so many of the celebrity fools who turn it into an ego-driven vocal exercise at the ballpark or arena, his version was genuine and brought forth without artifice or reference to himself. Leading up to a deafening appreciation at its conclusion, the entire house was on its feet, hands over hearts, with not a dry eye to be found.

At this point, you might be asking what any of this has to do with cinematography. Well, it has everything to do with it.

Under the right circumstances, the work we perform can have the identical effect on people. It doesn’t matter if you’re shooting the most innocuous bit of tripe or a top studio release. Rest assured, someone somewhere is going to be moved — perhaps deeply or unexpectedly — by what you’re doing. Though it’s easy to lose sight of this critical notion amidst today’s obsession with technology and the breakneck pace at which we work, we can’t afford to let it slip away. In an industry that is too often too short on decency and humanity, any pure motivation to do something is valuable and must be welcomed.

ASC legends Vittorio Storaro and Haskell Wexler have called for a more humanistic awareness within our ranks. As we approach the end of the year, I suggest the new one start with that singer in mind. It’s only through recognizing our own effect on others that positive change can take place. And since the only thing we can fully control in life is our own behavior — you got it! — the effort begins with you-know-who.

 

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