The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents September 2015 Return to Table of Contents
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President's Desk

The imperfect beauty of the human touch

Dustin Hoffman, one of our greatest actors, was quoted recently in the Independent as saying that the present state of feature filmmaking is the worst it has been in 50 years. The number of mindless tentpole movies churned out by the major studios, which appear increasingly reluctant to embrace the more thoughtful, character-driven films with which Hoffman made his reputation, makes it hard to disagree. I would caution him, though, that a lot of garbage is produced during every “golden age.” And Richard Brody, writing in The New Yorker, presented a counterpoint by arguing that today’s independents have filled the gap with a surge of films that surpass their 1970s predecessors in both gravitas and craft. There’s an element of truth in each position, but I think they both miss the more profound issue lurking beneath the surface: What has happened to the human touch?

About 70 minutes into Arthur Penn’s seminal 1967 film, Bonnie and Clyde, something takes place that I find enchanting no matter how many times I see it. The camera booms up to reveal a high, very wide shot of Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker as she runs off into the sweeping vista of a sun-parched cornfield. Halfway through the move, a cloud slides in to create a dark, threatening shadow that rushes to meet her from the tree line ahead. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, and it’s the type of happy accident cinematographers pray for; in this case, it portends the title characters’ fate.

It’s also an oddly gratifying moment because you can sense the presence of the filmmakers. I trust they were smiling. There’s no question that this natural — if unlikely — phenomenon was captured in-camera as part of the original photography. Audiences should be thankful to cinematographer Burnett Guffey, ASC (who picked up an Oscar for his efforts), for not yelling, “Cut!” and to Penn for choosing to use the take.

A similar but less obvious moment can be seen in Citizen Kane, when a matte-box shadow briefly passes over the doorjamb of Kane’s library as the camera pushes through. It’s a minor thing, of course, and the vast majority of viewers will never notice it. But as much as we always strive for perfection, I find this sort of flaw appealing; it’s the cinematic version of the hidden mistakes intentionally woven into Navajo blankets to remind us that man is not perfect. With the deep immersion in technology our profession demands, and the bloodless, antiseptic nature of so much of the digital imagery we currently see, it’s nice to realize every once in a while that living, breathing people were the true creators of what we’re looking at.

I think this is what Hoffman was really trying to get at. The human touch is still there in contemporary cinema, though it might not be as easy to see as it was during the height of his career. For proof, I would refer him to the work of the cinematographer.

Cinematographers occupy a unique position from which to deliver a great deal of ourselves to a project — at least as much as the writer, director and performers. We not only share in the development of the visual plan, but are also charged with transforming the abstract into reality. And the essence of that is a deeply personal effort. Under the best of circumstances, we’re able to tap into our own feelings and put them on the screen with total freedom, “mistakes” and all. Surely, that fleeting impression of Gregg Toland’s matte box took nothing away from Citizen Kane, which, 74 years after its release, is still recognized in nearly every quarter as the greatest film ever made.

If I let myself go just a little, I can imagine Toland sitting in the screening room and, for reasons known only to him, signing off with a thin smile on that little mistake. He was one of the best cinematographers who ever lived, and it’s safe to assume he could have ordered a reshoot of the offending moment. The fact that he didn’t gives me even more respect for him. It shows that, yes, after all, one of our gods was really one of us.


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