Do Cinematographers Have a Signature? Let’s Try a Test


Last month the film enthusiasts of Twitter took up a new meme: A user would post the line “these two movies have the same cinematographer” and add two images. The joke was that it was hard to believe that, say, Janusz Kaminski, the Oscar-winning cinematographer of “Schindler’s List,” could count among his credits the Vanilla Ice cash-in “Cool as Ice.”

The meme may have started in jest, but it raised a genuine question: Is it possible to detect the signature of a cinematographer?

In some cases, it clearly is. The cameraman Jack Cardiff brought a special chiaroscuro to Technicolor that’s visible in the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (“The Red Shoes”) and John Huston (“The African Queen”), though perhaps less so in “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” which Cardiff also shot. Gordon Willis earned the nickname “the Prince of Darkness” for pushing the boundaries of low light on 1970s classics like “The Godfather” and “All the President’s Men.” More recently, Bradford Young (“Selma,” “Solo: A Star Wars Story”), who has taken digital cameras to shadowy extremes that make Willis’s shots look like halogen lamps, has discussed cinematography as a form of personal expression, even a response to current events.

But not all cinematographers, even the greatest, leave obvious identifying marks. To explore the question, I looked at two films shot by the same cinematographer, Freddie Francis, for directors whose own imprints are immediately recognizable: “The Elephant Man” from David Lynch and “Cape Fear” from Martin Scorsese.

“The Elephant Man” (1980): Rent or buy it on Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play and Vudu.

“Cape Fear” (1991): Stream it on Showtime; rent or buy it on Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes and Vudu.

Superficially, the films look quite different in period (the Victorian era in “The Elephant Man” versus the then-present in “Cape Fear”), in color scheme (black-and-white vs. florid Technicolor) and in the degree of camera movement. (Scorsese is far more inclined to motion than Lynch.)

But the projects also have commonalities. Both open with close-ups of eyes. Each film counts as a mainstream effort for its maker. And each was its director’s first experience with true wide-screen, using lenses and dimensions descended from CinemaScope.

In similar ways, both films draw on Francis’s specialties. Though Lynch has said he hired Francis because of his Oscar-winning camerawork on “Sons and Lovers,” in “The Elephant Man,” you can see traces of the ghostly black-and-white Henry James adaptation “The Innocents” (1961), which Francis also shot. And Francis was a camera operator on “The Tales of Hoffmann” (1951), whose eye-popping Technicolor Scorsese has cited as a career-long inspiration. (Francis, who was British, died in 2007, and was also a director in his own right, making Hammer horror films like “The Evil of Frankenstein.”)

The use of color may be the most undervalued aspect of the perennially undervalued “Cape Fear,” a remake in which the ex-con Max Cady (Robert De Niro) takes revenge on his former defense lawyer, Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte). “Cape Fear” makes wildly expressionistic use of color, with sudden fades, shifts to X-ray views and exaggerated lighting sources. In a tryst early on between the lawyer and his wife (Jessica Lange), their lovemaking seems to be illuminated by the fireworks outside.

But if it’s color that pops in “Cape Fear,” the use of light and shadow — a key part of what Scorsese wanted from Francis — most unites it with “The Elephant Man,” shot on what had become outmoded black-and-white stock.

Francis takes advantage of opportunities for high contrast, but note how more subtle elements of Francis’s shading affect the storytelling. Lynch defers a full look at the deformed title character, John Merrick (John Hurt), to milk it for maximum impact. So Francis shows Merrick in varying degrees of shadow for the first half-hour — until a nurse stumbles upon him, at last fully illuminated by a skylight, and screams.

In an early scene, Merrick strips naked for an anatomy lecture given by Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), but we see only a silhouette: Merrick is standing on the other side of a spotlighted curtain. A similar form of withheld introduction plays out in “Cape Fear.” The first time Cady turns up to threaten Bowden’s family, he steps in front of a movie screen, again in silhouette. This is cinematography-aided suspense.

Midway through the two films are scenes with an odd similarity. Both involve theater, and both build to a kiss. In “The Elephant Man,” John receives a visit from a famed actress (Anne Bancroft), and together they recite a scene from “Romeo and Juliet.” In “Cape Fear,” Sam’s teenage daughter, Danielle (Juliette Lewis), meets Max for the first time in an empty theater at school.

And in both scenes, as if to signal that the characters belong to oppositional worlds, they are, in certain shots, separated by a prominent diagonal: shadows from a shaft of light in “The Elephant Man,” giant candy canes in the stage scenery in “Cape Fear.” That both films divide the characters visually this way may be a coincidence, a motif of Francis’s or simply a principle of smart image composition. Perhaps it’s Henry Bumstead, the legendary production designer of “Cape Fear,” who deserves credit for the candy canes — or Scorsese, who before shooting draws storyboards that conceive shots in precise detail.

Indeed, the final effect of a scene is nearly always the work of multiple collaborators. You might think that when Francis shoots two people conversing, he signifies the weaker party with dabs of darkness — and that is sometimes true. In “The Elephant Man,” Bytes (Freddie Jones), who has kept Merrick as a circus freak, tells Dr. Treves he wants Merrick back. Francis shoots him to look nervous, casting his eyes in shadow. But makeup and costume design also telegraph the difference between the two men: Dr. Treves’s neat beard contrasts with Bytes’s light stubble, and Treves is bareheaded while his adversary wears a shadow-casting ringmaster’s hat.

A similar dynamic plays out when Max confronts Sam for the first time in “Cape Fear.” Sam, sitting in the dark interior of his car, wears a light striped jacket; Max, in the bright sunlight outside, wears a black shirt. The men and their surroundings are visual opposites, a distinction observed in different ways throughout the film until it eventually reverses. When Max, who fancies himself every bit the lawyer that Sam is, wins a restraining order against him, notice that it is now he who wears a striped suit.

So do cinematographers have a signature? As someone who generally subscribes to the auteur theory — the idea that the best directors ultimately control the styles and personalities of their films — I’m inclined to answer provisionally: The finest do, and they always bring essential dimensions, even trademarks, to their art. Still, while you can clearly spot differences between the films Quentin Tarantino shot with Guillermo Navarro (“Jackie Brown”) and Robert Richardson (“Kill Bill”), in the end, they’re both Tarantino movies.

The camera is one instrument in a concerto, working in tandem with editing, production design and sound to create an overall experience. Which doesn’t mean you can’t hear the instrument, even when the cinematographer is serving a director with a highly personal approach.

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