A long time before I ever owned a camera, I was being taken to the cinema every week by my parents. Most of the time, I just enjoyed the experience of being in the luxurious change of surroundings, staring up at the huge screen, the action playing out before my wide eyes, and the escape from the everyday working-class life it provided. I didn’t think much about directors, scriptwriters, casting, lighting, and editing. And I didn’t have a clue about cinematography.
Then something in me changed.
I was only ten years old when I was taken to see the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. I thought it was wonderful, one of the best films I had ever seen up to then, if not the best. The huge epic had it all. Wonderful scenery, a great cast, historical interest, and breathtaking set-piece action sequences. I couldn’t stop talking about how good it was for weeks. It was probably about another six months before it dawned on me why I thought seeing that film was such a magical experience, and why so many scenes were indelibly imprinted on my memory.
It was photographed. Just look at this.
As any real film-fan will tell you, pointing a film camera at a scene and yelling ‘Action’ is no guarantee of producing something wonderful to behold. Of all the tens of thousands of films made, really memorable photography is not something that is often mentioned. People discuss the performances of the cast, social relevance, new genres, special effects, costumes, and make-up. But whether or not a film is photographed is a topic that rarely comes up.
Once I had realised why I liked David Lean’s film so much, I began to watch films with a very different ‘eye’. I still didn’t own a camera, but I began to look out for scenes that were more like moving photos, than people passing by the lens of a camera. David Lean gave us so many more like this, from ‘Great Expectations’, to ‘Ryan’s Daughter’. Other directors featured heavily in my formative years of such appreciation, including the incomparable Akira Kurosawa, and Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky.
But I always bang on about films with subtitles and British film-makers on this blog. So to highlight what appeals to me about a film being ‘photographed’, I will feature more modern films instead, and all made in America, with various casts, by a mix of directors.
In 1973, I had been very impressed with a film called ‘Badlands’, directed by someone called Terrence Malick. Five years later, I heard about a new film he had made, and went to see it. The romantic love triangle story was not my usual attraction to a cinema, but with a strong cast, and that name of Malick again, I decided to give it a try. ‘Days of Heaven’ was set in 1916, in Texas, but filmed in Canada on a very small budget. I sat looking in wonder at the screen. The plot was almost irrelevant, as I gazed at the wonderful images. This confirmed what I had suspected five years earlier. That man Malick knew how a film should be photographed. The Academy later agreed with me, giving the film the Oscar for Best Cinematography.
Twenty years later, and Malick caught my attention again. War films are rarely photographed. They concentrate on action, with huge casts, and lots going on. But in his film set during the Pacific War battle of Guadalcanal, he changed the rules. Can a war film be ‘beautiful’? You bet it can. From the idyllic beaches of remote islands, to the swaying grasslands of the interior, Malick manages to show us wonder, alongside the barbarity of war.
2007 was one of the best years for photographed films, with two outstanding examples that excited me a great deal. The first one I got to see was ‘There Will Be Blood’, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. I was attracted by the casting of Daniel Day Lewis, a British actor who famously immerses himself in any role. I read some surprisingly bad reviews of the film, but was still determined to go and see it. Twelve years later, and I can recall scenes at will. I can feel the heat off the screen, and smell the oil spurting from the wells. And mainly because this was a film that was truly photographed, allowing those scenes to imprint themselves on my mind.
I can take or leave a lot of films in the genre popularly called ‘Westerns’. I have seen a lot, and remember those I have enjoyed. Up to then, I probably thought of John Ford’s famous film ‘The Searchers’ as perhaps a great example of using photographed scenery in a film. But with a few exceptions, I never really considered Westerns to be ‘my thing’, especially when it came to being blown away by watching one. And then I went to see a film with an annoyingly long title, ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’, made by Andrew Dominik. I was attracted to the film not by the star, Brad Pitt, but by his co-star, Casey Affleck, someone I thought was one of the best actors of his generation.
What I didn’t expect, was to discover one of the finest examples of a ‘photographed film’ I had ever seen. It is just sublime to watch.
So there you have five examples, from 1962, to 2007. I could list quite a lot more of course, but I would prefer to know your choices.
Please add them, in the comments.