ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

A year of some dark movie magic

Nobody can accuse the films shaped by the current crop of Oscar cinematography nominees of being too pretty. Visually stunning and emotionally charged? Yes. Heightened reflections of contemporary conditions seen through the lens of other places and times? Certainly. But picture-perfect souvenirs steeped in golden-hour moments? Not this year.

In 2006, beauty — of a very dark sort — held sway, as if the anti-beauty pageant ideals of "Little Miss Sunshine" had been co-opted by those who control the camera. Like the offbeat kid actor who brushes off a rhinestone tiara in favor of a dirty sweatband in her lo-fi finale, these cinematographers turned away from glossy surfaces, finding startling visions in chaotic civilian gunfights, dismembered bodies, rotting worlds and hurried walks through grimy alleys.

"I think people recognize that these are gloomy times," says Stephen Pizzello, executive editor of American Cinematographer magazine. "There's a pall hanging over everything, and I think this group of films are a testament to the current cinema of pessimism."

Or maybe it's magical pessimism. This year's cinematography nominees offer visual confirmations of these morally relative times. What separates them from the rest is that, in every few reels, they reflect moments of insight amid the rubble.

And consistently, they make us engage instead of looking away. With "The Black Dahlia," the latest homage to film noir, the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond ("Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "The Deer Hunter") lures us with a long vertical crane shot over a two-story building, leading us into an abandoned lot where we make the grim discovery of Betty Short's hand-carved corpse. The steady lift of Zsigmond's arched, 360-degree reveal creates a sense of trust despite the ghastly find.

In "Children of Men," Emmanuel Lubezki's camera seems to happen upon what might have been a storybook pastoral setting, now littered with smoldering animal carcasses. And in "Pan's Labyrinth" Guillermo Navarro drags us under a dark bed to watch a dirty mandrake root that coos like a baby and writhes in pain before being burned alive. It's the gentle authority of Navarro's camera and the careful composition of his frames that encourages us to stay.

Sleights of camera

The two period movies about magic attempt in their own way to demystify sleights of hand that are the sources of broad deceptions or abuses of power. In "The Prestige," Wally Pfister's camera, mounted with custom-crafted wide, low-light lenses, descends beneath drop-floor stages and burrows into hidden compartments to get at the secrets.

Dick Pope in "The Illusionist" conjures an autochrome-inspired Austro-Hungarian dreamscape. The film's early sequences, using the vocabulary of early cinema and color photography, are his favorite. "For me these scenes set the mood for the world of magic and illusions that follow," he says. It's a world that keeps us off-kilter with staged motion picture magic and leaves us wondering what is supernatural and what is merely deception.

Pope, a first-time nominee, notes that this year's nominated films, as is the case most years, are "all period — future and past." But, he says, "all five visualize a stylized world with a heightened but tilted reality."

That tilted reality can be seen clearly in "Pan's Labyrinth" when Navarro creates little visual bridges between the fantasy world and the harsh reality of the film's young heroine. As she rides to her new home deep in the Spanish forest, the air is flecked with golden particles suggesting her entrance into an altered world.

The visual interlacings of drab fairies and shiny, polished fascists work to visually shore up director Guillermo del Toro's underlying theme: that the power of childlike imagination is just as powerful as political obsession. Navarro's quiet opening and closing shots, centered in close-up on the film's young and bleeding protagonist, recall John Steinbeck's comment about Robert Capa's Spanish Civil War photographs, which "show the horror of the whole people in the face of a child." The image is grim, but it's also transcendent, imparting humanity to an inhuman world.

Visually bridging the worlds was more conceptually difficult than technically hard to pull off, the cinematographer said. "Everyday media has covered so many aspects of life and reality it's very hard to find something that hasn't been done before," explains Navarro, a first-time nominee.

"The films and stories that really knock you out set up different rules of engagement where everything has to be redefined and re-created; they come up with some new set of rules and visual concepts created to define what that storytelling space is."

Their carefully crafted atmospheres stand out all the more in an era awash in grainy desktop video.

From a purely stylistic perspective, "Children of Men" and "The Prestige" have more in common than any of the other nominees, relying heavily on hand-held camerawork. Many by now have remarked on Lubezki and director Alfonso Cuarón's use of long choreographed takes to depict the harsh reality of senseless violence against innocent people in "Children of Men."

Pfister and director Christopher Nolan used an unfettered camera to help them defy the stuffy formalism associated with period pieces and suggest contemporary parallels to their tale of Victorian-era illusions. Because "The Prestige's" nimble camera coverage feels contemporary, it subtly alludes to current bids to uncover and control the newest technology for personal gain.

Swap out "illusionist" for "technocrat" and the quest to find the secret code for a new black box might as well center on Bill Gates and Steve Jobs circa 1984.

All of the nominated cinematographers, artists of light and shadow, reflected an unusually darkened world in the cinema. "In cinematography," notes Zsigmond, "the shadows are always more important than the light."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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