It’s an exciting experimental week in Hit Me with Your Best Shot at the Film Experience: to tie in with the monthlong appreciation of 1977 (including a brief appreciation of that year’s nominees for Best Animated Short film by yours truly), Nathaniel has selected not one, but all five of that year’s nominees for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography as our collective subject for the week
UPDATE 7/29: All films completed!
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Cinematographer: Vilmos Szigmond
Director: Steven Spielberg
Surely this all-time iconic piece of popcorn cinema needs no introduction? It’s the brainier half of 1977’s pair of enormous hits that revived the fortunes of big screen science fiction (the other one, Star Wars, is a rather conspicuous and hard-to-explain absence from this set of nominees), but not nearly so brainy as to compromise Spielberg’s reputation as one of America’s foremost popular entertainers. It is, quite possibly, the film I’ve seen the most times (at least partially) – along with Spielberg’s Jaws, it’s one of the movies I’m absolutely incapable of passing by when I see that it’s on TV, which means I’ve seen the lengthy Devil’s Tower finale easily 70 times or more.
Partially for that reason, and partially just because it’s so damn ubiquitous, I’ve elected to disqualify anything from that whole long sequence as my pick for best shot, but the good news is that took all of about three seconds of thought to come up with my runner-up:
What we tend to forget, in all the attention paid to the spectacle or family-friendly horror littered throughout, is how much of Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a mystery in the early going, attempting to answer the twin questions “what is going on?” and “who is doing it?” It resembles nothing so much as an expanded, post-New Hollywood version of those many, many ’50s alien invasion B-pictures, where some square-jawed American man tracks down clues that all lead up to “giant monster from outer space,” or some such. CETK already has subverted that a little bit by casting as its square-jawed heroes the nebbishy Richard Dreyfuss and the skinny (and French!) François Truffaut. It subverts the rest by flipping the script: after spending its opening half playing in the usual alien invasion trips of horror and thrills and so on, the film concludes that the proper way to regard the arrival of a mysterious extraterrestrial civilisation is not cringing fear, but of starstruck, childish awe.
So back to my shot. Up to now, the aliens have been responsible mostly for bad things, or at least curious, inexplicable things. But that has been tinged with just the slightest hint throughout that maybe this is also cool, or at least worth developing a certain kind of captivated obsession with. For me, anyway, this moment is where that pivot gets cemented: the film’s overriding feeling of mystery is now replaced by an overriding feeling of amazement bordering on rapture, with the group gesture pointing to the sky, the source of the noises that have given rise to something like a religious cult dedicated to chanting five notes passed down like a message from God. It’s a perfect little Spielberg moment: timed to be just shocking enough that it can be simultaneously funny and astonishing, and still suffused with a little bit of awe at the transporting possibilities of whatever it is that lies Up There.
Islands in the Stream
Cinematographer: Fred J. Koenekamp
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Would it be ungenerous of me to suggest that this one falls in the wheelhouse of “point the camera at beautiful things and people will think it’s great cinematography”? Probably. Koenekamp was hardly a talentless hack. Still, a lot of this movie relies on the inherent visual appeal of Hawai’i and the unspeakably lush colors of the land and sea thereof, and Koenekamp’s job in no small part consisted of not fucking it up. And to be sure, he doesn’t. But “great cinematography” is a reach.
Still, there are a few shots that go above and beyond the call of duty. The film, adapted from a Hemingway novel he completed but did not publish during his life, presents what I’d call a somewhat banal and straightforward iteration of the author’s pet themes of masculinity in decline, but then the novel does too (the writing history appears to be that Hemingway wrapped up Islands in the Stream, and turned the best part of it into The Old Man and the Sea before abandoning the rest, and if so, I think his instinct was fair). The cinematography is, for the most part, equally straightforward.
Now, I’m not trying to call the film bad – it’s just not very surprising in any way. Outside of George C. Scott’s terrific performance and Jerry Goldsmith’s wonderfully acerbic, unsentimental score, there’s nothing great about it. But there’s not a single thing that’s “wrong” with it other than the way it plays like an idiot’s guide to Hemingway. This gives us not much to work with, but when the shot I was prepared to call the best showed up, I recognised it pretty much on the spot.
Thomas Hudson (Scott) is here at his lowest: after years of self-imposed exile from humanity and his family, he’s started to work his way back towards being a father to his three boys by three mothers. And now, all of that has been destroyed, and he is fully aware of how unrecoverable the life he might have lived has become. This ends up kicking him into a final action to try and prove that he can be a valuable, contributing member of the human race, and we see him here in the process of moving towards that action.
It is not an incredibly difficult image to parse: the presence of Eddy (David Hemmings) in the foreground draws maximum attention to how background-heavy this shot is, with Hudson’s relative brightness calling all the possible attention to his position of isolation in the tiny pool of light surrounded by blackness. And Scott’s defeated, slumped posture tells us everything and then some about how wretched Hudson feels in this moment. It is an image of abject loneliness and loss.
But it is also a terrific visual representation of inner activity. What you cannot see in a still, and could barely see in such a small image anyway, is the window over Hudson’s shoulder: throughout the shot: we can clearly see the waves breaking behind him. It is a turbulent, violent amount of movement, and it is the only movement to speak of, so we’re invited to really notice it. Within the composition, it is linked to Hudson; we could even be so corny as to suggest that the window and the roaring sea are framed as a “thought bubble” dramatising the inside of Hudson’s brain. The Sea as a metaphor for unsettled, violent inner emotions is older than the English language, let alone older than the movies, but this shot is creative enough in how its framed, and subtle enough about it, to make it work unusually well in this case.
Cinematographer: Douglas Slocombe
Director: Fred Zinnemann
These days, I imagine that Julia is best-remembered for Best Supporting Actress winner Vanessa Redgrave, in some capacity: either because of the controversy wherein the Jewish Defense League protested the ceremony because of her pro-Palestinian statements, leading to her infamously label the protestors “a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums” in her acceptance speech; or because, ignoring the politics in favor of the performance, she’s extraordinarily good, among the most deserving winners in the category’s history (it was also the film debut of Meryl Streep, which I suppose has kept its legacy alive to her expansive fanbase as well). The movie itself has maybe been somewhat forgotten, but in 1977, it was in the pole position: tied for the most nominations at 11, directed by a proper old master in Fred Zinnemann, starring Classical Hollywood scion Jane Fonda.
None of which necessarily adds up to “this is one of the Great Films and you owe it to yourself to see it” – it has some frankly questionable structural problems and a long, puffy middle section where it wants to be a spy thriller but can’t quite shake the pressure of being a polished, respectable literary adaptation. Redgrave is extravagantly good and more than worth a viewing just on her behalf, and Fonda is largely good in the first half, before the script gives out on her. It’s certainly not a boring or otherwise dull movie, it’s just not anybody’s best work outside of Redgrave’s.
That certainly include Douglas Slocombe, who’ll forever get a pass for me for shooting Raiders of the Lost Ark, but who in Julia offers up evidence of a debilitating addiction to soft focus. It’s a movie about things remembered, and letting increasingly fuzzy memories dictate one’s present behavior; I am not convinced this means that the movie itself needed to look fuzzy. But at least it’s not as just “there” as Islands in the Stream.
When the time came to pick a shot, I knew it would have Redgrave in it; I assumed before re-watching it that I’d stick with something from the wonderful scene where Lillian Hellman (Fonda) and Julia (Redgrave) meet after a long separation in a Berlin bar, but as it turned out, I could never shake the echoes of the very first time we see Redgrave in the whole movie, as Lillian recalls the fun she had with her dearest friend and confidante.
The entire movie hinges on Lillian’s undying affection for and loyalty towards Julia, a character whom we barely see throughout the film’s 117 minutes. So if we’re going to believe in everything to follow, our first impression needs to be killer. We must absolutely believe in the Julia that Lillian remembers, a magnetic life force, a joy to be around, a powerful embodiment of all that is good and passionate and true. That’s a lot to put on Redgrave in just one inshot, and damn me if she doesn’t completely do it. Look at that eager, unabashedly happy expression! The way she unselfconsciously holds her hand up to her mouth like a giddy little girl! The effortless, slumped, casual postures of both Redgrave and Fonda! This is a perfect depiction of the perfect comfort and intimacy that exists between close friends, as happy an image as I can imagine, and certainly as happy an image as this war-wracked movie provides. It’s an exquisite introduction to Julia, and it provides an aura over the whole of Julia without which the whole thing might feel a bit drawn out and arbitrary.
Looking for Mr. Goodbar
Cinematographer: William A. Fraker
Director: Herbert Ross
By far the most dated film in this group, though not in a bad way: it’s just that the story could not possibly exist in any other context than with the sexual revolution of the 1960s and early ’70s in the immediate rear-view mirror. And I’m not at all sure that the prurient conservatism about sexually liberated women (not to mention gay men, who put in a cameo role solely to be depicted as self-loathing psychos) would fly at all today – honestly, I’m not sure how it flew in ’77. At any rate, it’s an extremely fascinating time capsule, buoyed by an outstanding performance by Diane Keaton as Theresa Dunn, who starts the film as a modestly repressed Good Catholic Girl and ends as a cocaine addict desperately seeking sex, the rougher and more emotionally detached the better. It is all but inconceivable that this and Annie Hall came out in the same twelve-month period.
It’s a stylistically and tonally fascinating film. Richard Brooks was never, at the best moment in his entire career, a director overburdened with too many visual fancies, but he was paired here with William A. Fraker as cinematographer, which helps make Looking for Mr. Goodbar look absolutely stunning. It’s a neo-noir if ever I saw one, capturing the urban exteriors (Chicago playing San Francisco standing in for New York) as a collection of jet blacks and shrill neon, and portraying the inside of Theresa’s bedroom as a dark hole into which only intermittent slashes of light can penetrate. My shot includes neither of those things, but it seemed fair to bring up, since that’s far and away the most noteworthy thing about the cinematography and surely what gained Fraker his nomination (if I were voting, this would been the one I’d have voted for, incidentally).
For the most part, all of those great noir scenes tend to resemble each other, which makes the job of picking a “best shot” a bit tricky, and instead I went for thematic resonance. So remember how Looking for Mr. Goodbar is basically a tragedy of lapsed Catholic? Here’s the place where the movie makes extra-sure we’ve noticed that fact:
It’s not showy, but I honestly gasped when I saw it. There’s something joyfully perverse in the visual echo between Theresa and the Mary statue hiding behind her: the long brown hair shaping the head and drawing out eye down past the shoulders and through the arms; the white/pastel colors; even Theresa’s sweater tied around her waist vaguely suggests the Madonna’s sweeping robes.
The action of this shot, meanwhile, involves Theresa’s dad (Richard Kiley) shouting “liar!” at her. It is the moment, across the film, in which she is being most actively judged, which makes the Mary hiding behind her, unnoticed, even more important – it’s the religious element of the life she’s about the fully reject squatting behind her, accusing her without her noticing it. The statue’s diminished status in the frame implies, maybe, how little she cares about the old, restrictive traditions she’s abandoned; and yet it still sits there, staring.
One last thing: it’s kind of neat that in a film which is as torn between celebrating unrestrained female sexual desire and accusing it as a destructive element as Looking for Mr. Goodbar should feature such a literal Madonna and Whore composition, and in a context which has us unreservedly footing for the Whore. It might be beholden to old and even outdated concepts, but the film is willing to complicate them.
The Turning Point
Cinematographer: Robert Surtees
Director: Richard Brooks
Here we arrive at a famous loser: this was, at the time, the record-setter for the film with the most Oscar nominations without a single win, at 11 (that number has since been tied, but not surpassed). I will confess that I don’t think it deserved to win any of those 11, and at least a few of the nominations were already pretty unreasonably generous: I’d start by rolling back the “welcome to the movies!” nods for professional ballet dancers Leslie Browne and Mikhail Baryshnikov in the supporting categories. But Best Cinematography is not among them; Robert Surtees was one of the geniuses of the period, and even his weakest work is still well worth taking a good look at. Not that The Turning Point is among his weakest work, either: the domestic interiors are hardly flashy, but they’re presented with a thoughtful level of grainy softness that gives it more texture than the average New Hollywood character drama.
The film has two threads, more or less: one is the exquisitely-acted and sensitively-written story of DeeDee Rodgers (Shirley MacLaine) and Emma Jacklin (Anne Bancroft), old friends from when they were both young ballerinas, whose paths diverged after DeeDee got pregnant and quite dancing. Now, both of them quietly regret not having the other’s life, and this turns into a prickly snarl of personal animosity when Emma starts mentoring DeeDee’s eldest daughter. The other thread is about that daughter, Emilia (Browne), and her travails as the newest member of a great ballet company, including her stormy affair with the great dancer Yuri (Baryshnikov). And this part of the film generally leaves me cold, mostly because Emilia simply isn’t as rich and complex a character as the adults lording over her, and Browne does nothing to compensate for that.
So it’s a little surprising to me that I ended up picking a shot from Emilia’s plotline: from right at the start of her love affair with Yuri, no less, my least favorite part of the whole movie.
Being as it is a movie about ballet dancers, The Turning Point almost inevitably does double-duty as a celebration of the beauty of ballet, and the immense labor that goes into making it. There’s a lot more drama than dancing, but what dancing we see is presented with the utmost dignity and respect by director Herbert Ross, who gently slows the film down to stop and fully absorb the movement of the dancers, accentuated by the editing to maximise how effective the dance sequences play as cinema, and not just as stage dancing captured like a filmed play.
I could have easily picked any number of shots from the ballet scenes, but the one I selected had the added benefit of some altogether crazy, wonderful lighting. The pure white daylight streaming in through the windows, softened into scattered beams, gives the image the aura of religious solemnity. We are, in essence, looking at the dance studio reimagined as church. And as such, the dance itself is transformed into something spiritually ecstatic, or in this case physically erotic, given that this sequence dissolves without pause into somewhat corny, classically-scored screwing.
The other thing that I love about this frame is how empty it is. The dancers occupy such a small portion of the screen, with the rest of the image dedicated to the space in which they create their art; yet they also completely dominate it. The diagonal lines draw our attention to them, and their outsized shadow creates the impression that they are bigger and more important in the space than we’d naturally expect. There’s a cleanness to the composition that accentuates the dancers and the light and their position within the studio, and I think that all of it combines to be the film’s single most rapturous tribute to the art of ballet and the enormous emotional and physical investment of the dancers responsible for bringing that art to we the viewers.