Thursday, February 4, 2010

Okay...A FEW Words...

I'm not going to labor intensely over the recently-announced Academy Award nominations, but I do want to make a point of two things. One, the ten nominees for Best Picture idea turned out a LOT better than anyone, myself included, believed they would. When the worst you can say is that Avatar - a monumentally ambitious failure that had too much momentum not to be nominated - and The Blind Side - a modest, flawed, heartfelt crowd pleaser - were among them, you're still doing pretty well. Especially when, on the flip side, they also nominate The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, and A Serious Man. And when they don't cave to populist pressure by nominating Star Trek or The Hangover (although I'd rather see the latter replace The Blind Side or Avatar, I really don't care enough about any of those movies to raise my voice over it).

But the main field of nominees - and the reactions they've provoked - I take issue with is that of Best Cinematography, a field that many people who watch the Oscars would rather see wiped from the ceremony, but which true film lovers know is as important as Best Actor. As a refresher, let's take a look at the five nominees....

The White Ribbon
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds

Guess which one got the most ire? I'll give you a hint - it's, wildly enough, not the one that was an animated movie 60% of the time. Yes, proving that well-lit, impeccably composed films with glorious camera movements will be overlooked if they belong to a franchise, the cinephile community in Internetland has taken up arms over the nomination of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. An assumption has arisen in our look-driven culture that films, blockbusters in particular, have to simply press the "pretty" button on Final Cut Pro to suddenly turn the film into an austere work of beauty. While post-production continues to lay greater and greater claim over cinema itself, the idea (and, granted, it's a passive one) that a cinematographer is simply there to turn the camera on is woefully misguided.

But while I have no problem wondering if the average person knows what a cinematographer does, sometimes I ask myself if the cinematographer's branch of the Academy knows what a cinematographer does. Wikipedia provides a convenient, succinct, and fairly comprehensive definition of cinematography, noting it "is the making of lighting and camera choices when recording photographic images for the cinema." Where, then, does Avatar fit in? While there is a crucial live-action component to Avatar, in which photographic images were recorded (and we'll get to that in a second), roughly 60% of the movie takes place in an animated world. One informed by performance capture, perhaps, but one nonetheless built in a computer. Most of what we see in Avatar wasn't captured, it was created, which is fine for cinema but not for considerations of cinematography.

All of that would be discarded, however, if the live-action component was all that impressive. Instead, I was astounded by how utterly misguided it was, as director James Cameron and director of photography Mauro Fiore (a talented DP who gave a necessary jolt of life to Smokin' Aces, Training Day, and was easily the best part of The Island) threw out any consideration of the 3D aspect. Too often one side of the frame would be partly clogged by an out-of-focus shoulder, which not only thrusts a blurry object in the viewer's foreground, but also ignores the key concept in the foundation of anamorphic widescreen, which is that it does not do over-the-shoulder shots very well. Additionally, they discarded the very idea that shooting in HD and 3D would require everything to be in focus, and with those two technologies, there is no reason it couldn't be. As a result, almost every live-action shot has something blurry in 3D messing with the frame and the amount of strain your eyes can handle, never mind totally ignoring the fact that the entire idea of focal points is useless in a 3D film - 3D can guide our eyes towards what they want us to focus on.

The lighting was adequate, but nothing to write home about, and this being Cameron, the framing is genuinely astute but rarely exceptional. In a year that produced Bright Star, A Serious Man, Where the Wild Things Are, and A Single Man, this nomination is nothing short of baffling.

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