One of the most important things cinematography can do is to confirm the audience’s expectations for the look of the story thus heightening the experience of the film. Certain looks can make the film boring, where one shot looks much like another and the cinematography becomes just common place. Good cinematography can be exotic, but it shouldn’t distract or, even worse, detract from the action and story and performances on display. Spielberg himself has been able to make use of Janusz Kaminski’s talent from Schindler’s List onwards, but compared to Schindler’s List or Munich (2005), Saving Private Ryan takes the cinematographic goals too far. Spielberg summarizes the look of the film; “very early on in this process we both knew that we did not want this to look like a technicolor extravaganza about World War II, we wanted it to look very much like color newsreel footage from the 1940s.” It doesn’t strike me as looking like that. So far I’ve considered what the movie is setting out to do as a narrative, its direction and writing, now I will consider its visual goals and its more technical techniques. Let’s look at some examples of cinematography working the way it should along the lines of what Spielberg and his critical viewer should want.
In Three Kings (1999), David O. Russell wanted his Gulf War drama to have the look of color newsprint photos from that war. The film was shot on Ektachrome and given a bleach bypass to create strong blacks and desaturated colors. Looking at pictures from the Gulf War and then looking at the movie, I think he nailed it. The look of the film changes somewhat depending on what’s going on, and that’s fine. Particularly for the early shots or shots showing some of the, more or less, actual events of the war; a course gradient for the sky, desaturated tans, and rich blacks dominate. Three Kings looks like the documentation of the Gulf War. I really understand wanting the film to look like the documentation of an event because it makes the movie more believable.
Of course cinematography is more than just what we can do with the film itself, camera movement also plays a big part in the look of the film. As it happens, my favorite example of camera work playing a role in confirming our expectations for the look of a film is Steven Spielberg’s own Munich. Munich finds itself in a weird place in film history; amidst a revival of a really pretty dated genre of 70s espionage or political drama films. Movies like Three Days of the Condor (1975), All the President’s Men (1976), Z (1969), The Day of the Jackal (1973), The Battle of Algiers (1966) and so on. These movies all had a distinctive visual style, a lot of them feature a coarse film grain and use techniques like zooms just as the vogue stylistic choices of the time, if not underscoring the spying theme. The accent of these films is that of the late 1960s and 70s. Set in the early 70s, Munich mimics many of the standard techniques from those movies in effect to affect the accent of an earlier era of cinema. It also has modern techniques and the very best talent in the industry to carry them out. Speilberg's camera men can hit their marks way better than anyone working in the 1970s. The result is a movie that really reflects its setting but resonates with any, particularly any modern, audience. Munich really convinces me of its setting through the camera movements alone; it looks like its time and place.
But, if I had to pick one movie where the look of the film stands out over the other exceptional qualities, I’d almost certainly have to pick Raging Bull (1980). As was the case with Munich, Raging Bull harkens back to the boxing movies on the 1930s and 40s. And in a very real sense, an audience’s expectations of that time period, and particularly the period in New York locations and the boxing ring, is one that is described in high contrast black and white. There is so much going on with the look of that film, the camera plays just as big a role as Robert DiNero played in that movie. The camera is another figure in the ring, each fight is shot with a different style to reflect the different individuals, the different settings, the different message of each fight. All the while meeting the audience’s expectations for what that picture should look like--a black and white genre piece albeit one of exceptional quality otherwise. Raging Bull’s minor folly is lapsing into color photography for a montage of staged home movies. But the role of the camera and the film itself is demonstrated here, it brings a continuity to the entire film but is also a tool used in different ways at different times to craft a specific thought at specific moments in the film.
Even with all these examples of what cinematography can do, there is something of an elite of really outstanding achievements in cinematography and camera work. In the end, I think that cinematography and camera work is not just about creating the look of a film, it’s about clarity. Clarity of the image and of the idea. Often really simple but no less creative or elegant visuals prove to be the best cinematography. I like Schindler’s List for this quality because the movie takes great pains to be a clear and ravaging (a clearly ravaging) portrayal of the holocaust throughout. It achieved that goal. I also like There Will Be Blood (2007) as an example of great cinematography because that movie just captures reality with such clarity that the viewer is overwhelmed, consumed, by the performances and events. In There Will Be Blood, no matter where the camera is, the image and the pieces within it just seem right. And they shot all over the place in There Will Be Blood; morning, night time, in a cave, in a well, in a tent, in a house, by candlelight, by moonlight, in the water, in farmland, in the desert. And no matter the beauty of the shot itself, I’m more involved with the movie as a whole than with any one part.
By comparison to any of these works, Saving Private Ryan’s cinematography is just baffling. If the goal was to avoid the technicolor extravaganza, well it was mission accomplished. If the goal was to emulate the look of color newsreel, personally I think that they failed altogether. If the goal was to provide a totally new look at the war, harkening back to Maslin’s words, then Saving Private Ryan is more like no look at all in terms of its cinematography. By today’s standards, Saving Private Ryan is the new look of war films but I understand that in past war movies the cinematography was different. So what. Kaminski has explained that the lenses they used on Saving Private Ryan had many of the same properties as those used in the 1940s. That may be, but the footage simply doesn’t reflect the newsreels they describe. I think in large part this is because of the clarity I was discussing earlier; good documentarians always try to get the best shot that they can even if there are problems. So there’s another grievance, I can’t really see anything in the muck and blur of the cinematography and camerawork. It does not strike me as Spielberg at his best like in Schindler’s List or E.T. where actors and cameras, lights and set pieces all fall together in this extraordinary choreography of each shot. Sometimes the look seems just antithetical to what I think Spielberg and Kaminski wanted.