The Cinematographers Dark Canvas

I’m often thinking about films I want to study, and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints has been on my mind for a long time—the dark painterly aesthetic has been a consistent draw. It’s an aesthetic that I’ve always thought of as “my thing,” but it only works for certain films. I think the appeal comes from an intense degree of creative control over what we reveal and don’t reveal on the screen. In a new addition to the newsletter dubbed “Ponderings,” I pontificate on what darkness means to a Cinematographer—or at least to me. After that, we look at Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, dark cinematography in a Carhart ad, Caravaggio, and a word from the “Prince of Darkness”—Gordon Willis.

Ponderings
Darkness is the Cinematographers canvas. It is not to be confused with thematic darkness unless that theme inspires a beginning, a void, or a nothingness upon which creation is imminent. 

When I was learning about lighting and its relationship to cinema, I was constantly drawn to a dark aesthetic. Films I was looking at included The City of Lost ChildrenIvan’s ChildhoodTouch of Evil, and Blade Runner. But there was a pang of strange guilt associated with this attraction because I equated darkness with sadness, depression, fear, and all those traditional themes. And I had yet to grasp the concept of darkness as a canvas, upon which an artist that uses lighting instruments can express themselves. An expression that can dictate themes in degrees of light, shadow, darkness, and color with limitless potential—exploring every nuance between a black screen and a white screen.

There is also a stimulating parallel with yin and yang—part of the philosophy being that a balance of opposite or contrasting states is necessary for a harmonious experience, happy disposition or productive outcome–childbirth, for example, requires a man and woman. In Cinematography, the closer we get to having a perfect balance of lightness and darkness on the screen, the better, more comfortable, more at ease, or just neutral the audience will feel. And this neutral place is a standard upon which capture and display devices are calibrated for the industry to exist in a harmonious state of capture and display.

This neutral standard feels like a starting point because we—as an audience—don’t think about how the sensor or film is initially blank. And without first having this blankness—or blackness when displayed or printed—no image would ever exist. And without having light to imprint the dark, there would be no image. Thus, to have an image at all—we must have a certain degree of balance between light and dark.

We even have a unit and method of measurement for this balance in the craft of Cinematography—lighting ratios and foot-candles. A lighting ratio represents the degree of contrast between light and dark. And foot-candles measure the intensity of light falling on a subject. Ratios help to establish and maintain a consistent look for a film, monitored by measuring the foot-candle value in light and shadow. The balance of light and shadow can be manipulated to enhance the emotional response to a scene. Some films maintain the same ratio from beginning to end, while others use varying ratios to complement a narrative and character journey. Figuring this out for each film, planning for it, and letting it materialize on set is a big part of a Cinematographer’s job.

The whole visual style was set out before we shot one foot of film. We talked about the contrast between good and evil, light and dark. How we’d really use darkness, how we’d start out with a black sheet of paper and paint in the light.— Francis Ford Coppola on The Godfather, cited by The Guardian in “Gordon Willis Obituary”

 

Film
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), directed by David Lowery and shot by Bradford Young, won the Cinematography award at Sundance in 2013 for the U.S. Dramatic Category and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. In the same year, it littered top ten lists from critics worldwide—many praising it for its fresh look at the Bonnie and Clyde paradigm.

It gives us a contemporary look at a dark aesthetic—an aesthetic that Bradford Young has built a career on. The photography swims with the narrative in a game of hide, seek and reveal. As insights into the plot and characters are held back by quiet reflection and solitude, the photography is dominated by shadows—made authentic by using location and time of day. Now and then, as the characters hit milestones along their journey, the screen may get a little brighter, but it’s all very subtle because the protagonist has to stay physically hidden to get what he wants. His wife has to hide too, but she has to do it in plain sight. Her cloak is in deception—her surroundings only bright enough to project a facade and dark enough to evoke her secrets. And until she reunites with the protagonist, she is stuck in this duality.

The feel of the movie is intimate and handmade, as if Lowery were renewing, lovingly and poignantly, the landscape’s ruined landmarks and infusing them with his own memories and dreams.-The New Yorker

Downloadable Resources 
Frame Grabs

Credits and Specs
Directed and Written by David Lowery 
Produced by Cassian ElwesToby HalbrooksJames M. JohnstonAmy Kaufmanmore
Starring  Rooney MaraCasey AffleckBen Foster
Music By Daniel Hart
Cinematography by Bradford Young
Edited by Craig McKayJane Rizzo
Production Design by Jade Healy
Production Company: Sailor Bear
Release Date: Aug 16, 2013 
Running Time: 96min
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Camera and Lenses: Arricam LT, Cooke S4, Zeiss Master Prime and Angenieux Optimo Lenses, Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2, Panavision Primo Lenses, Panavision Panaflex Platinum, Panavision Primo Lenses
Negative Format: 35mm (Kodak Vision3 250D 5207, Vision3 500T 5219)
Printed Film Format: 35 mm (anamorphic), D-Cinema
Cinematographic Process: Digital Intermediate (2K) (master format), Super 35 (3-perf) (source format)
Country: USA
Language: English

Painter
Caravaggio, (1571-1610) is known for bringing a new level of emotional painting to the arts scene in Italy and his paintings in the Contarelli Chapel made him the most famous painter in Rome. His style of heightened chiaroscuro, detailed realism and dramatic lighting greatly influenced forthcoming Baroque artists such as Rembrandt and Bernini. And he could be the most referenced painter in the Cinematography universe. Vittorio Storaro uses him as a constant source of inspiration—he has written books and given lectures about him. And shot the 2007 film, CaravaggioHere is a Storaro commentary about the painting, The Calling of St. Matthew, one of the Contarelli Chapel paintings.

This is one of the only paintings that I know that has such a specific delineation between light and darkness, between the divine and the human being. The symbology that was used in The Conformist was light as a consciousness and darkness as the unknown—as unconscious. This was exactly the structure of the character—he had to hide something in himself, in the darkness. And then there was something that he presented to you as a reality which was the conscious side. So this specific relation in painting was for me the same symbology I was trying to portray with lighting. Specifically, not only the character, but the entire principle of The Conformist.

Ad
Carhart, directed by Douglas Avery and shot by Max Goldman, is a great example of how a dark aesthetic doesn’t have to invoke dark, depressing themes. Instead, it is used to show how Carhart’s clothing can stand up to the toughest jobs in the toughest conditions. A concept that the brand is certainly proud of and built on.

Quote
I am not a great believer that you have to see an actor all the time on the screen. I believe that the scene has to be played properly, but sometimes it’s better not to see what is going on until a given point in the scene. Then you see something. – Gordon Willis, AKA The Prince of Darkness

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My 2021 Virtual Sundance Favorites

I have something a little different for you this month. I “attended” virtual Sundance at the turn of January into February. The festival’s tribute and commitment to Native American culture is fitting to last month’s musings on Native American Culture In FilmSundance has been fostering the talent of Native Peoples since 1994, when it formally started its Indigenous Program. And, at the head of every single screening, there was a beautifully crafted video honoring Native Tribes and their Homeland.

There were 73 features and 50 shorts at the festival this year—out of 14,000 submissions. I watched 22 Features and 35 Shorts—my 2021 virtual Sundance Favorites are as follows. 

The included summaries are straight from the festival program, and the titles link to the film’s detail page, where you can read a short director’s bio, watch a short “Meet The Artist” video, and view additional credits. If a film won an award, it is noted at the head of the summary.

Dramatic Features

Fire In The Mountains – Chandra and her husband, Dharam, run the Switzerland Homestay, an inn that hovers high above the only road in a small Himalayan village. The terrain poses a problem for the family, who must transport their son Prakash down the mountain in his wheelchair to go to the doctor and school. Though Chandra believes Prakash needs more medical attention, Dharam isn’t as keen on the idea. He’d rather put the money toward a shamanic ritual he believes will rid them of a deity’s curse, the cause of Prakash’s affliction. Tensions increase as their worldviews collide and slowly erode their familial ties.

The debut feature from writer-director Ajitpal Singh, Fire in the Mountains is a searing portrait of the power dynamics at play between tradition and modernity in one family’s foundation. With handheld camerawork and seamless tracking shots, Singh vividly captures the beauty and hardship of their daily lives. Fire in the Mountains is bolstered by Vinamrata Rai’s commanding performance as Chandra, a woman unafraid to stand her ground and find ways forward for her family and village.

Directed and Written by Ajitpal Singh
Produced by Ajay Rai, Alan McAlex

Knocking – What. Is. That. Noise. When Molly hears knocking coming from the ceiling in her new apartment, she naturally searches for the source. The upstairs neighbors don’t know what she’s talking about and dismiss her with cool indifference. Is this all in her mind? After all, she’s still processing a traumatic event that left her mentally unwell, and the unprecedented heat wave isn’t helping her think clearly. As the knocking intensifies and gives way to a woman’s cries, Molly becomes consumed with finding out the truth. Could it be Morse code? Is someone trapped? And more importantly, why doesn’t anyone care?

Knocking is a sharp indictment of the gaslight culture and social stigma that work against those experiencing mental illness. Director Frida Kempff’s stunning visuals induce a dissonant sensation of physical disembodiment and feverish claustrophobia that mimics Molly’s deteriorating mental state. Cecilia Milocco exudes Molly’s vulnerability and strength in equal measures, spiraling in one moment before standing her ground the next. Knocking leaves you, just like Molly, questioning yourself until the very end. 

Directed by Frida Kempff
Written by Emma Broström
Produced by Erik Andersson

Ma Belle, My Beauty – Audience Award for the NEXT program – Newlywed musicians Bertie and Fred are adjusting to their new life in the beautiful countryside of France. It’s an easy transition for Fred, the son of French and Spanish parents, but New Orleans native Bertie grapples with a nagging depression that is affecting her singing. Lane—the quirky ex who disappeared from their three-way relationship years ago—suddenly shows up for a surprise visit, bringing new energy and baggage of her own.

First-time feature filmmaker Marion Hill takes us on a tipsy, moody dive into polyamory that holds all of the gravity and complexity of sexual fluidity and triangulation, while maintaining the buoyant atmosphere of a hot summer adventure through the fields of Europe. Levitated by an intoxicating acoustic guitar soundtrack by Mahmoud Chouki, Ma Belle, My Beauty is a breezy and meaningful journey through wine-drenched candlelit dinners, firelit vineyard parties, farmers’ markets, and sunny hikes alongside the creek, as Fred, Bertie, and Lane grapple with how to get what they want inside the soup of their desires, passions, and life ambitions.

Written and Directed by Marion Hill
Produced by Ben Matheny, Kelsey Scult, Marion Hill

Land – When Edee’s life is tragically altered, she loses the ability to connect with the world and people she once knew. She retreats to a forest in the Rocky Mountains with a few supplies and leaves her old life behind indefinitely. The beauty of her new surroundings is undeniable yet quickly humbling as she struggles to adjust and prepare for the winter ahead. When Edee is caught on the brink of death, a local hunter and his family miraculously save her, but she alone must find a way to live again.

Acclaimed actress Robin Wright returns to the Sundance Film Festival with her directorial debut, set in the picturesque but unforgiving wilds of nature. Wright stands out in her performance as Edee, a woman lost in grief, while Demián Bichir’s subdued and charming presence depicts an unexpected and reflective companion who questions Edee’s abrupt choices. Land is a quiet yet masterful journey into the complex desire for solitude as a woman searches for meaning in the vast and harsh American wilderness.

Directed by Robin Wright
Written by Jesse Chatham, Erin Dignam
Produced by Allyn Stewart, Lora Kennedy, Leah Holzer, Peter Saraf

Night of the Kings – Philippe Lacôte’s gripping second feature, Night of the Kings, has won acclaim at major festivals since premiering at the Venice International Film Festival.

A new arrival at Ivory Coast’s infamous MACA prison is quickly anointed the institution’s “Roman”—a griot instructed to tell stories for the population at the command of reigning inmate king, the ailing Blackbeard. Roman must ascertain his place in the prison’s dangerously shifting inmate politics, embrace his inner Scheherazade, and weave a tale that will get them all through the night and stave off impending chaos.

Night of the Kings is a bold, imaginative ode to the power of storytelling and a layered, compelling portrait of the complexities of life within the prison walls. Roman’s desperately woven tales cleverly embody the turmoil surrounding him, and Lacôte enhances their fantastical and dramatic effect by interjecting glorious cinematic depictions of the boy’s imaginings. The horde of listening prisoners transforms into a makeshift chorus, translating the tales into song and dance, intensifying the film’s enthralling effect.

Written and Directed by Philippe Lacôte
Produced by Delphine Jaquet, Yanick Létourneau, Ernest Konan, Yoro Mbaye

Judas And The Black Messiah – Fred Hampton’s cathartic words “I am a revolutionary” became a rallying call in 1969. As chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, Hampton demanded all power to the people and inspired a growing movement of solidarity, prompting the FBI to consider him a threat and to plant informant William O’Neal to infiltrate the party. Judas and the Black Messiah not only recounts Hampton’s legacy and the FBI’s conspiring but also gives equal footing to the man who became infamous for his betrayal—highlighting the systems of inequality and oppression that fed both of their roles.

Director Shaka King returns to the Sundance Film Festival with an incredible cast of Sundance alums led by Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield. Kaluuya channels Hampton’s ability to energize and unite communities, while Stanfield taps into the anguish of a man with conflicting allegiances. Dominique Fishback also stands out in her reserved yet confronting performance as Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s life partner. King’s magnetic film carries themes that continue to resonate today and serves as a reminder of the potent power of the people.

Directed by Shaka King
Written by Will Berson, Shaka King
Produced by Ryan Coogler p.g.a., Charles D. King p.g.a., Shaka King p.g.a.

Coda – U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Feature, Directing Award for U.S. Dramatic Feature, U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast, Audience Award for U.S. Dramatic Feature. 

Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member of a deaf family. At 17, she works mornings before school to help her parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and brother (Daniel Durant) keep their Gloucester fishing business afloat. But in joining her high school’s choir club, Ruby finds herself drawn to both her duet partner (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and her latent passion for singing. Her enthusiastic, tough-love choirmaster (Eugenio Derbez) hears something special and encourages Ruby to consider music school and a future beyond fishing, leaving her torn between obligation to family and pursuit of her dream.

Siân Heder’s heartwarming, exuberant follow-up to Tallulah (2016 Sundance Film Festival) brings us inside the idiosyncratic rhythms and emotions of a deaf family—something we’ve rarely seen on screen. In developing Coda, which stands for Child of Deaf Adults, Heder was determined to tell the story authentically with deaf actors. Her writing and direction—layered, naturalistic, frank, and funny—finds perfect expression in richly drawn characters and a uniformly outstanding cast, led by Jones in a fantastic breakout performance.

Written and Directed by Siân Heder
Produced by Philippe Rousselet, Fabrice Gianfermi, Patrick Wachsberger

Documentary Features

Flee – World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary — An Afghan refugee agrees to tell a remarkable personal narrative of persecution and escape on the condition that his identity not be revealed. As a means of fulfilling that wish, his filmmaker friend uses striking animation to not only protect this young man but also enhance his tale, bending time and memory to recount a visceral, poetic, and death-defying journey dictated by deception, loneliness, and a relentless will to survive.

The result is Flee, a film unbound by documentary constraints and swept up in an astonishing array of archive footage, ’80s pop music, and hand-drawn craft that brings audiences directly into the experience of a teen fleeing multiple countries—and the psychological impact on how he loves, trusts, and understands his burgeoning identity. Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s film is a triumph of storytelling and filmmaking ingenuity, but its greatest asset is the empathy and trust Rasmussen forms with the film’s protagonist, whose clarity and vulnerability grant us access to a unique refugee tale.

Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Produced by Monica Hellström, Signe Byrge Sørensen

Taming The Garden – The opening shot of filmmaker Salomé Jashi’s striking environmental tale captures a tree as tall as a 15-story building floating on a barge across the vast Black Sea. Its destination lies within a garden countless miles away, privately owned by a wealthy and anonymous man whose passion resides in the removal, and subsequent replanting, of foreign trees into his own man-made Eden.

With astonishing cinematic style, Taming the Garden tracks the surreal uprooting of ancient trees from their Georgian locales. With each removal, tensions flare between workers and villagers. Some see financial incentives—new roads, handsome fees—while others angrily mourn the loss of what was assumed an immovable monolith of their town’s collective history and memory. With a steady and shrewdly observant eye, Jashi documents a single man’s power over Earth’s natural gardens: how majestic living artifacts of a country’s identity can so effortlessly become uprooted by individuals with no connection to the nature they now claim as their own.

Written and Directed by Salomé Jashi
Produced by Vadim Jendreyko, Erik Winker, Martin Roelly, Salomé Jashi

Dramatic Shorts

Bj’s Mobile Gift Shop – A young Korean American hustler runs throughout the city of Chicago making sales out of his “mobile gift shop.”

Written and Directed by Jason Park
Produced by Julianna Imel and Jason Park

Bruiser – After his father gets into a fight at a bowling alley, Darious begins to investigate the limitations of his own manhood.

Directed by Miles Warren
Written by Miles Warren and Ben Medina
Produced by Gustavo René, Albert Tholen, Lauren Goetzman

Bambirak – Short Film Jury Award for International Fiction – When Kati stows away in her father’s truck, Faruk must juggle his responsibilities as a single dad while holding down his first job in a new country. As their relationship deepens, a brush with covert racism tests their bond.

Written and Directed by Zamarin Wahdat
Produced by Joy Jorgensen

Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma – Short Film Jury Award for Non-Fiction – In 1970, Black educators in Chicago developed alphabet flash cards to provide Black-centered teaching materials to the vastly white educational landscape, and the Black ABCs were born. Fifty years later, 26 scenes provide an update to their meanings.

Written and Directed by Topaz Jones, Rubberband.
Produced by Luigi Rossi, Jason Sondock, Simon Davis, Eric McNeal, Kevin Storey

Lata – a 23-year-old domestic worker, navigates her way through an upper-class home in South Mumbai. Doors consistently open and close, giving Lata selective access to the various contending realities that occupy this space.

Directed by Alisha Tejpal
Written by Alisha Tejpal, Mireya Martinez
Produced by Mireya Martinez

Raspberry – Undertakers wait on a family’s final farewells as one son struggles to say goodbye to his dead father.

Written and Directed by Julian Doan
Produced by Turner Munch, Brianna Murphy

Unliveable – In Brazil, where a trans person is murdered every three days, Marilene searches for her daughter, Roberta, a trans woman who is missing. Running out of time, she discovers one hope for the future.

Written, Directed, and Produced by – Matheus Farias, Enock Carvalho

The Longest Dream I remember – As Tania leaves her hometown, she must confront what her absence will mean in the search for her disappeared father.

Directed by Carlos Lenin
Written by Carlos Lenin, Isa Mora Vera
Produced by Paloma Petra, Laura Carreto, Andrés Luna Ruiz

We’re Not Animals – His ex, Marie, became an Instagram star (thanks to an activist group focused on the female orgasm). Depressed, Igor believes this is a deliberate campaign to prevent him from finding someone else.

Written and Directed by Noé Debré
Produced by Benjamin Elalouf

Lizard – Short Film Grand Jury Prize – Juwon, an eight-year-old girl with an ability to sense danger, gets ejected from Sunday school service. She unwittingly witnesses the underbelly in and around a megachurch in Lagos.

Directed by Akinola Davies Jr.
Written by The Davies Brothers
Produced by Rachel Dargavel, Wale Davies

Like The Ones I Used To Know – December 24, 1983, 10:50 p.m.: Julie and her cousins ate too much sugar, and Santa Claus is late. Denis, alone in his car, is anxious about setting foot in his former in-laws’ house to pick up his children.

Written and Directed by Annie St-Pierre
Produced by Fanny Drew, Sarah Mannering

The Unseen River – Stories told along the river: a woman reunites with her ex-lover at a hydroelectric plant; meanwhile, a young man travels downstream to a temple in search of a cure for his insomnia.

Written and Directed by Phạm Ngọc Lân
Executive Producers Gabriel Shaya Kuperman, Alex Curran-Cardarelli

The Criminals – Short Film Special Jury Award for Screenwriting – In a town in Turkey, a young couple looks for some privacy. They are rejected from the hotels because they do not have a marriage certificate. When they think they have found a way, the situation gets out of hand.

Written and Directed by Serhat Karaaslan
Produced by Laure Dahout
Co-Produced by Laura Musat

Documentary Shorts

This Is The Way We Rise – An exploration into the creative process, following native Hawaiian slam poet Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio as her art is reinvigorated by her calling to protect sacred sites atop Mauna Kea, Hawai’i.

Directed by Ciara Lacy

Tears Teacher – Yoshida is a self-proclaimed “tears teacher.” A firm believer that regular crying promotes healthier living, he’s made it his mission to make more people weep.

Directed by Noémie Nakai

Snowy – a four-inch-long pet turtle, has lived an isolated life in the family basement. With help from a team of experts and his caretaker, Uncle Larry, we ask: Can Snowy be happy, and what would it take?

Directed by Kaitlyn Schwalje, Alex Wolf Lewis
Written by Kaitlyn Schwalje
Produced by Rebecca Stern, Justin Levy

Related

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November Musings – Understanding racial division through cinema, literature, and more

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Native American culture in film and more

This month we dive into Native American culture, starting with Dances With Wolves—a longtime favorite I’ve been eager to re-watch for a couple of years—especially after reading The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. Then thematically, I’m taken back to a favorite CD of mine from 1995—Between Father Sky and Mother Earth. And finally—curious about the American frontier at the turn of the century—a new discovery: Photographer William Henry Jackson.

Film
Dances with Wolves (1990) led the charge for revitalizing the western genre after it died out in 1980 when bad reviews led to an unprecedented financial disaster for Heaven’s Gate. Cinematographers around the globe eagerly welcomed back the genre—ever nostalgic for the dirt, dust, mud, candles, lamps, campfires, vistas, legends, and every-man heroism that made for a tantalizing big-screen event. For Dean Semler, it wasn’t his first Western, nor was it his last. He had previously shot Young Guns 1/2 and Mad Max 2/3, while post-haste lensing City Slickers (1991), and eventually The Alamo (2004), Appaloosa (2008), and The Ridiculous 6 (2015) while continuing to shoot epics in other genres for industry titans such as John Milius, Randall Wallace, and Mel Gibson. With Wolves, he garnered one of the film’s seven Oscars—out of twelve academy award nominations.

The film was Kevin Costner’s directorial debut. It started as a spec script written by Michael Blake in the ’80s. But after shopping it around, he couldn’t sell it. Costner—a friend from Stacy’s Knights (1983)—suggested he write the story as a novel. Blake conceded, however numerous publishers gave it a pass. Finally, in 1988, it got a paperback release, and Costner purchased the rights. However, development woes continued—due to the western genre’s dead flame—as studio after studio passed on the project. Finally, a deal was struck with Orion Pictures after some strategic management with foreign rights, and production started on July 18, 1989.

Indigenous peoples—mostly Sioux—played all the Native American roles in the film, and Indian communities largely embraced it. So much so that Kevin Costner was made an honorary member of the Sioux Nation. With a twenty-two million dollar budget, it grossed over four hundred million worldwide, and new interest in Native American culture began to manifest abundantly. It wasn’t long before the US National Film Registry selected the film for preservation due to its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.

What strikes me most is the film’s authenticity. Costner wanted the film to look like it was a child’s view of the west—fresh, romantic, and painterly. And he thought the way to achieve that was to be as authentic as possible. Production Designer Jeffrey Beecroft dedicated himself to extensive research to achieve it. And is forever grateful to Dean Semler, often commenting that “It feels like a painter lit it.”

Semler says the look of the film evolved, “Costner had very specific images in mind, and we built on that.” Costner really enjoyed working with Dean as his first experience collaborating with a DP, and he often talks about how gracious Dean was.

The film’s compositions evoked an undying admiration for the subjects and their place in the world. The camera placement, blocking, and lens selection precisely serve this—often looking at the Indigenous and Costner as heroes of great stature.

The editing served the performances. Neil Travis’s strategy was to let things happen without trying to hurry it along with cuts. But to approach the running time the distributor wanted, Travis admits, “it got to a point when cutting scenes felt like losing an arm or a leg.” Eventually, the distributor loosened its grip, and—upon picture lock—Travis found very little that was wrong with it.

Downloadable Resources 
Frame Grabs

Credits and Specs
Directed by Kevin Costner
Produced by Kevin CostnerJake EbertsJim Wilson
Written by Michael Blake
Based on a novel by Michael Blake of the same name
Starring Kevin CostnerMary McDonnellGraham Greene
Music by John Barry
Cinematography by Dean Semler
Edited by William HoyChip MasamitsuSteve PotterNeil Travis
Production Design by Jeffrey Beecroft
Production Company:  Tig Productions, Majestic Films International, and more
Release Date: November 21, 1990
Running Time: 181min, 236min (extended edition)
Aspect Ratio: 2:39:1
Camera and Lenses: Panavision Panaflex Gold II and Platinum, Primo, C, & E Series Lenses
Negative Format: 35mm Kodak EXR 50D 5245, EXR 500T 5296
Printed Film Format: 35mm, 70mm
Cinematographic Process: Panavision (anamorphic)
Country: USA
Language: English, Sioux, Pawnee
Reported Budget: 22,000,000

Book
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer aims to challenge Dee Brown’s claim in his book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, that “the culture and civilization of the American Indian was destroyed.” 

After a brief look at the Indians first exposure to Europeans, through to the Wounded Knee massacre, Treuer picks up the narrative where Brown left off—post-massacre in 1890. He takes us through the dark years following wounded knee—an endless barrage of inhumane practices administered by the US government in an attempt to “re-educate” the entire culture, literally stripping them from their families, languages, traditions, and existence. It’s an overwhelming and unbelievable accounting. But once he gets through it all, he takes us on a journey to the now—introducing us to thriving indigenous entrepreneurs, farmers, chefs, artisans, politicians, activists, businesses, and more—highlighting their resourcefulness and how they’ve carved their own path to reinvention.

The American Indian Dream is as much about looking back and bringing the culture along with it as it is about looking ahead. – Treuer writes.

Treuer grew up as an Ojibwe on a reservation in Minnesota. When starting college, he set his sights on a Ph.D. in anthropology—specifically studying Native American life—past and present.

From the NY Times to the Andrew Carnegie medal of excellence, his book has garnered consensual praise amongst the Nation’s most prominent literary critics.

Chapter after chapter, it’s like one shattered myth after another. – NPR
 
An informed, moving, and kaleidoscopic portrait… Treuer’s powerful book suggests the need for soul-searching about the meanings of American history and the stories we tell ourselves about this nation’s past. – New York Times Book Review

Photographer
William Henry Jackson was a photographer at the turn of the century. He was 47 when the Battle at Wounded Knee happened and lived to be 99 years old—dying in 1942. Like Brassaï and Orson Welles, painting was his first creative passion, and after fighting in the Battle of Gettysburg, he was able to forge a living selling his original works amongst post-civil war society. In 1867 he started a photography business with his brother and started documenting the Indian tribes in Omaha—the Osages, Otoes, Pawnees, Winnebagoes, and Omahas. He then started working for the US Geological Survey, going on photography expeditions to Yellowstone River and the Rocky Mountains, making him the first photographer to capture all the landmark scenery in these regions.

The kit he traveled with included three different cameras; an 8×10 inch glass plate camera, an 18×22 inch glass plate camera, and a stereoscope camera. The glass plates had to be coated and developed onsite with exposure times varying from five seconds to twenty minutes, and he usually had five to seven men assisting him. It was a very fragile undertaking—he once lost a month of work because one of his packing mules lost its footing.  

Downloadable Resources
10 photographs

Music
Between Father Sky and Mother Earth is a compilation of indigenous music that I’ve enjoyed since the ’90s. My favorite track is the Healing Song—it never fails to help ground me in the present and often invokes a trance-like state. It’s also hard not to sing along and meld with the vibratory rhythms in harmony. 

The track is performed by a duo known as Primeaux and Mike in the Native American tradition of healing and peyote songs. Johnny Primeaux comes from a lineage of noted peyote singers. He is known as an Oglala, Yankton/Ponca singer and songwriter. Mike is from Kitsili, Black Mesa, Arizona. His Mother’s clan is Near the Water People, and his Father is from the Salt Clan.   

It looks like the tracks may have originated on Primeaux, Mike & Attson, an album of Healing and Peyote songs in the Sioux and Navajo languages. Healing songs are a newer style of a cappella harmonized chanting to facilitate meditation. When I first heard these songs, I lived on a street named Sioux Dr. while knowing very little if anything about the Sioux people.

Quote
That Native American cultures are imperiled is important and not just to Indians. It is important to everyone, or should be. When we lose cultures, we lose American plurality–the productive and lovely discomfort that true difference brings.—David Treuer

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Child Prodigies and Renaissance Men

I hope you’ve been healthy and safe in these tumultuous times. This month’s web of curiosity spins from a resolute whim to re-watch RKO 281— awakening interests in child prodigies and renaissance men, the influence of theatrical lighting on film, the influence of night photography on film noir, and more.

Film I’m Studying

RKO 281 (1999), directed by Benjamin Ross, is a reflexive cinema gem. The title is derived from the original production number for Citizen Kane. The first half of the film covers the genesis of Citizen Kane, and the second half chronicles a nearly successful campaign to stop the film from being released and to burn all the negatives and prints. Offended and disgraced by the depiction of himself in the filmWilliam Randolph Hearst led the charge. He had the studio executives in his corner–ready to accept bribes–but he was going bankrupt and couldn’t follow through. RKO 281 is based on the documentary, The Battle Over Citizen Kane. 

It opens with a beautiful scene that inspires and excites the filmmaker in all of us. A young Orson Welles blows out the candles on his birthday cake,” Orson…” says his mother, “come into the light, never stand in the shadows, you were made for the light. Always remember that.”

And soon enough, we are watching a twenty-five-year-old Welles (Liev Schreiber), wandering around Xanadu in the middle of the night, conceiving the idea for Citizen Kane. “I’ve got it!” He says in voice-over, “I know what we are going to do, imagine a man who shaped his time, a titanic man of limitless ambition, a man with an empire at his feet, controlling the perceptions of everyone beneath him—a modern feudal lord. The great American biography, a journey into the heart of the beast.” 

A sequence ensues with a rat a tat tat exchange of inspired and passionate ideas between writer Herman Mankiewicz (John Malkovich) and Welles. Themes like “Love on your own terms” are pronounced with gusto and glory as we watch the vision for Citizen Kane take shape. Then Mankiewicz reveals that—for many years—he’s been keeping a file on Hearst, and their collaboration begins.

It captures the collaborative spirit with joyful nostalgia, leaving butterflies in the stomach. However, this is only one version of the story. In Frank Brady’s Biography, Citizen Welleshe writes how Welles—at first—was just focused on finding the right character to play. He was looking for a larger than life persona that could highlight his talent and reputation as a theater performer and radio star. Brady then recounts a court testimony by Mankiewicz which suggests he was the one to offer up Hearst as the film’s subject:

In a court proceeding years later, Mankiewicz gave his account of how the idea of the Welles film began, saying that it evolved out of a discussion of technique: a character would be shown in a March of Time sequence, and then the film would tell us about the person. “We were going to do The Life of Dumas,” remembered Mankiewicz,” and then I told him about how I would be interested in doing a picture based on Hearst and Marion Davies. I just kept telling him everything I knew about them. I was interested in them, and I went into all kinds of details. In an odd way it wasn’t really Citizen Kane at all, because we were going to do a great love story, which you remember Citizen Kane didn’t turn out to be…

Welles was under contract to write the screenplay, and the studio wanted it that way for publicity reasons. But Welles wanted Mankiewicz to write it. And Mankiewicz contractually agreed to write it without taking credit.

Serendipitous to my research, David Fincher just released Mank on Netflix this month. It centers around Mankiewicz’s experience writing Citizen Kane while flashing back to his life as a writer and his relationship with Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies. The film made it clear how critical Mank’s contribution was to Citizen Kane. And while I don’t recollect any reference to who suggested Hearst, it does address the credit in one of the closing scenes—starting as follows:

“You’re not going to like this Orson,” says Mank. “I want credit.”
“Come again,” replies Orson.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever written,” clarifies Mank.

It’s unclear how Welles really felt about this. The scene continues with Welles taking offense and throwing a tantrum. But in the subtext, I think his outburst was just a way for him to reconcile with his ego, while deep down, he understood and wanted Mank to get credit. What we know for sure is that Orson excepted Mank’s script—American, at two hundred pages—knowing, as Brady writes:

For many reasons, Welles couldn’t use a great deal of the script of American, errors of continuity, logic, and motivation being the most prominent.

but then adding that:

What is known and agreed upon by all concerned is that Mankiewicz came up with the concept of “rosebud,” the enigmatic word uttered by the dying mogul, the verbal icon around which the film revolves.

Citizen Kane was nominated for nine Academy Awards, but it only won for best writing of an original screenplay—both Welles and Mankiewicz received Oscars. Years later, Orson admitted he couldn’t remember all the details of who came up with which idea.

Downloadable Resources 
Excerpts

Credits and Specs
Directed by Benjamin Ross
Produced by Su ArmstrongRidley ScottTony Scott
Written by John Logan
Based on the documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane
Starring Liev SchreiberJohn MalkovichJames CromwellMelanie Griffith
Music By John Altman
Cinematography by Mike Southon
Edited by Alex Mackie
Production Design by Maria Djurkovic
Production Company: HBO PicturesWGBHScott Free Productionsand more  
Release Date: November 20, 1999
Running Time: 86min
Aspect Ratio: 16:9
Camera and Lenses: Arriflex
Negative Format: 35mm Kodak
Printed Film Format: 35mm
Cinematographic Process: Spherical
Country: USA
Language: English
Reported Budget: 12,000,000

Book I’m Reading

Citizen Welles (1989) by Frank Brady is a detailed biography of Orson Welles. Brady spent a decade researching and writing the book resulting in the first definitive chronicle of Welles’ life, spanning from his birth to his death. Upon its release, the New York Times Book Review stated, “Citizen Welles may well be definitive.”

For me, the book really humanizes Welles, but still in a legendary way. The sticking point thus far is his serendipitous childhood—a time when angels seemed to be dropping out of the sky to nurture his natural talents while he exercised a knack for averting any traditional childhood protocol. 

His mother Beatrice was a stalwart of his speech, and by the age of two, he was speaking in syntactically polished sentences. In the same year, he garnered a mentor in Dr. Maurice Bernstein, who was enthralled by Orson’s burgeoning intellect. At four, he avoided Kindergarten by faking an attack of appendicitis. And was then homeschooled by his Mother, while Bernstein—with backstage access—took him to all the new plays. At eight, he wrote a scholarly paper called ‘The Universal History of Drama.’ At nine, his mother died. And at ten, he started smoking cigars while writing a critique on Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

He continued to excel beyond his age level in many areas but was unable to add or subtract. When confronted with this weakness, he was known to shrug and say that he would always keep people around to do the math for him. But he did eventually learn.

His father—along with Bernstein’s support—sent him to the Todd School For Boys, where he turned his ambitions toward painting. But, Academically, his performance at the school was so poor, he barely graduated. And by that time, his father succumbed to Alcoholism.

Bernstein took Welles in, and at sixteen, he went to Ireland for a countryside walk-a-bout. He intended on starting a career as a painter but ended up joining the company at the Gate Theater in Dublin—making such a splash that it launched him into a theater career.  

After Gate, he spent a summer writing and illustrating a series of Shakespearean promptbooks. And when he was eighteen, they were published—to great success—by the world-renowned publisher Harper and Row. 

As his theater career continued, he began an adjacent career in radio, starring as an acclaimed regular on the March of Time radio shows. At this point, the Great Depression hit, and the US government started to sponsor theater projects. Welles—now twenty—was hired to run the Negro Theatre Project. And for the first time in American history, white people stood in lines to attend a black production. After 144 performances, Orson moved on to the Federal Theater, where he revived the great dramatic classics—several times a week—to great success. David O. Selznick—from Hollywood—came calling. But Welles wasn’t done with theater, and at twenty-two years old, he founded the Mercury Theater in New York. 

Welles learned a lot about lighting during these earlier years in theater, and the technology was advancing quickly. Abe Feder—master lighting technician—was a trusted collaborator:

Abe Feder was a master lighting technician—one of the best in the business—and followed, although not always agreeably, Welle’s dictates of helping to blend together the form and color of the set, the arrangement of the props, and the position and costumes of the actors, through the distribution of the variety of lighting. The slightly smallish stage caused design problems in creating the illusion of distance and perspective, and these, too, could be solved with nuances of lighting.

The light was the thing. As one writer pointed out two weeks after the opening, the effects were cinematic: as an actor moves downstage from under a shaft of light, his apparent size is seen to change most dramatically; in effect, the stage director is able to get more “shots” at distance and in close-up. When a sense of vastness was needed, the stage was more brightly lit; when compactness was necessary, it was dimmed. In all cases, the lighting followed the tempo of the play. To an audience brought up on evenly lighted rooms behind proscenium arches, the result was startling.

We haven’t even gotten to Orson’s famous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds or come close to Citizen Kane. And this summary barely even scratches the surface of these earlier years. But the big question in the back of my mind is: Was he a child prodigy by nature or a child prodigy by design? His opportunities and influences seem to be so crucial to his genius; it makes me wonder.

Photographer that inspires me

Brassaï also intended to pursue a career as a painter and was a renaissance man like Welles. His name was actually Gyula Halász, but he wanted to save it for his “serious art” and used the pseudonym Brassaï for his writing, caricatures, and photography. He is best known for his night photography in Paris during the 30’s—published in the book Paris at NightHis dark and evocative imagery influenced photographers and filmmakers worldwide—feeding the aesthetics of an emerging film noir genre. Brassaï couldn’t escape his success as a photographer and made attempts—in his journal—to reconcile with his desire to be a painter: 

Even though I had always ignored and even disliked photography before, I was inspired to become a photographer by my desire to translate all the things that enchanted me in the nocturnal Paris I was experiencing.

To monetize his burgeoning reputation, he worked commercially shooting everything from car tires to cigarette lighters—all while enduring an unfulfilled desire to paint.

I want absolutely to return to the plastic arts. This desire becomes more and more a physical necessity. Photography is more of a stimulant. A complete success in photography leaves something in one’s being unsatisfied. It is choice and not expression. Its laws involve limits, even if I know these laws and respect them in all humility. I am not unhappy to be able to maintain my anonymity. After all, photography enabled me to step out of the shadows to show what I see. That’s something. But even so, I must express one day what I am.

Downloadable Resources
10 Brassaï photographs curated from the web

TV I’m Watching

The Queens Gambitnow streaming on Netflix, is another story about a child prodigy. This one, however, is fiction. It follows an orphaned Beth Harmon as she falls in line at a draconian orphanage where each child is administered a daily dose of a tranquilizer to keep them calm. As addiction to the drug brews, Beth stumbles upon the building’s custodian while he’s playing himself at chess—sparking Beth’s interest in the game.

The series is based on a novel with the same name written by Walter Tevis. It loosely draws from Tevis’ experience as a class-C chess player—learning to play when he was seven years old.

The show has been received well by both entertainment and chess aficionados. The cinematography and overall design are on par with the best of today’s episodic cinema. “Cinema,” in this case, is used to describe how the use of lighting and other aesthetics profoundly serve and enhance the storytelling. A trend on the rise—for tv—during the last decade or two—in large part superseding the sitcom, reality TV, and soap opera.

Quote I am pondering

To have success in a particular domain incites you and constrains you to exploit that success and to practice professionally as a “specialist.” what you have done with the joy of an amateur. The dilettante’s passion for an art will always be stronger than that of a man who is gifted to practice it, for the dilettantes passion, like a love without hope, always remains unquenched. To protect the amateur’s freshness of vision and combine it each time with the knowledge and the awareness of the professional, that is what I have tried to accomplish all my life, whence my constant infidelities, diverse curiosities, my numerous and parallel occupations… that apparent incoherence was my coherence. -Brassaï

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