A specific talent of a cinematographer is framing emotion. That sounds vague and slightly pretentious. But I’m referring to a very literal task. When a movie, or more specifically, an actor/actress shows emotion, the cinematographer has to frame that emotion, that performance, in a way that compliments or even enhances it. Emotion being a pretty extensive term, I’m specifically talking about expressed emotion here, emotion portrayed in a performance.
When an actor/actress cries, for example, the question for a cinematographer becomes; how to best convey that expressed emotion. Do you zoom in on the face and try to catch every single tear and curling lip? Or do you hold back the camera and capture more of the environment? Maybe include other characters who react to the emotion, or exclude them, so you better convey a sense of isolation and loss? Do you use environmental effects like clouds and rain? Shift the color balance to dreary colors?
I used the example of a crying character because that is often the moment when people really are taken in by a certain performance and it’s a moment where people also focus almost exclusively on the performer, and seldom on the capturer of the performance. We vividly remember Marlon Brando as Don Corleone breaking down over the death of his son in The Godfather (1972), and are in awe of his acting, but we don’t necessarily link it to the way his performance was captured, the way the lighting enhanced the mood, how the camera perspective played into his performance, etcetera.
This time, then, that is exactly my focus on One Shot, how a cinematographer can frame emotion and seriously enhance it by filming it the right way. My choice is, again, a very current film, On the Road (2012) by Walter Sallas.
On the Road
On the Road is an adaptation of the famous semi-autobiographical novel by Jack Kerouac about the adventures of the young prominent members of the Beat-Generation in the USA in the 1950’s. It’s characters are all based on real-life people. Main character Sal Paradise is Jack Kerouac himself, Carlo Marx is based on Alan Ginsberg, Old Bull Lee refers to William Burroughs, etcetera.
The novel is probably the most famously popular work of the Beat-generation and has become a modern classic of counter-culture storytelling. The movie adaptation, coming out 55 years after the book, will probably not receive any classic designation, if only because it refers to an established work without actually building on it in new ways. That being said, it’s an engrossing road movie full of strong performances, beautiful cinematography, great atmosphere and, when the dust settles in the end, also profoundly moving.
Walter Salles directed to movie, which thematically wasn’t that much of a stretch for him I guess, as he previously was most famous for his film The Motorcyle Diaries (2004), a road movie about the young Che Guevara. Both films he work on with cinematographer Éric Gautier, a French cinematographer who also filmed Into the Wild (2010) for Sean Penn, and thus is something of a road-movie expert by now.
His work in On the Road is, appropriately for the subject, spontaneous, dynamic and full of energy. Of course, that means a lot of hand-camera work, but it’s not overtly shaky or disruptive. It mostly is just very, very atmospheric filled with contrasting images of the cold cities and the warm, glowing outdoors. And the jazzy bepop culture is appropriately captured in all its energy. There is one scene where Moriarity and his on-off girlfriend Marylou dance their butts off during a house party and the sweat, energy, vividness and just pure joy are fully captured through Gautier’s lens.
Which brings me to the One Shot. This shot combines the spontaneous and creative on-the-fly style described above with the capture of expressed emotion in just the right way. Here it is:
It’s a shot from late in the film, when the trio of Dean, Sal and Marylou arrive in San Fransisco. It’s a dramatic moment because all three know Dean will get back with his wife and kid, and in the process leave his girlfriend Marylou behind. She knew this, of course, but as they cross the Golden Gate bridge, she starts feeling it. She sits in the backseat, and begins crying. Gautier chose to film this not in a direct way, but to frame her face in the rearview mirror. while the foggy contours of the bridge surround her face.
It’s a beautifully inventive way to show her breakdown. The cold fog not only compliments her mood, it also isolates her from Dean, Sal, and everyhing around her. In this one shot, she is just a sad, lonely soul framed by the nothingness of the fog.
And then there is that metaphor of her being envisioned through a rearview mirror. As if she belongs in the past, in the world that is behind us. Which is what scares and saddens her, that Dean is moving on, and she is left behind.
Up to this shot On the Road was not a particularly emotional movie for me to watch, but the empathy I felt for Marylou in this shot hit hard, and it signaled the coming of the last, more touching and emotional chapter of this movie. Jack Kerouac may have ended his story by thinking about Dean Moriarity (as the book says), but as I sit here writing and thinking about the movie, it is indeed Marylou I’m thinking about.