For this One Shot the focus-word is ‘restraint’. It’s about holding back when you want to get closer. In general it’s a rule of thumb to get closer to your subject as the tension escalates. Close-ups create more drama as they enlarge details in the performances of the actors. When someone is scared, it’s often most effective to really zoom in and capture the fear on their face in all its detail. Take too much distance to your subject and most of their performance will be lost. That’s not bad cinematography per se. As always; when you do it for a reason, it might work brilliantly. But in general the habit has always been; when the drama increases, the focal-length increases, so to speak.
That’s why I am so fascinated by these moments in movies when the framing is the opposite of what you’d expect. When in fact a cinematographer moves back instead of closing in on the subject when the drama increases. Used in the right context those shots can also work in a really profoundly emotional way. Case in point this time is Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, her beautifully minimal 2010 movie about the loneliness of celebrity and equally too, bad parenting.
Somewhere & Harry Savides
Somewhere is a tough movie too really sell. Like Coppola’s previous work it’s dreamy, atmospheric, light on narrative and subtle in it’s drama. But in comparison to, for example, Lost in Translation (2003) it misses certain catchy elements. It doesn’t have the brilliant comedic performance of a Bill Murray to capture the audience, nor the same level of constant humor as that movie. It also has even less overtly expressed drama, as the main character, Johnny Marco, seems emotionally numb for most of the film.
Not surprisingly, it didn’t get as much critical or commercial attention as Lost in Translation and might even have disappointed fans of Coppola’s previous works. But to me the film was actually amazingly beautiful and sincere. It felt like an almost autobiographical film of which Coppola had all the right to be its author (as a child of her famous father Francis Ford Coppola), and the restraint with which she expressed her story of loneliness and family bonding felt sincere, realistic and subtly heartbreaking at times.
Like all of Coppola’s movies Somewhere is also helped enormously by gorgeous cinematography. Not by Lance Acord, who did Lost in Translation, but by Harry Savides. Who’s that? you might think, as I did when I researched this post. As it turns out, he’s dead. Savides died last fall of brain cancer, thus making his career sadly short.
When I realized Savides was also the cinematographer of the gorgeously filmed Birth (2004), David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) and the haunting Gus van Sandt films Elephant (2003), Gerry (2002) and Last Days (2005) not to mention a lot of Mark Romanek’s music videos, like Fiona Apple’s Criminal and Nine Inch Nails’ Closer, I realized Savides might have really been one of my favorite current cinematographers, making his absence today that much sadder. So maybe this post is also a tribute to him, though my focus is on Somewhere more than on Savides. Anyway, what a great talent he was…
In Somewhere Savides films everything with a hypnotic stillness and silence. The movie is a classic tripod-movie, where the camera hardly ever moves through scenes. Instead we, as an audience, stand still and observe. We scrutinize every detail of this glamorous, lifeless world of anonymous hotels, silent breakfasts and lonely nights. In the same way that Mark Lee Ping Bin framed Three Times (2005) and parts of In the Mood for Love (2000) we are always kept at arms length.
This, at one point, gives us a hilarious shot where Johnny is put in a facial mask for the visual effects guys and then has to sit motionless for a long time, letting the mould set in. The camera frames his face, dead center, and doesn’t move, save for a subtle slow tracking motion forward. That shot lasts longer than you can bear. At first it becomes humorous to us, then even uncomfortable, until we literally want to tear Johnny’s mask of and scream, shout, scratch, run around, do anything but sit still.
The whole movie is filled with these still-shots, where it almost feels like you are watching an animated photo-collage. I understand how this can make the film appear boring, slow, or empty, but again; that’s part of the effect that gets the message across. When your subject is ennui (boredom), you’re not making the right film if its not challengingly slow from time to time to the audience…
Still, my favorite shot is not really related to the theme of ennui. It’s about how Johnny is a seriously flawed father-figure, who, in his heart, wants to better himself. From the moment his daughter, Cleo, comes into view (Elle Fanning) he starts to come back to life, but he can never truly reach out and connect to her. All throughout the movie we feel this distance between them, even if there clearly is a lot of love too.
Then the moment comes when Cleo breaks down in front of Johnny and literally asks him to comfort her and promise her she won’t be alone in the world. Johnny reacts awkwardly and doesn’t really seem to be able to deal with her overt emotions. Not much later he drops her off to go to a summer-camp and that is where the beauty appears to me.
Johnny puts Cleo in the taxi, walks towards his own ride (a fancy helicopter) and waves her goodbye. Cleo’s head is hanging outside the car-window as she looks back at Johnny and then Johnny feels regret. He says he’s sorry he hasn’t been around too much for her. But the helicopter sound drowns out his voice and Cleo looks back with confusion as to what he said. We, as an audience, just want to run towards her, hug her, say to her it’s alright, etcetera. But Johnny doesn’t. He just stands there, emotionally frozen. And the camera remains with him. We never zoom in on Cleo, she’s just out of our reach. Eventually she just smiles and waves and leaves, and we, as Johnny, are alone again and almost immediately feel her absence.
And that is my one shot. It’s not in the lightning, composition, or other technical details. It’s in the effect of keeping your camera in the distance, while knowing that the audience wants to move, wants to zoom in. I can’t think of a better way to visually show the feeling of being just out of reach (or out of touch) of that which you love.
Stylistically it fits perfectly within the overall film and its themes. It’s subtle, not overtly clever, silent and still and it’s one of the most moving images of the film to me.