Sometimes you come across a single shot which is so inventive and effective, you pause and wonder if this was a lucky cinematographic discovery, or a carefully planned-out piece of filmmaking.
Sometimes there are these cool accidents & discoveries, like the moment where crew member Frank Silva hid behind a bed to stay out of a shot, failed, got noticed by the cinematographer and then David Lynch, and promptly was cast as evil spirit BOB in Twin Peaks (1993), resulting in that famous shot of him hiding behind the bed, this time on purpose.
Cinematographic improvisations can often lead to these memorable images that define entire movies. I’m reminded, for example, of the coyote-shot in Collateral which so perfectly illustrated the character of Tom Cruise in that movie, and turned out to be my One Shot of that movie.
But sometimes these improvised moments are subtle and disappear in the larger picture. It’s only after re-examining these movies, or researching them through analyses, that you can stumble across these magical shots that suddenly pop out at you.
In this case I rediscovered a brilliant moment in The Talented mr. Ripley (1999), a handsomely produced thriller made by Anthony Minghella, starring (then)upcoming talents Jude Law and Matt Damon (and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Cate Blanchett and Gwyneth Paltrow…now that I think about it; what an amazing cast…)
I saw the movie in theaters back then and remembered I was very impressed with the movie. Especially the cinematography and acting captured my attention. So much so that it actually was one of the first movies I bought on DVD.
But re-watching it at home I also recognized that as much as I enjoyed parts of the movie, it also was an increasingly frustrating movie to watch (and re-watch). As we follow the perspective of perpetual liar, and all around insecure and unlikeable Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), we have difficulty amassing a lot of sympathy with him, especially as he slowly destroys the lives of those he hooks up with.
It certainly makes for a fascinating movie, told with a lot of taste, great performances, tension and subtlety. It’s just not very easy to watch. So the movie drifted from my conscience and lay dormant in the back of my memories for years.
Actually last year I reexamined the movie in search of a cool One Shot, remembering the film the be beautiful if nothing else, and I came up with nothing. The film had tons beautiful images, but I just couldn’t find a story to hang up on a shot. And then I read an interview with cinematographer John Seale, discussing his work on the film, and one shot in particular, and my mouth dropped. Because he pointed out a shot I completely missed, but turned out to be one of the most inventive character-explaining shots I’ve seen in a long time.
In and of itself the shot looks intriguing but weird. A pianolid is closed and a reflection of Tom Ripley is seen. Actually, his reflection splits into two, as the curved lid is closed. After the split, we see his reflection putting on his glasses.
In the context of the film, it perfectly captures the duplicitous nature of Tom Ripley and his tendency to impersonate others. By this point in the film he has murdered his object of adoration Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), and managed to impersonate him and live his life in his stead. But an ever-evolving web of lies wraps itself around Tom, and he decides to stop his impersonation and return to being Tom, fleeing the suspicions of the local police and relatives of Dickie.
It’s this point in the story, where he’s shedding his skin and taking on a new persona again, that the piano-lid shot comes into play, and just in that instance we see it literally happening; we see Tom Ripley splitting off of his Dickie-impersonation and morphing into himself again.
It’s not a complicated thematic metaphor, but it’s so well thought out, so perfectly implemented. Just that this transformation is visible in a reflection of a piano, Tom’s personal instrument of choice, and that this visual idea of reflections is so well established throughout the movie (mirrors and reflections are often visible in the frame), that the shot doesn’t come off as being gimmicky, and actually is more like a hidden gem, which I just discovered 17 years after I saw the film for the first time.
And to come back to my opening words again; this shot apparently was also discovered on set, improvised on the spot, after a script assistant saw the reflection-effect in the pianolid. It amazes me then that such a narratively rich shot, which integrates so well in the visual language of the entire film, is thought up so spontaneously, and it sits as a perfect reminder that few things in cinematography can be as powerful as a keen eye, and the will to look around.