Jose here. When the New York Film Critics began announcing their awards yesterday the biggest shock, for me, came early on as they decided to award Greig Fraser with Best Cinematography for Zero Dark Thirty. Don't get me wrong. I have absolutely nothing against Mr. Fraser and up to that moment I hadn't even seen the movie (I did later and ZOMG!). Anyway, what surprised me the most is that a contemporary movie had been recognized for an award that usually goes to period or fantasy movies. It's as if awards bodies don't feel that modern life is "pretty" enough to give it a photographic award.
Yet the fact that people assume that "best" cinematography instantly means "prettiest" cinematography might be the greatest mistake in a category whose winners sometimes defy all logic...
Let's start at the very beginning. After becoming an Oscar obsessive and developing an infatuation with this category, I too was surprised one day when I learned that a cinematographer's work consisted of much more than being friends with the lighting crew and art directors in order to capture gorgeous images. I learned in film school that cinematography was also about movement and knowing precisely when to shoot. Let's not even go that far, etymologically we are told that "cinematography" means precisely "to record movements", yet judging from all the Oscar winners, most of these movies might as well be picture books.
Little attention is ever paid to how - and why - the camera moves, and all the praise is thrown at movies with golden sunsets, stunning use of filters and glorious black and white. Most of these movies happen to be either: period, WWII or fantasy movies. Other than something as adventurous as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, when's the last time a contemporary movie happened to be as bold with its camera? The answer is quite simple: all the time. But we have not been trained to appreciate the dazzling qualities of the camera when we don't have period art direction and costumes to accompany it.
A few weeks ago I saw Killing Them Softly (also shot by Fraser - make sure to check out more of his work) and from the stunning travelling in the opening sequence I noticed that the film was saying much more with its camera than it was with dialogues. I was taken aback by how in just three movies director Andrew Dominik has mastered the use of purely cinematic language in a way some so-called "masters" (I'm looking at you Spielberg and Eastwood) rarely come close to. Dominik's use of his DP's is effective because he knows precisely what he needs them to communicate. In something like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford he knew he had to make old pictures come to life and the movie's almost Lumieresque effect might be the crowning achievement in Roger Deakins' career. Yet for something like Killing Them Softly he had to find a language that communicated the despair in modern life and the financial crisis. Fraser then shoots the movie with little artificial lighting, allowing the actors to look disheveled and ugly. I asked Dominik about his approach to telling this story with images and he said he trusted Fraser's judgment because he knew how to make the cast and crew work around the light and not the other way around (yet another wonderful metaphor for economic unstableness if there ever was one). Yet how many awards - if any - will Fraser receive for this revelatory camera work, when someone like Janusz Kaminski is impressing voters with his pretty frescoes of Lincoln?
Since 1990, only a total of 18 movies with contemporary or modern settings (heck, I'm even throwing Batman Forever in there instead of counting it as fantasy) have received Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography, while just a total of three have won the award:
- American Beauty (which one can arguably say won because of Conrad Hall's revered status; he won again posthumously three years later).
- Slumdog Millionaire (which won because of the sweep effect).
- Inception (which again, could very well fit into sci-fi or fantasy instead...but as a curious note, 2010 was the only modern year in which 3/5 of the Cinematography nominees were contemporary/modern movies).
The much more progressive New York Film Critics haven't been that modern in this category either; since they began awarding Cinematography in 1980 only 10 contemporary/modern movies have won the award.
Doesn't this beg a few questions? Film theorist Siegfried Kracauer was a firm believer that cinema had an obligation to exploit its resources and remind us why it was different than still photography. Why thendoes the work of groundbreaking camera artists like Emmanuel Lubezki, Matthew Libatique, Harris Savides, Lance Acord, Anthony Dod Mantle (pre-Slumdog), Stéphane Fontaine, Jose Luis Alcaine and Newton Thomas Sigel get snubbed in favor of more Daguerreotypean works? Why hasn't Best Cinematography embraced the modernity of the medium?