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Cinematography and the fine art of award-giving

WITH THE WINNERS of the picture, director, actor and actress Academy Awards possibly more of a foregone conclusion than in any recent year, perhaps it’s time to live up to the name of this column by focusing upon the cinematography category.

Many observers have noted that performers often win Oscars for changing pace and playing characters with various diseases and afflictions, and it looks likely that this pattern will hold up again this year. Less mentioned are the trends in award-giving in the less glamorous but still prominent lensing department. For years, cinematography was one of the most tightly closed shops in Hollywood. The same men from a small group of union directors of photography shot nearly all the important pictures, and from the Academy’s birth through 1946, foreign cinematographers were hardly ever nominated, and only one won — George Perinal for his color work on the London-lensed “The Thief of Bagdad” in 1940.

Then, in 1947, the Brits broke through, winning both Oscars for cinematography that year — Guy Green for “Great Expectations” in black-and-white and Jack Cardiff for “Black Narcissus” in color. In the 1950s, when 19 Academy Awards for camerawork were presented (separate color and B&W categories existed in all but one year), just two went to non-Hollywood lensmen.

In the 1960s, when foreign styles began infiltrating mainstream films, seven of the 17 cinematography Oscars went to offshore cameramen. (It was also the decade when the dominance of the old-school cinematographers peaked — in 1965, the average age of the cinematography nominees was 63, roughly 20 years older than the average this year.) In the 1970s, by which time the separate color/B&W categories had been abandoned, non-U.S. directors of photography took seven of the 10 Oscars.

But the Academy has never seen anything like what happened in the cinematography category in the 1980s. All 10 winners were foreigners — Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet for “Tess,” Vittorio Storaro for “Reds” and “The Last Emperor,” Billy Williams and Ronnie Taylor for “Gandhi,” Sven Nykvist for “Fanny and Alexander,” Chris Menges for “The Killing Fields” and “The Mission,” David Watkin for “Out of Africa,” Peter Biziou for “Mississippi Burning” and Freddie Francis for “Glory.” The trend continued into the 1990s, with Dean Semler prevailing for “Dances With Wolves” and Philippe Rousselot winning last year for “A River Runs Through It,” although Robert Richardson finally broke the string in 1991 for “JFK.”

ALL THIS FOREIGN DOMINANCE must have set off alarm bells among the establishment Hollywood lensers, making them wonder what they were doing wrong. Even the most erudite American cameramen I’ve spoken with over the years acknowledge that the Europeans are somewhat better versed in the study of painting, sculpture, photography, architecture and anything else pertaining to the historical lessons of the masters. In this specific sense, then, they have perhaps cultivated a slightly more “artistic” sensibility in the use of light and in conveying the texture of a time and place.

This latter issue leads to the other interesting trend in the awarding of cinematography statuettes: In the last 25 years, only twice have lensing Oscars gone to films set in the current day, and those two were special effects spectaculars, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “The Towering Inferno.” If you’re shooting a modern film set in a house or an office, you basically don’t stand a chance against a picture shot against the backdrop of the Serengeti or the Forbidden City.

In this regard, cinematographers themselves can often be heard to complain that their work is frequently misunderstood, that average viewers commonly mistake great scenery for great photography, that fancy period costumes and elaborate art direction automatically give the impression of something well photographed.

THE TRUTH OF THIS IS EASILY SEEN. Any amateur could point a camera into Monument Valley or at the Pyramids and, unless they messed up awfully with the exposure or focus, come up with an impressive-looking shot. But give them a small room with normal lighting and they might have a bit of a problem.

This is one of the two reasons that, even with the outstanding competition in the category, I would vote for Conrad Hall this year for his work on “Searching for Bobby Fischer.” (The American Society of Cinematographers gave him its award a couple of weeks ago.) Set in contemporary New York (although mostly shot in Toronto) and confined largely to apartments, dingy chess clubs and the occasional competition hall, the modest film would seem, on paper, to offer no particular photographic opportunities.

Instead, it serves to show what a master can do. Given the limited palette and backdrops, Hall (along with debuting director Steven Zaillian) sculpts the characters and settings in unexpected ways that increase the viewer’s interest in every scene. However, that’s basically a technical achievement.

What really sets his work here apart is Hall’s decision to predominantly use extremely long lenses and tight focal lengths, which creates a visual correlative for the extreme mental concentration of the leading character, a young chess player. That the choice of lenses often blurs out almost everything but the chess pieces, or a face, or whatever may be of importance at that moment , creates brilliant stylistic reinforcement for the dramatic and thematic concerns of the film itself. As nearly any cinematographer will say, his or her job is to serve the story as well as possible. Hall’s is the only work I saw last year that not only does that, but gives it an extra, resonant, complementary dimension.

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