The great star Dustin Hoffman – late of the Ishtar lighting diagrams – was quoted in The Independent as saying that today’s feature films are the worst they’ve been in 50 years. Mindless tentpole movies and a scarcity in the mainstream of thoughtful, character-driven films of the type he built his career on make it hard to disagree. But Richard Brody, writing in The New Yorker, makes a similarly convincing argument that many of today’s independents surpass their 1970’s predecessors in both gravitas and craft. For both cases though, it makes me wonder. What has happened to the human touch?
About 70 minutes into Arthur Penn’s seminal 1967 film, Bonnie and Clyde, something enchanting takes place. The camera booms up to reveal a high, wide shot of Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker as she runs off into a sun-parched cornfield. Halfway through the move, a cloud slides in to create a dark, threatening shadow that rushes to meet her from the treeline ahead. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime, pre-digital era occurrence, and in this context it’s the type of happy accident that cinematographers pray for – a portentous indication of the fate awaiting the title characters.
It’s also an oddly gratifying moment during which you can sense the presence of the filmmakers. I trust they were smiling at the moment they shot it. There’s no question that this phenomenon was captured in-camera as part of the original photography. Audiences should be thankful to cinematographer Burnett Guffey, ASC (who picked up an Oscar for his efforts) for not yelling “cut!” and to Penn for choosing to use the take.
A similar but less obvious moment is seen in none other than Citizen Kane, when a matte-box shadow briefly creases the doorjamb of Kane’s library as the camera pushes through. It’s a minor thing of course, and the majority of viewers never notice it. But as much as we strive for perfection, I find this sort of flaw appealing. It’s the cinematic version of the hidden mistakes intentionally woven into Navajo blankets so as to remind us that man is not perfect. With the immersion in technology our profession now demands and the bloodless, antiseptic nature of so much of what is digitally originated, it’s nice to realize every once in a while that living, breathing people are the true cause of what we’re looking at.
And I think this’s what Hoffman was trying to get at with his comment. The human touch is still there in contemporary cinema, though it’s not as easy to see as it was during the height of his career. For proof, I would refer him to the work of the cinematographer.
We deliver a great deal of ourselves to a project, at least as much as the writer, director and performers. We share in the development of the visual plan and turn the abstract into reality. Under the best of circumstances we’re able to tap into our own feelings and put them on the screen with total freedom, “mistakes” and all. Surely, that fleeting impression of Gregg Toland, ASC’s matte box took nothing away from Citizen Kane, which 80 years after its release is still recognized in nearly every quarter as one of the greatest films ever made. I can imagine Toland sitting in the screening room and, for reasons known only to himself, signing off with a thin smile on that little blemish. As the top cinematographer of his day, he certainly could have ordered a reshoot of the offending moment. But the fact that he didn’t brings more respect to his choice. It shows that, yes, after all, one of our gods was really one of us.