2004: The Year in Movies

Eastwood's Darkroom
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 7 2005 9:09 AM

2004: The Year in Movies


Hello, Scott, and welcome—

Now may I clunk your and Wesley's heads together? You wrote, "All I want to know is: If Eastwood's fine cinematographer, Tom Stern, is to be accused of not buying enough light bulbs, what does that say about the work Gordon Willis was doing with Coppola in the 1970s?" And Wesley wondered if anyone would challenge you. But I don't think there's even a point to challenge, unless we all accept the absurd notion that every movie that's seriously underlit is "like" Gordon Willis' work. There are as many darks as there are colors of the rainbow and millions of different ways to use them. I found myself peering at the screen in Million Dollar Baby, looking for a few glimmers of light in the right places, instead of just in the spots where Stern remembered to put a mini Mag Lite. Willis' work with Coppola was astonishing, but not just because it's dark, or even because it's suggestive as opposed to direct. He puts light precisely where it needs to be, which is in surprisingly few places. His use of it suits the story, the characters, the tone—you're never looking at the screen, thinking, "Why is that guy squinting? I guess he can't see anything, either" (which is what I kept thinking about Eastwood).

I know, I know, Stern was likely going for, as Tony pointed out, that old-time Warner Bros. look. But the studios wouldn't have released anything that artily murky—they'd have people demanding their money back.

There are tons of noirs to look at for great low-lighting, like T-Men (John Alton). I was recently reminded of a great moment in To Have and Have Not (Sid Hickox) where Lauren Bacall's face is barely lit—I think there's evening light coming in from a slatted window or something. I wouldn't say that you get all you want to see, but what you do see is tantalizing. It's perfection.

Just gotta say one more thing, though, because even though I didn't like Million Dollar Baby—well, who cares, really? I know we're all here to argue, and it's great fun for one person to say, "Dogville is crap!" and another to say, "It's the finest filmic parable of man's inhumanity to man since Chip 'n' Dale." And everybody goes home happy that they've had their say, put in their two cents' worth. But as much as I disliked Million Dollar Baby, I take note, Wesley, that you said you had "the purest emotional response to this movie. I felt taken into a world whose citizens moved me." Tony said something similar, that he was "moved by its somber tenderness" and that he wrote about the experience of that. And Scott: You called Kidman in Dogville an "alabaster-skinned angel both fallen and avenging." (And as much as I hated Dogville, I think you're right about her—I found her the one bit of life to cling to in that movie, though I do think von Trier misused her.)

I read those things and think THAT'S what I want out of criticism.

My point is that, while I know the Movie Club is designed to highlight all our likes and dislikes and foster fiery arguments, and all that's supposed to be a big barrel of laughs … well, I guess I'm in the minority because I just don't find it that much fun or ultimately satisfying. (Though admittedly, clonking your heads together re: Gordon Willis was fun.) I don't mean I'm not interested in what my colleagues think about things—it's just that ultimately what gives me the most pleasure and satisfaction is critics' simply writing with great care and tenderness about stuff they love, even if it's stuff I hated. (Sometimes it's even better if it's something I hated.) Everything else is just ... talk.

And that's my final thought for the night.

Remember, I clonk because I care.



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