DPs indulge in some mutual appreciation

Posted by · 3:00 pm · January 9th, 2012

We’ve reached that point in the season where one has to actually keep a diary to remember which precursor announcements are landing on which days — as far as the guilds go, the actors, producers, writers, art directors and now the directors have all had their say, while the American Society of Cinematographers will join their ranks tomorrow.

I’d like to say I’m anticipating a surprise or two, but Best Cinematography is rapidly starting to feel like the most cemented of the craft categories. At least three of the five slots are spoken for, with a couple of ubiquitous titles jostling to fill the other two. The odds don’t favor an exotic and/or pulpy interloper like “House of Flying Daggers” or “The Black Dahlia” making things a little more interesting this year.

“The Tree of Life,” “Hugo” and “The Artist” all seem comfortably locked in for nominations from both the Guild and the Academy, with the eventual winner likely coming from that trio. A week ago, I might have said the same for “War Horse,” but Steven Spielberg’s lavish WWI epic is performing so dismally with the guilds thus far that I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if it missed the cut tomorrow. Still, Janusz Kaminski is an industry favorite and the film’s rampant (if peculiarly lit) pictorialism is catnip in this department: I’m not going to bet against it just yet.

That leaves one slot to fill, and I’m increasingly sensing that the ASC is going to rather unimaginatively fall in line with the other guilds by nominating Jeff Cronenweth’s handsome, if not particularly revelatory, work on “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” Darius Khondji’s jewel-box lensing of another Guild favorite, “Midnight in Paris,” seems a plausible alternative. There are more exciting directions they could go in — it’d be great to see “Drive,” “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” “Jane Eyre” or even “Melancholia” slip in here — but I’m not sensing much independent spirit on the guilds’ part this year.

As for the win, well, the answer should be obvious. If Emmanuel Lubezki has lost a single significant precursor thus far for his staggering work on Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” one doesn’t come to mind: his achievement, binding disparate perspectives and states of consciousness into one summer-dream whole, is the one area the film’s worshippers and detractors are united on.

But Lubezki knows as well as anyone that unanimous critical agreement counts for little with Academy members, who frequently vote in the technical categories as much for the films they like most as the artistic achievement at hand: just as “Pan’s Labyrinth” snatched the Oscar away from precursor leader “Children of Men” in 2006, it’s all too easy to imagine a more widely embraced Best Picture nominee like “The Artist” or “Hugo” undeservedly triumphing on the night. The Academy owes Lubezki big time, but how many voters are aware of that?

At the very least, Lubezki can count on the respect of his peers, made abundantly clear in Variety’s fascinating Cinematographers On Cinematographers feature, in which a number of major DPs single out their favorite achievements in the field from 2011. It’s a diverse, generously spread selection, but three contributors — Hagen Bogdanski, Javier Aguirresarobe and the venerable Caleb Deschanel, himself a five-time Oscar bridesmaid — have chosen to single out Lubezki’s work. (Weirdly, the only other DP to cop more than one tribute is Phedon Papamichael, whose work in “The Descendants” and “The Ides of March” is, to put it mildly, hardly transcendent.)

Having a veteran of Deschanel’s stature singing your praises is pretty special in itself, but his piece for Variety is particularly specific and perceptive on the merits of Lubezki’s work in the film. Would that more voters in this field bore in mind his point that cinematography isn’t merely about exquisite still images, but the camera’s relationship to the film’s onscreen participants:

“Most people think of cinematographers as choosing subjects of an epic nature to show off what they do — big, sweeping images of war or pageantry. In “Tree of Life” the cinematography records a small story, a celebration of the courage of everyday life. But it does it so up close and so effortlessly that it has the effect of elevating the intimacy of the story to a grand scale.

“You could argue anyone could use the technique to the same effect. But to achieve this intimacy with the camera requires trust. The great photographers of life — like Diane Arbus and Walker Evans and Robert Frank — all must have had some special quality: a personality of nurturing and non-judgment that frees the subjects to reveal their most intimate reality. It really is what makes a great photographer, every bit as much as understanding composition and lighting.”

Amen to that. Plenty more good stuff in the Variety feature, including reigning Oscar champ Wally Pfister on “Midnight in Paris,” and in turn, Jeff Cronenweth on the Pfister-shot “Moneyball.” Check it out here.

What are your predictions for tomorrow’s ASC announcement?

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

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