By the time you read this, we will be well around the home stretch and sprinting for the finish line of the year 2013. The requisite cliché applies: I’m sure it has flown by as quickly for you as it has for me. But where there once rested a sense that time moved with the speed of a kitchen renovation, there now exists for many of us something of a dull ache, constantly reminding us that everything about our lives has sped up to a ridiculous degree. I used to think this was just another cost of getting older, but to prove how out of control things are, even the young people I know are aware of it. When I was a kid, I recall my father making what seemed like a spacy reference: “Once you hit the Fourth of July, the next stop is Christmas.” Back then, I thought he was crazy. Now I see him as a visionary.
Some of the contributors to this accelerated condition — and could there be anything more mundane? — are the shelf displays at my local supermarket. It’s an undistinguished link in a nationwide chain, but management anticipates the next selling season as early as possible. Easter decorations abound in February ... summer gear appears in March ... Thanksgiving displays blindside shoppers in September. While standing at the checkout this past July, I noticed the Halloween DVD display set up next to the gossip rags. And, wouldn’t you know it, I came upon a gem.
I’ll make a statement that some of you will instantly dismiss, but that I will defend to the finish: Night of the Living Dead (1968), directed and photographed by George Romero, is far and away the scariest, most unsettling film ever made. (Those are the original reasons why we went to the movies in the first place, aren’t they?) And, without question, it is also the worst-looking film of all time.
This might seem a bit out of line coming from a cinematographer, as I count myself among those who are unfailingly deferential to other cinematographers. But only a fellow practitioner will recognize that sentiment for the wonderful compliment it implies.
For the past decade or so, it seems everything in our industry has been hijacked by a mentality concerned only with new technology and its effect on what we do. Most cameras, workflows and post processes have been shaped, without our consent, to create a flawless product, one infinitely reproducible in a form as absent of human handprints as human beings can imagine. Night of the Living Dead exists at the opposite end of that spectrum. It’s raw in a way that only 16mm black-and-white film of its era could be, filled with crude camerawork and harsh lighting that’s often mismatched and inconsistent. Then there are the compositions that reach for something arty but only come across as weird and self-conscious. Continuity mistakes abound, and the rules of screen direction are dutifully ignored. In a word, it’s amateurish (in what I hope was an intentional way).
That is precisely why it remains so compelling 45 years after its release. I first saw it at a midnight screening in the 1970s; at the time, I thought of it as just another notch on the lens barrel — cheap, gory and on to the next. Watching it again recently, I thought it was a masterpiece. Everything that was technically wrong was exactly what made it so chilling and disturbing. None of us can imagine anyone but Gordon Willis, ASC creating the look of The Godfather. The same must be said for Romero and Night of the Living Dead. His achievement in serving the story photographically is on par with virtually any movie you can name.
And isn’t that really the crux of what we try to do? Too often, we’re fooled into equating surface perfection with inner value. We would do well to keep the lesson of Night of the Living Dead in mind, especially as awards season will be upon us shortly.
How shortly? It’s early September as I write this, and magazines are already touting their Oscar issues.
Hang on tight. It’ll be summer again before we know it.