The American Society of Cinematographers

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May 2009
The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers Online
by Mark T. Conard (Editor)
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

From their early days as the writing-producing-directing team behind genre riffs such as Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing and ironic satires such as Raising Arizona, Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have divided serious filmgoers into those who see them as cinematic visionaries and those who dismiss them as snide plagiarists. Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, for example, has consistently criticized the brothers for their condescending attitudes toward their characters, arguing the appeal of their movies comes from their smug — and superficial — superiority. Similarly, David Sterritt has suggested in his essay “Fargo in Context” the Coen Brothers’ cinematic universe is one that depends for its pleasure on the humiliation of those on screen. And Emanuel Levy, in his book Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film, dismissed the Coens as “clever directors who know too much about movies and too little about real life.”
High Definition Cinematography (Third Edition)
by Paul Wheeler, BSC
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Cameraman and educator Paul Wheeler, BSC, has been shooting film and video for decades and has worked in formats ranging from mini-DV to 65mm, so when he opens his book High Definition Cinematography with a passionate argument in favor of High Definition as an optimum capture medium, it gets the reader’s attention. Wheeler has also written important books on traditional 35mm cinematography and DigiBeta, but he has clearly been won over by recent advances in High Definition technology and sees it as the most economical, high-quality format currently available. His latest book, therefore, is more than just a resource for filmmakers looking for a reference guide to the technological, creative and economic implications of High Definition cinematography. It is also a compelling new argument in the ongoing debate of film vs. digital and a first-hand account of a variety of workflows and camera packages.
The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film
by Jeffrey Couchman
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

In 1954, esteemed actor Charles Laughton began production on his only feature as director, an adaptation of Davis Grubb’s bestselling novel The Night of the Hunter.  Laughton’s hallucinatory blend of Southern gothic, German expressionism and dustbowl docudrama was a commercial disappointment upon its release in 1955, but in the decades since. it has rightfully attained the status of a classic. Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and other notable filmmakers have acknowledged its influence, and a recent Film Comment poll named it the best film ever directed by an actor. It is a movie complex enough to have inspired no fewer than three book-length studies, the latest and finest of which is Jeffrey Couchman’s The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film. Incorporating insights and information from Simon Callow’s British Film Institute monograph and Preston Neal Jones’s Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of “The Night of the Hunter” and supplementing them with his own primary research, Couchman has created the definitive guide to one of American cinema’s most enduring masterpieces.

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The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers
by Mark T. Conard (Editor)
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

As the Coens’ filmography has grown and their style developed to generate ambitious works such as The Man Who Wasn’t There and No Country for Old Men, however, early champions such as Roger Ebert and Dave Kehr have proven to be more prescient than the brothers’ journalistic nemeses. While the Coen Brothers are undoubtedly satirists with a taste for generating laughs at their characters’ expenses, they are also ambitious filmmakers who take on big subjects: what it means to be an American (Raising Arizona, O Brother Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men); the harsh difficulties of living by a moral code in an amoral world (Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski) and the poignancy of striving for happiness in an oppressive, godless universe (The Man Who Wasn’t There, Burn After Reading). That the Coens often examine these concepts via comedies or self-conscious genre pastiches has given their critics plenty of ammunition, but it has become increasingly clear their cinematic playfulness is often used to convey quite serious and important ideas.

Those ideas are at the heart of The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers, a compelling new anthology of writings that links the filmmakers’ work to the philosophies of Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche and other world-class thinkers. These articles, commissioned and collected by editor Mark T. Conard, do not represent an artificial inflation of the Coens’ achievements; they present a convincing argument that they deserve to be recognized as profoundly philosophical artists. Conard divides 16 essays into four sections: “The Coen Brand of Comedy and Tragedy”; “Ethics: Shame, Justice and Virtue”; “Postmodernity, Interpretation and the Construction of History” and “Existentialism, Alienation and Despair.”  Most of the pieces focus intensely on one or two films (As one might expect, the most thought-provoking entries are devoted to the Coens’ most celebrated film, No Country for Old Men.) and use basic philosophical concepts as their starting points for discussion.

While titles including terms like “Kierkegaardian despair” might scare off less academic Coen fans, the book is surprisingly accessible even to readers with only a passing knowledge of philosophy. Whenever the articles do delve into complicated philosophical theories, they carefully introduce the reader to the concepts before applying them to the films themselves, and the connections the writers make are consistently insightful. It is a testament to the breadth of essays in this book, as well as to the complexity of the Coen Brothers’ work, that several pieces present contradictory yet equally valid viewpoints.  Rebecca Hanrahan and David Stearns’s “And It’s Such a Beautiful Day!” uses Aristotle’s theories on shame and friendship to illustrate that Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson is the moral center of Fargo, whereas Jerold J. Abrams, in “A Homespun Murder Story,” references contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre to make the case the shallow, solipsistic Marge is as disconnected from humanity as the killers and kidnappers in the film. Yet there are also recurring themes across the different contributions, such as the Coen Brothers’ relationship to nihilism and their unusual presentation of violence as either grimly realistic or comically exaggerated — or both.
     
Taken collectively, the essays present a sophisticated analysis of the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre that moves beyond philosophy to address issues of politics and history (Richard Gilmore’s analysis of Raising Arizona is particularly incisive in this regard.), genre (with many chapters that address the Coens’ relationship to film noir and the Western) and the place of landscape and the way it defines character (a notion Richard Gaughran links to existentialism in “What Kind of Man Are You?”). Thus, while the anthology begins with philosophy, it splinters out in varied and rewarding directions to assess the Coen Brothers’ filmography in all its moral and aesthetic complexity. The brothers themselves have often been coy about their motives and meanings, implying they do not intellectualize their work in the manner their critics do (When asked about the postmodern aspects of his films, Ethan Coen replied, “The honest answer is I’m not real clear on what postmodernism is.”). Yet any lingering doubts about the filmmakers’ depth or seriousness of purpose should be laid to rest by this excellent volume of film scholarship, required reading for anyone who seeks fresh perspectives on the Coens as well as the application of philosophical ideas to the medium of film.

The University Press of Kentucky
$35 hardcover
 

Online Online Exclusive
High Definition Cinematography (Third Edition)
by Paul Wheeler, BSC
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

After beginning with a brief overview of HD, Wheeler delves into the nitty-gritty of pixels, chips and progressive vs. interlace recording to help the cinematographer make informed decisions about which formats and cameras to use. The book is designed for the professional filmmaker rather than beginners; Wheeler skips over cinematography fundamentals and gets into the specific properties of HD, taking the reader’s knowledge of lighting and composition basics for granted. He also does not spend much time on prosumer formats like HDV, choosing instead to provide in-depth discussions of expensive cameras like the Viper and the Genesis. For its intended audience of intermediate and advanced cinematographers, Wheeler’s book is extremely thorough, taking the reader through each step of a Hi-Def workflow, from preproduction to delivery and exhibition, with plenty of troubleshooting tips along the way.  
     
In keeping with its aspiration to be a definitive study of the subject, High Definition Cinematography addresses HD from a variety of perspectives, ranging from color theory and digital tonal range to more concrete examinations of lenses, monitors, cabling and crewing up. Technical and aesthetic matters are discussed in equal detail and with Wheeler’s considerable experience as a constant reference point; his examples are characterized by specificity, making even the most unwieldy concepts easily comprehensible. The book also includes more than 100 vivid illustrations that add to the overall sense of clarity and detail. Wheeler’s organization of this material is clear; his summaries are concise, and his language is refreshingly passionate. Although he covers a lot of theoretical and technical ground, Wheeler’s descriptions are never dry, and his enthusiasm for the HD medium is infectious. Celluloid purists will balk at many of his assertions — Wheeler repeatedly contends 2K Hi-Def images are comparable with those produced and exhibited on 35mm film — but he backs his claims up with convincing, informed arguments drawn from actual productions on which he has worked.

The chronology is arbitrary at times (For example, a section on digital projection precedes any substantial discussions of cameras, lighting or editing, which seems a little backward.), but the detailed table of contents and clearly defined chapter headings make it easy for readers to quickly find whatever topic interests them. The book goes beyond questions of technique and equipment to address such practical considerations as shipping, dealing with hazardous weather conditions and the ways HD affects other crafts such as costuming and production design. This is the third edition of High Definition Cinematography, and, as such, it includes chapters on eight new cameras (including the RED One) and new first-hand accounts of HD projects on which the author has worked. The production histories are particularly helpful because they include lighting diagrams and stills that give concrete examples of how to apply the lessons taught earlier in the book. The end result is a vastly improved version of an already fine textbook and a valuable complement to Wheeler’s own Practical Cinematography. Though the field of High Definition cinematography has now become far too broad to be fully encompassed in one book, High Definition Cinematography packs as much essential information into each page as any tome on the market.          

Focal Press
$44.95 paperback
 
The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film
by Jeffrey Couchman
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Although The Night of the Hunter has the intensity and force of a product of a singular vision, Couchman reveals its qualities stem from a series of pairings and collaborations between Laughton and various colleagues, including the legendary Stanley Cortez, ASC, whose shimmering black-and-white cinematography perfectly conveys the juxtaposition of horror and innocence to which Laughton aspired. Laughton’s journey — and Couchman’s — begins with the novel, which was published to great popularity in 1953.  The book tells the story of a sadistic preacher (played in the film by Robert Mitchum) who makes his living by marrying recently widowed women of means and then killing them. This modern-day Bluebeard thinks he has hit the jackpot when he marries the wife of a thief who has been executed, but the woman’s children make off with the loot, and the preacher is forced to pursue them down a Southern river. The brother and sister eventually take refuge in the home of a woman who proves to be a formidable match for the evil “man of the cloth.”
     
At the time Grubb’s novel was published, Laughton was performing in a series of successful stage presentations mounted by producer Paul Gregory. The two men were looking for a film property, and upon reading The Night of the Hunter, they agreed they had found an ideal project. Couchman charts the progress of Laughton’s initial collaboration with Grubb, who provided drawings Laughton used for inspiration; reproductions of many of these sketches are included in the book, and they prove Grubb was a visual as well as a literary influence on the final film — many of the drawings are so similar to the movie’s images they could be taken for storyboards. Couchman follows his discussion of Laughton and Grubb with a chapter on the film’s most controversial partnership, that between the director and screenwriter James Agee. For years, rumors have persisted that Agee’s impact on the finished film was negligible and that Laughton threw out most of his work; yet Couchman’s examination of a recently discovered first draft of Agee’s script proves Agee was a significant contributor to The Night of the Hunter.
    
Where Couchman’s book really shines is in its section on the film’s production, which benefits from numerous first-hand accounts. Over his years of work on this project, the author has interviewed Cortez, Gregory, art director Hilyard Brown, editor Robert Golden, assistant cameraman Sy Hoffberg, second-unit director Terry Sanders and actors Mitchum and Peter Graves. Their observations and reminiscences inform a detailed production history that explains precisely how Laughton’s offbeat adult fairy tale came into being. Couchman contends audiences’ initial problems with The Night of the Hunter were not because it was ahead of its time, but rather were because it was a throwback — Laughton consciously chose to emulate the techniques of the silent era and D.W. Griffith (to whom he tipped his hat by casting Lillian Gish as Mitchum’s nemesis), and the old-fashioned style combined with modern views on sexuality and violence that made The Night of the Hunter a tough film to comprehend. Laughton’s allegiance to early cinema and Cortez’s own carefully developed visual sensibility of deep focus and sharp contrasts intersected to create what Couchman refers to as a series of “coherent contradictions”; these contradictions make The Night of the Hunter nearly unclassifiable (It is not exactly a horror movie, a melodrama or an art film, though it shares qualities in common with all of those genres.), which is exactly what makes it admirable to its many fans. 
    
Couchman’s book is, in its own way, an achievement that earns comparison with Laughton’s achievement: like The Night of the Hunter itself, A Biography of a Film does many things at once, and it does each of them brilliantly. The book is simultaneously a poignant biography of the final years of Laughton’s life, a well documented account of his working methods and those of his collaborators, and a scholarly analysis of the visual and aural construction of a timeless classic. The author is as skilled at sociological comment (The final chapters of the book consider the era in which The Night of the Hunter was released and ponder the reasons for its failure.) as he is at breaking down the technical and economic components of film production, and he knows as much about performance as he does about music and lighting — which is, based on the evidence of this masterful volume, as much as anyone currently writing about film. The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film is one of the best books ever written about the complex convergence of factors required for any movie to reach screens; its intelligent and accessible dissection of one the making of one film becomes a universal testament to the art of cinema as a whole.       

Northwestern University Press
$24.95 paperback