For cinephiles with below-the-line awareness, yesterday was a very sad day with the passing of cinematographer Harris Savides. He was 55, with only 15 years of film credits, but his images will be revisited for ages. On Oct. 10, 2012, the film world got a little less beautiful.
Savides' longevity in pop culture will be remembered for his kinetic lensing of the iconic music videos made by Mark Romanek including "Closer" by Nine Inch Nails, "Criminal" by Fiona Apple, "Scream" by Michael Jackson and "Bedtime Stories" for Madonna. He also shot commercials for international filmmakers Wong Kar-Wai and John Hillcoat.
Due to his decades of work in commercials and music videos, it took until 1997 and David Fincher's paranoia yarn The Game to break him into cinematic work. His film credits included collaborations with some of the most acclaimed filmmakers working today, including multiple films directed by Fincher, Gus Van Sant, Sofia Coppola and Noah Baumbach.
Savides has a very short, but wholly unique filmography, made distinct by embracing both digital (including Zodiac for Fincher, remarkable not just for being the first film that Fincher made in digital, but also for being a period film set across multiple decades in multiple cities, needing a distinct look for each setting and -- despite being shot on a new format -- the film still looks remarkably authentic) and film (including Somewhere by Sofia Coppola). But it was his master camerawork for both mediums that truly set Savides apart by utilizing minimal or natural lighting and executing exquisite long takes.
"When I was younger, I liked movies that were really strongly lit, like Blade Runner. But now I just want to be more natural," he told Interview Magazine in 2008 about his work with Van Sant, particularly Milk, the 2008 bio-pic of the slain gay public politician, Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn in an Oscar-winning role). "I think that people can't go to a movie and see something that's too photographic. I don't think you can ever make a movie that looks amazing when you're trying to make it look amazing."
Perhaps more than any modern cinematographer in American films, Savides was a master at following movement and emotion in single takes. The two films, for me, that made me make sure I saw any film that Savides shot were Elephant (2003, directed by Van Sant) and Birth (2004, directed by Jonathon Glazer).
In Elephant, a minimalist story set within one day of an unnamed American city where a school shooting will occur, the eerie suburban tone is set by a long crane shot that follows a car careening down a suburban street coming very close to hitting a child on a bike and numerous cars parked at the curb. The street is full of fallen leaves, and the unexplainable fall of innocence is already established. The scene closes when a young man (Alex Frost) gets out of the car and pleads with his already drunk father (Timothy Bottoms) to let him drive himself to school. When Van Sant and Savides get to the school there is a beguiling Steadicam extended take that follows all the students we'll meet, through the hallways, backtracks out into the open field and back into the school into the dark room, seamlessly executed in the slow walking manner of the students as they stop and talk with each other.
Birth opens with a similar eerie aerial view -- this time covered in snow and following a man jogging down a sad, desolate path and collapsing under a bridge. The film is in color but the surroundings seem so dead it almost appears to be black and white. Telling the story of a couple (Nicole Kidman and Danny Huston) about to be married whose relationship is splintered by the arrival a young man (Cameron Bright) who tells Kidman, a widow, that he is her former husband reincarnated. Glazer and Savides don't create suspense out of this set up. What they do is more interesting and uncomfortable because Savides patiently holds his camera on Kidman who is trying to keep a strong composure but is unraveling inside. The film ends on a bleak, gray day at the ocean, without dialogue and only accompanied by Alexandre Desplat's haunting score as Kidman -- in a beautiful wedding dress -- walks into the ocean, screaming and terrified of her wedding day.
After those films Savides continued to work on each subsequent film by Van Sant, and created new working relationships with Baumbach and Sofia Coppola.
Savides has one film that he finished prior to his death, The Bling Ring, directed by Sofia Coppola and starring Emma Watson as the leader of a group of young women who rob houses of celebrities that will be released in 2013.