Friday, July 27, 2012

Directed by Clint Eastwood - Part I: unobtrusive stylistics

Since his directorial debut Play Misty For Me in 1971 Clint Eastwood has helmed 32 features and has grown increasingly productive lately. He is one of the few American directors within Hollywood who keep making movies for grown-ups - movies concerned with the current and historical state of American society. Ever since the 1990s his films trigger an emotional resonance that by far transcends the melancholy solitude of his loner protagonists.

There are basically four types of taciturn characters Eastwood has developed, re-invented and even retired within the last 40 years: Leone's western loner, Siegel's vigilante cop, the war veteran and finally the artist (DJ, musician, showman, photographer...) he introduced with his debut feature.

Don Siegel taught him how to get a picture done under budget which has secured him an artistic freedom other Hollywood directors dream of. For reasons of efficiency Eastwood likes to work with a group of people who know exactly what he wants and who stay on his Malpaso production company for decades. On the downside, his habit of shooting screenplays without the usual rewrites did hurt some of his films.

However, he only tells those stories which he envisions clearly in his mind ("You have to have the picture there in your mind before you make it. And if you don’t, you’re not a director, you’re a guesser.")

Although his personal directing style is very much grounded in the anti-heroes he portrays and dictated by the sort of stories he tells ("each film requires its own visual style") it is also quite distinct and at the same time unobtrusive.

Rooted in the surroundings
For one thing, he prefers to shoot on location whenever possible. On the one hand, he likes to show sets from all possible angles which is seldom possible on sound stages. On the other hand, his protagonists are usually defined in relation to their surroundings. Thus, the location has to reflect the mood of the story.

When you look at the following openings of Play Misty For Me (1971), High Plains Drifter (1973) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) you might notice how often we see or hear wind.

Play Misty For Me opens with one of many helicopter shots in Eastwood's films. We first see a harsh, fissured coastline as a perfect symbol for the psychological abyss of the story. Then we focus on a house in the middle of nowhere and a lonely protagonist in front of it. Eastwood always likes to make us feel the real distances which in this film are crucial to the suspense.

The High Plains Drifter slowly emerges from the landscape like western protagonists like Shane have done for years. No matter how larger-than-life a hero seems to be, he is always dwarfed by nature. Here however, his appearance through a mirage is hinting at more supernatural aspects of the story.

On the other hand, it is only consequent to not show any characters on Iwo Jima, the island of black sand, because this is a film about soldiers killed in action whose only testimony are a bag of letters.

Low Key Staging
Contrary to his mentor Sergio Leone Eastwood is always trying to subordinate himself as a director to the story. He once said in an interview that he understood directors who must mark their presence so that audiences might appreciate their contribution. In his case though, being present as an larger-than-life actor he didn't see a reason for thrusting himself into the picture.

Therefore, writing about Eastwood is a lot like writing about classical Hollywood cinema in terms of unobtrusive directorial guidance. It's no coincidence that Eastwood likes his lighting, colors and film music rather low key.

Let's have a look how he stages himself as an actor: to enforce the larger-than-life presence of his characters he often positions the camera below eye level so that it looks up to him and he appears even larger. He hardly ever uses eye level photography on any character in his films.

Furthermore he emphasizes the protagonist's ambivalence by staging himself in the shadow or in backlight. Only parts of his face are harshly lit if at all.

With his first cinematographer Bruce Surtees (who has also been called the "prince of darkness") he created a look that simulates natural lighting conditions on location. Especially night time and interior scene benefit a lot from perceived "natural" lighting.

Costumes and sets are usually made with earthly colors in mind, preferably green and brown. Of course, there is a distinct color scheme to the specific films and some, like High Plains Drifter, deviate a lot from this general mold. But here I'd like to focus on the elements that remained constant throughout the years and those that specifically indicate the difference in the works of the late Bruce Surtees and Eastwood's successive principal cinematographers who both passed through their apprenticeships within Malpaso.

Josey Wales: "Some of them would like to have the sun behind their back"
In Eastwood's own take on Dirty Harry - the fourth in the series - he centers the story on a female revenge murderer (Sondra Locke) and finally resurrects beat-up Calahan to safe the day (or rather the night).
Harsh contrasts, characters always darker than the background.
The rape victim's face is half in the shadow, camera from below.
Iconic backlighting, Dirty Harry slightly larger than life.
Surtees' assistant Jack N. Green took over after Pale Rider (1985). While still maintaining low key lighting and backlight whenever possible, Green gave his pictures a softer, sometimes almost velvet look. The Green era produced some of Eastwood's most realistically photographed movies concerning color and lighting.

Eastwood has long been trying to represent the melting pot America realistically by casting Afroamericans, Native Americans, Latinos and Asians. Many of his more personal projects contain decided statements against racism. Using only fill light on their faces Jack N. Green even manages to minimize reflections on Afroamerican actors' skin.

Diane Venora as Chan Parker is more obscured than illuminated by two lampshades.
Much is hinted at in these unusually dark pictures.
The kitchen scenes of The Bridges of Madison County are worth studying for Eastwood's very unobtrusive mastership in staging and directing.

Perfect simulation of "realistic" lighting conditions.
On Mystic River, Green's gaffer Tom Stern got promoted to cinematographer. He displays the most artificial style of the three. While going back to Bruce Surtees' harsh contrasts, he increasingly drains the pictures of color, especially everything else than green and blue in post production. Recently, this has led to very artificial images in Letters from Iwo Jima and Changeling with digitally desaturated pictures that retained one or two color spots (like red lips or orange fire) that almost felt handpainted.

First a few extreme examples of dark green-blue images from Stern's beginnings:

Then the colors got increasingly drained during the war twin-movies:

In Gran Torino the red white and blue of earlier films about Eastwood's war veteran character have silently faded away. There's not much else than a brownish green. Even the Ford of the title is green.
Walt Kowalski in his neighbors' house...
...and at home.

Production photo (with normal colors), not a film still.

The next part will be about Eastwood's avoidance of expository dialogue.

All 32 Eastwood-directed films are available on DVD. So if your new to his body of work, you should probably look for the following:
  • Play Misty For Me 
  • Breezy
  • High Plains Drifter
  • The Outlaw Josey Wales (my favorite)
  • Bronco Billy or Honky Tonk Man (both personal projects)
  • Bird
  • Unforgiven
  • A Perfect World
  • Bridges of Madison County
  • Mystic River
  • Million Dollar Baby
  • Flags of Our Fathers
  • Letters From Iwo Jima
  • Gran Torino

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