Friday, October 12, 2012

Doing So Much with a Still Frame: RIP Harris Savides

RIP Harris Savides - here on the set of Somewhere

Never news that a cinephile likes to wake up to, but this morning I arose to news filtering through Twitter that one of the great modern cinematographers, Harris Savides, had died. A man whose work was at once definitively his own, but also that of the director's. Such was his skill that he forged a recognisably sleek, smooth style yet at the same time never appeared to be grandstanding as a technician, easily slinking into the director's vision with aplomb. Savides came to prominence at the only cinematographer to win three MTV Music Awards, but it was his feature film work from the early 2000s onwards that solidified him as truly one of the best that the industry had.

Alongside REM's "Everybody Hurts", Fiona Apple's "Criminal", Nine Inch Nails' "Closer", and "Scream" by Michael and Janet Jackson, his two collaborations with Mark Romanek and Madonna are bona fide brilliant moments for a medium that, at the time, was undergoing a golden age. "Rain" and "Bedtime Stories" both from that tricky to define mid-90s post-erotica period of Madonna's career that flittered between adult contemporary pop, experimental, sublime ballads, and film work. The latter has a glossy luminescence that accentuates Madonna's cheekbones and tightly-cropped wig as a result of its unorthadox filming, and it rightfully won him acclaim and awards. What Madonna fan can forget the wall of lights dimming upwards? One of Savides' first iconic moments, surely. The former is far more elaborate - densely so - and filled with wild imagery that cost $5mil to shoot on 35mm. It shows.

"Rain" | "Bedtime Stories"

In his film work, Harris Savides became known and prized (well, by myself at least) for his long, elegant tracking shots and almost dream-like qualities. Featured most prominently with his most frequent director, Gus Van Sant, Savides' work on the "death trilogy" - Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days - is exceptional, brave, powerful, and altogether hypnotic. Perhaps even more so than on Elephant and Gerry, his work on Jonathan Glazer's Birth exhibited a rich, almost Kubrickian, way of playing with light and warmth. His framing of New York City felt fresh and so full of velvety character. That prologue sequence through Central Park is particularly dazzling, especially as set against the divine music of Alexandre Desplat. And, let's face it, there were two people in that immaculate opera sequence: Nicole Kidman and Harris Savides capturing it all with fierce stillness. What a film of visual riches.

Back in 2010, I deemed him 63rd most valuable asset to cinema in the 2000s, that's how much I'm a fan of his work and which is why, most of all, his death feels like such a loss. And that's not even taking into account his age. Consider that he was 55, just one year older than Madonna with whom he worked on "Rain" and "Bedtime Stories" in their mid-30s. What a staggering loss for his family, friends, as well as the industry. His work on films such as Zodiac, American Gangster, Sofia Coppola's Somewhere (their latest work, The Bling Ring will be out in 2013), and Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding (again working with a chilly Nicole Kidman) and Greenberg are all as incredible as each other and I would be remiss to not mention them. I'm less familiar with his photography work, but I'm not surprised to read that it is the equal of his moving filmed works.

To think he has passed away without garnering a single Academy Award nomination. Not that it particularly matters since he was able to craft such stunning imagery as he did and work with the sort of people that he did. Such a shame to hear of his death and one can't help that there's somebody out there willing to do as much with a still frame as he.

One his many brilliant shots from Elephant. Take this shot as you will.

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