A disclaimer to start: This blog has NOT been written by Jim, your usual erudite and verbose author. Nope. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a first. This blog has been hijacked by the less erudite and verbose other half of Long Arm films, Mr Jimmy Hay. And there I go, pompously and unnecessarily referring to myself in the third person. Like a twat.
Perhaps this blog won’t be too different from what you’re used to after all.
Anyhow. Aware that I don’t want to hit the usual ‘4 digressions per blog post’ quota that Jim imposes upon himself, I will get to the point. Last night I re-watched Miami Vice. Not the 80s TV show that I don’t think I have ever seen so can’t really comment on, but the film directed by Michael Mann. Michael Mann is one of my favourite directors. I think he’s ace and I think his films are ace. In particular, I think Miami Vice is ace. It is probably his best film, but also seems to be often misunderstood and under appreciated. If you haven’t seen it, please do. If you have, and didn’t like it, please read Peter Bradshaw’s review of it, because it will DEFINITELY change your mind about it: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2006/aug/04/actionandadventure.
Watching Miami Vice got me thinking again about how much I admire the work of the cinematographer Dion Beebe, who shot Miami Vice, as well as an earlier film of Mann’s, Collaterol. Some years ago, I wrote a paper about Dion Beebe which I delivered at a conference celebrating everyone in film that isn’t the director. I liked the ethos of this conference, because the hero-worship of directors is far too rife in film-based media (yes, Sight and Sound and Empire, I’m looking squarely at you) and leads to the relegation of great artists like Beebe to the status of secondary technicians. Below is the paper that I gave, which I hope serves to critically appreciate Beebe’s role in the films he shoots, and which I hope more so may be of SOME interest to you wherever and whenever you may be reading it.
Disclaimer #2: It was an academic conference, so don’t expect any references to obscure 90s indie bands, or meandering transgressions about Dartmoor. You have been warned.
Interior Visions – The films of Dion Beebe
In a still relatively young career, cinematographer Dion Beebe has displayed a substantial ability for variation and adaptability. An examination of his filmography shows the great number of directors he has worked with, including Jane Campion, Michael Mann and Rob Marshall, all of whom he has worked with twice, as well as Kurt Wimmer, Gavin Hood and Gillian Armstrong. It also reveals the wide variety of genres in which he has worked, including dystopian sci-fi thriller, musical, Japanese period drama, erotic crime thriller, undercover cop action thriller and World War Two romance. The variety of films Beebe has worked on has necessitated a considerable variation in his use of mise en scene, tone, lighting, framing and composition in order to aid and enhance the divergent narratives of these films. In an article written about his time working on Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004), Bryant Frazer refers to Dion Beebe as a ‘chameleon’ (Frazer, 2006). The term chameleon is problematic when talking about Beebe, however, as while he is indeed adaptable, he is by no means invisible. Beebe’s aesthetic influence on his films can be clearly seen, not necessarily as an auteurist signature, relying on stylistic repetition, but certainly as an interpretive ability so accomplished as to be visible throughout his work. This article will consider Beebe’s aesthetic influence and explore, through a close reading of three of his films – Collateral, In The Cut (2003) and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) – the various stylistic techniques Beebe adopts to create mood, infer meaning, and enhance narrative depth.
Collateral was Beebe’s first film working alongside Michael Mann and his first use of High Definition cameras (hereafter, HD). It is a thriller that takes place over one full night, in which Vincent, a contract killer, forces taxi driver Max to drive him around Los Angeles to complete five assassinations. The primary reason that Mann chose HD to shoot the majority of the film was to achieve the goal of making the ‘LA night as much of a character in the story as Vincent and Max were’ (Holen, 2004: 41), by utilising HD’s ability to achieve exposure in extremely low light levels – allowing them to film night scenes using just the existing, ambient light – and its ability to maintain an exceptionally long depth of field. Throughout the film, characters in the foreground, and clouds, buildings and silhouetted trees on the horizon line, are all seen with a clarity that could not be captured on film.
One such use of this depth of field occurs shortly after Vincent’s first victim falls out of a window, landing on Max’s taxi below. As Vincent draws his gun to prevent Max from running away, he is filmed in a mid-shot, just left of centre, over the shoulder of Max, who is positioned to the far right of the frame. Vincent is almost entirely in shadow, lit only by the soft blue ambient light coming from the apartment building out of shot to the left.
Vincent is deliberately positioned in the bottom half of the frame so as to make visible the lights and outlines of several high-rise buildings behind him in downtown LA. As Mann notes in the director’s commentary, ‘Downtown is about two miles away, you couldn’t see this without using digital video’ (Mann, 2004).
Using HD’s increased depth of field on Collateral – as Beebe and Mann would do again two years later on Miami Vice (2006) – serves both aesthetic and thematic purposes. Firstly, it creates an innovative look in which background focus doesn’t sacrifice the focus of characters in the foreground, adding, in addition to Vincent and Max, a third element in the frame which serves to present the city environment as vast and imposing, fulfilling Mann’s desire to have the city itself as a prominent character. Furthermore, the long depth of field also aids the narrative and character development of the film by illustrating the vulnerable and isolated situation that Max has been cast into, a situation that for the majority of the film plays out beyond his control. This depth of field is also seen through the windows from within Max’s taxi, which having been established as a place of sanctuary for Max in his opening scene further emphasises the effect that Vincent’s invasion into this space is having on him. To keep the exterior city-at-night visible whilst filming inside the taxi, light levels had to remain low; ‘a system had to be devised to light the actors in a way that would avoid the “incandescent light in your face” look while still drawing in the surrounding nightscape.’ (Hurwitz, 2004). To achieve this, these scenes were lit using electro-luminescent panels that were customised for the film, and were able to be attached by Velcro to any part of the taxi’s interior. The light emitted is a very soft, greenish one that doesn’t block out the nightscape exterior. It also further enhances the effect of the city being a character in the film as the panels make the shots look, as Beebe notes, ‘like there was no real source, [they] make it appear that everything was lit from the street by the street’s own ambience’ (Hurwitz, 2004).
Beebe’s use of light and colour temperature to extrapolate character insight is seen later in the film in the Jazz club scene. As the scene unfolds it is revealed that Vincent is a Jazz aficionado, and upon killing the bar owner a close up shot of his face reveals a momentary expression of regret; the ‘first anomaly to the perfect machine-like presentation we’ve had from Vincent’ (Mann, 2004). The insight into Vincent’s character and the internal conflict he suffers is portrayed aesthetically throughout the scene, but three shots in particular illustrate this well. At the start of the scene, Vincent and Max are framed centrally in a long shot from the stage and both are looking towards the musicians.
A strong sidelight from off-screen left illuminates Vincent’s body, leaving Max, seated to the right of Vincent, almost entirely in shadow. This serves to infer Vincent’s imposing and dominant presence over Max, but more so singles Vincent out as the sole appreciator of the music. Behind Vincent, orange and yellow coloured artwork is lit by the only other source lighting in the shot, providing a warm cocoon of light in the upper middle of the frame around Vincent’s head, giving the impression of comfort and sanctuary. The strength of the sidelight, however, places one half of Vincent’s face in complete shadow, suggesting a psychological conflict regarding the murder he is soon to commit. This is further inferred moments later as Vincent, Max, and the bar owner are seated at the table drinking, with Vincent once again positioned at the far left of the frame. The warm orange artwork is still visible to the upper left of Vincent, and he is clearly absorbed by the Miles Davis story the bar owner is recalling.
The left side of his body, however, remains bathed in the white light, the starkness of which is exaggerated by his white shirt, white skin, silver hair and grey suit. Finally, just before he kills the bar owner, he glances towards the kitchen to check that the waitress has left, and the kitchen is lit by an extremely stark, neon-green light; completely at odds with the warm, shadow-filled interior of the bar. This serves to portray, along with the strong sidelight, the ever-present nature of Vincent’s cold, clinical and emotionless work – and his inability to gain sanctuary from it.
The contrast of warm orange-red light with cold, neon green light can be seen in a number of Beebe’s films, and is often used to portray a psychological conflict within a character – as in Collateral – or between two characters, such as the recurring use of red and green square glass tiles in Holy Smoke (1999). Both of these effects are achieved in In the Cut, Beebe’s second film made with Jane Campion, where Beebe frequently uses the mixed lighting of warm colours with neon-green. He also employs dimly lit, shadow filled interiors, blurred and obstructed shots, and almost entirely hand held cameras to create a dark, gritty, ambiguous and suspicious mood throughout.
In the bar where Franny meets Cornelius at the beginning of the film, shafts of yellow, blue and white light stream in from the window and doorway, casting strips across the ceiling, while unknown characters playing pool, on a deep red pool table, remain indistinguishable in shadow. Two girls wear bright red and green dresses respectively, establishing the colour dichotomy that will be seen repeatedly throughout the film. On their first date, Malloy and Franny visit a bar lit by an array of practicals – yellow floor and table lamps, red fairy lights, green neon fridge lights – as well as unseen source lighting casting the same three colours throughout the bar and directly on to the characters. The mixture of colourful, but soft and unrevealing, lighting continues to emphasise the film’s theme of ambiguity and distrustfulness, while one mid-length shot of Franny and Malloy seated at the bar, centre frame, bathes Franny and her side of the frame in deep red, and Malloy and his side of the frame in neon green.
In aligning audience identification and subjectivity with Franny, as will be discussed shortly, the red light on Franny thus signifies both her internal sexual desire for Malloy (shown by a previous scene where she masturbates whilst fantasising about him), and a sense of her being in danger, while the green light on Malloy signifies her cautious distrust for him, and his dubious moral state. These same colours are used again in Franny’s flat – through a red lamp shade above, and a neon under-cupboard light – when they first have sex, illustrating Franny’s continuing distrust even after satisfying her sexual desire for him.
One of the most striking visual elements of the film is Beebe’s use of blurred edges around the frame to create and enhance subjectivity. Shots of Franny filmed from a distance, obstructed by lampposts, signs, cars etc, and blurred around the edge of the frame (of which there are many throughout the film), build tension by giving the impression of her being observed; a tension that is heightened by the fact that the look is never reversed, and so the suggestion of an unseen person spying is never confirmed or denied. Often referred to as a feminist filmmaker, Jane Campion is known for challenging and subverting gender roles in her films, and on a psychoanalytical level, Beebe’s use of blurred edges around the screen serve to prompt a reading that the film challenges the ‘male gaze’ of mainstream narrative cinema, a theory popularised by Laura Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975). In the various scenes in which Franny reads poetry on the placards above the subway train windows, Beebe uses a Clairmont Swing and Shift lens system which, as John Calhoun explains in American Cinematographer, ‘throws the plane of focus to whichever angle one swings the lens, [it is] used for moments of intense subjectivity’ (Calhoun, 2003: 77).
The result is a small area of focus in the middle of the frame that moves with the movement of the camera. In doing so the audience follows word by word what Franny is reading, explicitly identifying the shots as her point of view. When blurred edges in the frame are used for non-subjective shots (such as within Pauline’s apartment), or the aforementioned long shots in which subjectivity is never confirmed, the shots mirror the ones used to display the ‘intense subjectivity’ of Franny’s subway scenes, and so by association the audience gaze is made female, not male.
This reading of the film is further enhanced when considering the opening scene in which Franny secretly views the unidentified man receiving oral sex. Beebe’s use of shadow to hide Franny mirrors Mulvey’s summary of the cinematic audience in which ‘the darkness of the auditorium […] helps to promote the illusion of voyeuristic separation’ (Mulvey, 1975: 9), while the repeated extreme close-ups of the erect penis subverts Mulvey’s paradigm of male/active, female/passive, by making the subject (Franny) female, and the object (the penis) male. Furthermore, Beebe’s use of extreme close-up highlights Franny’s sexually aroused facial expression, signifying the penis as an ‘erotic object for the character(s) within the screen story’, and as the gaze has been made female, an ‘erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium’ (Mulvey, 1975: 11).
In stark contrast to the dark, gritty, hand held aesthetic of In the Cut, Beebe’s second project with director Rob Marshall – his first being Chicago (2002) – was Memoirs of a Geisha, a romantic drama following the journey of nine year old Chiyo from childhood to adulthood, when she is renamed Sayuri, and her progression to the role of Geisha. Beebe’s key reference points for the aesthetic of the film were Bernardo Bertulocci and Vittorio Storaro’s collaboration, The Last Emperor (1987), for what Beebe calls ‘Storaro’s audacious and elegant camera movement’ (Scott, 2006), and Stanley Kubric’s Barry Lyndon (1975) for, as Beebe again states, ‘the incredible interior feel we needed for our movie’ (Rogers, 2006).
Storaro’s influence is seen throughout the film with the proliferation of fluid camera movement, utilising dollies, cranes and steadicam for over eighty percent of the filming (see Thomson, 2006: 40). The effect of this shooting style enhances the sense of journey, both literally and internally, that Chiyo undergoes throughout the film, whilst also heightening the sensation of wonder that Marshall and Beebe wished to achieve in portraying ‘a mysterious world full of exquisite detail’ (Fisher, 2006). A striking example of this fluid camera movement used to achieve such an effect occurs the first time Chiyo peers over the roof of the Geisha house. The camera, fixed to a Technocrane, performs a slow push in towards Chiyo from mid-shot to close-up, capturing her expression of wide-eyed wonder, thus signalling her subjectivity in the following shot; a cut to the rooftops she is looking at captured through a slow tilt upwards, gradually revealing the expanse of haze-shrouded rooftops spreading off to the distance.
The slow, free-flowing movement of the camera in this shot enhances the enormity and seemingly mystical nature of the world that Chiyo has been cast in to. Recreating the quality of the Japanese light in this shot and throughout the film – ‘a soft, shadowless light that had a wintery feeling’ (Rogers, 2006) – was achieved through constructing the largest freestanding diffuser ever made (see Appendix), covering the entire outdoor set in a huge silk sheet. Doing this enabled almost complete control for Beebe over the temperature and contrast range of the light in exterior scenes, allowing for subtle alterations in order to accurately represent the changing of the seasons.
This manipulation over the exterior light, combined with Beebe’s equal manipulation of interior light in the film, serves not only to signal a passing of time, but also to infer, once again, character development and interior thoughts. He uses lighting to chart Chiyo’s journey by separating the film into roughly three sections; Chiyo as a child, Chiyo becoming Sayuri the Geisha, and Sayuri after the war.
The opening scenes of the film are incredibly dark and take place largely in closed off interiors, often with just one deep orange practical light (the Barry Lyndon influence is clear in these scenes) from a 25watt bulb housed inside a paper lantern or cooking fire (see Thomson, 2006: 42). As Chiyo becomes increasingly accustomed to, and comfortable with her new surroundings, more practicals and hidden supplementary fill lighting are used, sliding doors are increasingly left open and more scenes occur outside, all serving to create a lighter and less oppressive mood. After the war, neon and electric lighting is increasingly used to create, as Beebe says, ‘a more neutral level of light that is seen today’ (Rogers, 2006).
A pivotal scene in the film is Chiyo’s first meeting with the General, at which point she falls in love with him and decides she must become a Geisha. Beebe’s lighting, framing and composition in this scene add greatly to its impact, and signal the transition from the first section of the film to the second. As the General kneels down alongside Chiyo on the bridge, both are framed not only by the camera, but also within the curved rectangular frame of the wooden bridge, creating a frame within the frame, giving extra emphasis to this first meeting.
Behind the two is a tree in full pink and white blossom, signalling not only the change of season, but also the maturing of Chiyo into a young woman. The sexual connotations of a ‘spring awakening’ further infer the romantic union that will eventually occur between her and the General. A pan to the right and slow zoom out as the General walks Chiyo to the cherry ice stand reveals a bustling street scene, and shows the General leading Chiyo towards the blossoming tree and his two Geisha’s, metaphorically leading her towards a new life. Beebe lights the scene with a far higher Kelvin than in any previous scene, whilst the heavy silk-diffusion and a low contrast range minimise the amount of shadow in the scene, and thus further enhances Chiyo’s departure from the life of a house girl by creating a cool, clear light entirely at odds with the dimly lit and claustrophobic interior scenes of the first third of the film.
While the diversity of Dion Beebe’s filmography is considerable, a constant in his films remains the manner in which he uses lighting, composition and framing to expand upon and emphasise the interior psyches, feelings and emotions of his film’s protagonists. This constant suggests a subscription to expressionism that is achieved in spite of the inconsistency of genre, subject matter and locations of the films he works on, which is achievable due to his adaptability and dexterity in utilising the tools of his art. Dion Beebe is not an auteur, but his aesthetic influence is clearly visible. This visibility derives precisely from the lack of repetition or overt similarity in his films. He approaches each project afresh and tailors his technical and aesthetic choices to fit the mood, tone and narrative of the film, which is evident from the close reading of the three films addressed in this essay. Despite considerably varied content, they all deal significantly with interior feelings, conflicts and emotions that are given life by Beebe; a cinematographer whose influence markedly enhances the character development, narrative extrapolation and aesthetic depth of all his films.