Beauty in the rough
The cinematographer Harris Savides and the search for the beauty of simplicity
by Felix von Boehm / translated by Ian Towars
As if weightless, he followed Kurt Kobain’s fictional brother Blake from LAST DAYS (2005) through the dark and damp undergrowth of a North American stretch of forest; as if weightless, he followed the two Gerrys from GERRY (2002) over the blinding, parched desertscapes and salt lakes of Utah and Idaho; as if weightless, he followed the two rampaging killers and their victims from ELEPHANT (2003) through the endless labyrinth of corridors in a high school near Portland, Oregon.More than anything else, it is through these floating travelling shots made by the cinematographer Harris Savides that we remember the three films that are referred to as Gus Van Sant’s “Death Trilogy”. And as we remember, it is almost impossible to contemplate one of the films of the trilogy without our thoughts drifting to one of the two other films. Things seem to flow into one another, so that in the process of remembering, what we have in our mind's eye is like an organic sculpture, a dense fabric of movement and time. Three films, then, that are somehow related, and that deal in different ways with a key question – the question about the limits of images. A question which is perhaps about the search for true beauty.
Harris Savides was born in 1957 in New York. He grew up in simple surroundings in the Bronx, and following training as a photographer at the New York School of Visual Arts, he first of all concentrated on fashion photography. Then, by way of many music videos and advertising films, he very quickly moved into the world of film. Today, Harris Savides is one of the world's most successful and in-demand Directors of Photography. He has worked with Wong-Kar Wai, David Fincher, Sophia Coppola and Woody Allen, and filmed expensive advertisements for BMW, Gucci and Loréal: he describes himself as a commercial cameraman. Despite Savides' commercial success and what he calls his bulldogishness, what marks him out more than anything else is a quite notable sensitivity to authors and themes outside the mainstream. So one is in fact amazed when Harris Savides answers the question about who he would like to work with at some point – he does not mention any established director, but instead names Kelly Reichardt. She is an American film-maker who is almost completely unknown, especially in the USA, while in Europe her films OLD JOY (2006) and WENDY AND LUCY (2008) reached only a very small audience. A Reichardt/Savide partnership would probably work out very well: her puristic way of telling a story, with its apparent absence of staging, and his belief in “telling things as simply as possible” could be an excellent combination.
Somewhere between Hollywood and the flashy commercials of the American advertising industry, Harris Savides has learned to step as far as possible into the background as a cameraman, and precisely by doing so, to be a cameraman that people will long talk about. It was only after taking me to the lift following our conversation in his apartment on the Upper West Side of New York, that he mumbled, almost as a confidential footnote to the interview, “It was only working with Gus Van Sant that made me a real film-maker.” He paused briefly and continued: “Working with him on GERRY deeply changed my view of my craft and of cinema.”
At the beginning of GERRY Gerry 1 and Gerry 2 step onto the “Wilderness Trail”; they half know and at the same time half repress knowledge of where the trail will lead them. Similarly, Gus Van Sant and Harris Savides have together stepped on to a “Wilderness Trail”, which has immensely enriched the aesthetics of American independent cinema in recent years and which marks in Gus Van Sant's work a kind of pause, a contemplative slowing down in a positive sense.
GERRY – The search for the invisible thread of the marvellous
The line of the horizon is like a fine pencil stroke on a coarse piece of white paper as it separates one of the final images of GERRY into two equal halves. Only gradually do cars become visible in the far distance on this horizontal line, like the heads of tiny musical notes in a score – a score with but a single line. Gerry, completely exhausted, stumbles towards this line, which marks his goal. The salt lakes of Utah crunch as he walks. The film has reached a vacuum – director and cameraman have reached the limits of what can be represented. All that remains here at the end is this horizontal line, which has shaped all the previous images and which has come into being through the way the images overlap. Looking back, it seems that Savides has laid the groundwork for this essence shot by shot. As he searches for the essence of the images, he has finally reached the limits of visibility – that point where the white salt lake and its mirror-image in the sky (or should that be the other way round?) almost oversaturate the film stock, that point where only the line of the horizon and a few quavering dots can be seen. “I seek gropingly to grasp in the void the invisible thread of the marvellous.” This remark by the sculptor Alberto Giacometti captures Harris Savides' achievement in GERRY very well.
Savides does not only reach the limits of visibilty in GERRY. He approaches another moment at the edge of cinema with tracking shots through the desert that last for several minutes, during which he follows the two Gerrys as they run, more or less maintaining the same distance to them and matching their speed as they move. Here Savides is working out the limits of mobility of the medium of film. And there occurs precisely what Giles Deleuze, in his engagement with Henri Bergson, characterised as a movement-image. Movement within the cinematic image and the mobility of the image are inseparably linked: “Ce qui compte, c’est que la caméra mobile est comme un équivalent général de tous les moyens de locomotion qu’elle montre ou dont elle se sert (avion, auto, bateau, bicyclette, marche, métro...) En d’autres termes, le propre de l’image-mouvement cinématographique, c’est d’extraire des véhicules ou des mobiles le mouvement qui en est la substance commune, ou d’extraire des mouvements la mobilité qui en est l’essence.”
Deleuze's concept of the movement-image is then well illustrated in GERRY due to the way in which movements of the bodies and of the film images are in surreptitious accord; neither the movement of the former nor of the latter wants to end – it drives the bodies and the images to their limits and to burn-out.
ELEPHANT – the image before, after and between
These movement-images are also present in ELEPHANT, where we find again the combination of a constant space between character and camera and the constant movement of both. Here, though, the camera does not have an escort function, as in GERRY, where the camera travels alongside the characters. In ELEPHANT the camera's perspective is rather one of following or occasionally travelling ahead; floating at eye-level, it either follows or precedes the students through the corridors and it plots their purposeful journey through the labyrinth of the high school onto the map of the film that gradually emerges. A dynamic map, that soon resembles a body of movements, because the editing of the film constantly re-shows passages that have already been seen, but from a different perspective; it thus able to capture on film the overlapping nature of movements and moments in time that take place and happen in parallel.
From the interplay between Savides' camera and Gus Van Sant's editing (GVS edited the film himself) arises on the one hand a spatial memory, and on the other hand the simultaneity of movements and events inside and outside the image that Deleuze sees as comprising the time-image: “Tels sont les caractères paradoxaux d’un temps non-chonologique: la préexistence d’un passé en général, la coexistence de toutes les nappes du passé, l’existence d’un degré le plus contracté. (...) Dans le cinéma, dit Resnais, quelque chose doit se passer 'autour de l’image, derrière l’image et même à l’intérieur de l’image.' C’est ce qui arrive quand l’image devient image-temps.”
During collaborations with Gus Van Sant, the script only ever represents a guideline and is not allowed to dictate the images; nevertheless, Savides emphasises the absolute necessity of being aware of the context of any shot seen in the film. For him, the before and after of each image are the decisive parameters that determine the answer to questions about what information the image itself must contain, and what information should emerge from the context. Only in this way is it possible to guarantee that each image is an essential source of information. According to Savides, the image should be no more and no less than that.
LAST DAYS – Reflections on framing
How is the image framed? How is it decided what should be inside the image and what should be outside? Savides describes this decision-making phase as an increasingly unconscious process. What is within the image and what is outside the image is significant for a key sequence in LAST DAYS: this is a tracking shot that lasts for almost eight minutes, yet the camera moves only a few metres. Blake is sitting at his drums in his luxurious house in the forest, and he starts to try out different instruments. The soundtrack first of all follows him, but then starts to get a life of its own and becomes asynchronous. The camera almost imperceptibly moves away, and what began as a medium shot at the drums has, minutes later, expanded to become a long shot of the house. In this long shot, the drum kit and Blake – the initial composition, then – are framed in a window, a picture within a picture. In a certain way, this frame within a frame makes the viewer aware of the long shot that has developed, and shows the camera as an instrument of the framing, of omission, of the incomplete. The window frame , though, points at the same time to what is off-camera in the long shot.
So here too Savides is reflecting on the limits of his own instrument. He emphasises that what is decisive is not only what the cameraman films, but equally what he does not film.
The beauty of the reduced
Savides masters the grammar of his profession. He knows how to set up lighting and how to put together an impressive crane shot. He knows how reality is exaggerated even as it is depicted, and how it is possible to make the beautiful look even better. In short: he knows how easily the camera can dominate a film. But as an artist, he is interested by something else. “Most of the films that I have seen and that have been particularly beautiful haven’t been very good,” he laughs. The beauty in the three films that have been discussed here lies in the aesthetic issues that are raised by their images without drifting away into an unbearable level of discursiveness. The radical nature of GERRY, ELEPHANT and LAST DAYS lies in the courage and determinedness with which Harris Savides and Gus Van Sant push their own medium to its limits. This walk along the boundaries reflects the search for another beauty that is beyond photographic beauty. Just as Giacometti is searching for “the invisible thread of the marvellous”, it could perhaps be said that Harris Savides is searching for a beauty that is much more fundamental; it is a beauty that can only be found when the images have been reduced to their essential emotional and informational content. Only when this essence, this état brut, has been found, will it be clear whether an image must disappear for ever, or can continue to exist in perpetuity.
A favourite scene from ELEPHANT:
The scene from LAST DAYS described above:
Making-Of Featurette about GERRY:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKs7goWBUjU&feature=related (part 2)
An attempted interview with Harris Savides:
- Gilles Deleuze: l’Image-mouvement, Paris, Minuit, 1983.
- Gilles Deleuze: l’Image-temps, Paris, Minuit, 1983.
- Edouard Arnoldy: Gus Van Sant – Le cinéma entre les nuages, Paris, Yellow Now / Côté Cinéma, 2009.
- ECLIPSES N° 37, Figures de l’Adolescence, Le Cinéma en Rupture(s), Paris, Eclipses, 2005.
 Gilles Deleuze, l’Image-mouvement, Paris, Minuit, 1983, p. 37. Translated: “What counts is that the mobile camera is like a general equivalent of all the means of locomotion that it shows or that it makes use of - aeroplane, car, boat, bicycle, foot, metro ... In other words, the essence of cinematic movement-image lies in extracting from vehicles or moving bodies the movement which is their common substance, or extracting from movements the mobility which is their essence.”
 Gilles Deleuze, l’Image-temps, Paris, Minuit, 1983, p. 130-121. Translated: “These are the paradoxical characteristics of a non-chronological time: the preexistence of a past in general; the coexistence of all sheets of past; and the existence of a most contracted degree” (...) In the cinema, according to Resnais, something must happen “around the image, behind the image and even in the image itself.” If this is the case, then we can talk of time-images.”