When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
Industry Kids, Cameramen and CONVICTION (2010)

Photo courtesy Foxsearchlight.com

Back in high school, did you ever take a test for which you hadn’t studied and had absolutely no preparation? 

Let’s say for example a history teacher gave you a fifty-point question asking to explain the effects of the Hundred Years’ War.  You open up your response with a generic cover-your-ass statement such as, “First of all, I would like to state that I am totally opposed to war and its devastating effects upon humanity.  War creates death, destruction, and more wars.”

Then you try to address the topic by writing something like, “So, as you can imagine, a war that lasted one hundred years would be unsurpassed in its effect on humanity:  massive destruction, countless loss of human life, and tragedies that would last for generations.”

Then you wrap it up with something ameliorating that also sounds conclusive like, “I hope there will never be another Hundred Years’ War.  The world could not survive such a tragedy.”

If writing a response like this sounds familiar (or if you’re a teacher and you’ve graded a few of these), then it’ll help prove a point about certain workers in the West Coast film industry.

As with European monarchs, dynasties in show business can either strengthen or dissipate powers with each ensuing generation.  For example in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, veteran cinematographers and editors from the Golden Age pulled strings to get their sons into the craft unions, most of whom weren’t interested in that career path and did half-assed jobs (a friend during my 1970s Hollywood days told me of the scion of a legendary cinematographer who wouldn’t report to work until noon).  The result was a proliferation of slow and ugly-looking major studio releases during those years — yet those wasteland years created a growing audience dislike for overblown Hollywood product and drove ticket-buyers into art houses to get a taste of independent films by new mavericks such as Martin Scorsese.

Several of my least favorite movie-going hours during the last five years have been the output by a third-generation Industry worker, Chris Weitz, whose mother was IMITATION OF LIFE star Susan Kohner, and grandparents were actress Lupita Tovar (the damsel in distress in the classic Spanish-language, 1931 version of DRACULA) and producer/agent Paul Kohner.  The two directing efforts of his that I’ve seen (THE GOLDEN COMPASS and NEW MOON) have been the cinematic equivalent of the answer to the essay question above:  a bluff to mask a lack of know-how.  Weitz was able with a camera to convey that characters existed in the same space and time, and had the ability to talk with each other, but almost nothing else.  [To his credit, his name was among a string of co-producers for one of the best films of last year, Tom Ford’s A SINGLE MAN.]

Having had those mind-numbing and butt-aching experiences, I was dubious to sit through CONVICTION, a film directed by another scion of a show-biz dynasty:  Tony Goldwyn, grandson of both the legendary studio mogul Sam Goldwyn and Pulitzer-winning playwright Sidney Howard, who dramatized GONE WITH THE WIND for the screen.

Then, there was the issue of CONVICTION‘s subject matter.  Based on a true story of a working-class woman putting herself through law school in order to exonerate her brother, whom she believes is unjustly serving a prison sentence for murder, there have been multiple examples of preachy, self-righteous movies produced over the last 35 years that insult the viewer’s intelligence and suck every potential for emotional conflict out of the proceedings because the creative team believe they are creating God’s Gift to the Movies.

So, walking into a sneak screening of CONVICTION, part of me was afraid that I’d be watching an after-school special lackadaisically helmed by someone totally out of his depth.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the case.

CONVICTION's lead actor Hilary Swank with director Tony Goldwyn
(Photos courtesy Foxsearchlight.com)

Instead, CONVICTION was an intricately and subtly crafted work.  As a director, Tony Goldwyn was like a post-Foundational Robert Wise:  human interactions developed and played out in situations where objects and environments were never fetishized, while actors’ gazes and gestures spelled out philosophies of personal autonomy.  Plus, as with Wise, Goldwyn’s audience was never thrown a “that’s the best I could think of” shot.  Every second of the viewing experience had deep thought to support it.

Then there was the casting.  Casting agents are to the contemporary film industry what producers used to be.  In the old days, a producer would select a story, then crew up and cast the film, and production would start.  Now, a film doesn’t start getting serious until a Casting Director has collaged enough bankable actors into the above-the-line credits; then production begins.  (If you notice at a Hollywood film’s beginning, the first ‘creative’ credit on films is usually for Casting.)  CONVICTION was discerningly cast, both in terms of choosing strong actors who can maintain believable performance in extreme close-ups (which the director used a lot), and in fastidiously selecting actors to fill smaller parts and atmosphere.  Also, the script — taken from real life — had been dramatized without the usual predictable points of attack for each plot thread.

But the highest testament to the magical, intense creative process on the set would be the work of the cameraman on this film.  (Please note:  I said cameraman and not the Director of Photography … while the DP’s work was exemplary, the actual camera operator in this film was one of the most articulate artists involved in this project.)  This film was one of only a half-dozen times I can remember where the physical camera’s operator was able to act as an extension of the ideas of the director.  There were many shots where the camera scanned a small environment (e.g., the top of a desk) as various items drifted in and out of focus.  The rhythmic lingerings and curvilinear gestures of the cameraman’s hand, recording inclusive sweeps of an environment, were executed with the same intimacy and measured intensity as the editing and the actors’ performances.  The director incubated the ideas, which the cameraman anthropomorphized.

In an industry where decisions are made by committee, CONVICTION is one of those rare experiences where it appears that one person’s ideas and instincts guide the interrelated strata of filmmaking. 

Doug / PoMo Joan

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