By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist October 11, 2012 at 2:03PM
"I don't want to light their faces and bodies specifically. I like to light the space." - Harris Savides, Interview Magazine, 2008
As you might have already heard, today brings the awfully sad news that Harris Savides, one of the great working American cinematographers, has passed away at the age of 55. Savides was a relatively late-starter in features (his first stint as DoP was Phil Joanou's "Heaven's Prisoners" in 1996), but over the next fifteen years managed to work with a laundry list of great filmmakers, from James Gray and Gus Van Sant to Ridley Scott and Sofia Coppola.
Like many of the great DoPs, Savides' work evolved: from his more stylized early work with Fincher, and in the commercial and promo world, to stripped down, naturalistic, open-source lighting work with Coppola, Van Sant and Noah Baumbach. He embraced digital on "Zodiac," but never gave up on film either (his two most recent features, "Somewhere" and "Restless" were both shot on 35mm).
To commemorate the cinematographer, we've picked out some of our favorite pieces of his work (although it should be said that Savides never shot a frame of film that didn't look glorious). Check them out below, and let us know your own favorite Savides film in the comments section below.
Harris Savides first made his name in music videos and commercials (which we'll get to in a moment), but it wasn’t quite until the mid-period of career when he began to collaborate often with David Fincher and Gus Van Sant that his name became familiar among cinephiles. One film that was overlooked at the time, both as a fantastically gripping drama and for its gorgeous visuals, was James Gray’s “The Yards,” a brooding and moody drama about family, loyalty, friendship and betrayal. Centering around the duplicity and corruption in the subway rail yards of Queens, New York, the story about a young man leaving prison to go straight only to get pulled into this “family business” and a world of danger and deceit, is positively tragic, heartbreaking and “Godfather”-esque. The great cinematographer Gordon Willis is a huge influence on this picture, which is steeped in the shadows, textures and bronze hues of chiaroscuro and the visuals meticulously communicates the ominous, burning and brewing emotions conveyed by some lovely internalized performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg. To better understand how beautifully Gray and Savides understand the psychology of an emotional response from the moving image, watch this interview below. And if you haven’t seen it, rewatch the film itself to fully understand the gorgeous and breathtaking look of “the voluptuousness of death.” It’s a shame they never had a chance to work with one another again.
There’s the early, more stylized work from Savides' career perhaps best represented in “The Game” and “The Yards” and then there’s the "second phase" of his career. Natural light and capturing natural lighting was always one of Savides’ passions -- the way it falls and lands on objects and creating a reality from that beauty -- but it wasn’t until his work with Gus Van Sant and Noah Baumbach that Savides began to seriously chase this dictum. While this new direction (influenced in part by the great Terrence Malick cinemtographer Nestor Almendros) can be seen in all his work from the aughts, it might be best represented as a starting point in “Gerry” and “Elephant.” Influenced by Bela Tarr, Van Sant was experimenting with extremely long and hypnotic takes (many from behind, providing a haunting mystery and disconnect from the psychology of its lonely and troubled teens), and perhaps to respond in kind, Savides threw away most of the flashy tricks cinematographers employed to take a stripped down and spare approach, that when combined with the direction, drew the viewer in like a whisper. His style in the picture practically begged for light to pour in and the aperture acted like a flower -- refusing its petals to open up until a genuine light source nourished it. While it comes to best fruition in "Elephant," which won Gus Van Sant the Palme d'Or at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, for Savides, his watershed working moment began with the picture before it. “ 'Gerry' was, for me, a really important film. It was a milestone. After working through 'Gerry,' I felt like I understood filmmaking for the first time,” he said. The brilliance in both films is certainly due to Savides u'nique mise-en-scene and naturalistic point of view, perhaps so real and genuine, it gave “Elephant” a chilling tone to its brutal aftermath and in “Gerry” captured the desperation and isolation of the forsaken.