One of my dad’s favorite films is Three Kings. This was the first film of yours that I ever saw. He told me, before I saw it, to notice how the blood looked like oil. What a creative visual decision to make. The resulting visual tone of that film was stylistic in a way that was aesthetically innovative, but, which most importantly, transcended the aesthetics to serve a thematic purpose. This example perfectly exemplifies your incredible attention to detail and your commitment to telling an intimate and compelling story.
I was rather young when I first saw Three Kings, so you could say that I have been your fan for quite some time. I’ve seen all but two of your feature-length films (and I hope to remedy that situation very soon). As an only child, I spent a considerable amount of time watching movies with my parents, and it is inevitable that they had a huge impact on the development of my movie taste. However, with the release of The Fighter, I witnessed a changed dynamic within my family. Suddenly I was the one who was taking my parents to see your movies, not the other way around. Before, they were the ones exposing me to your work; now that task was mine. We went to see The Fighter when I was home on a break from college. I will never forget how I felt watching the opening shot of that film. Christian Bale opened his mouth and I was absolutely riveted to my chair. I couldn’t turn my head away or think of anything else. I was utterly wrapped in his performance and astonished that such a visually simple shot could glue my attention to the screen.
That was the beauty of that movie and really, all of your movies. Your films are not visually extravagant. Some directors spend much of their effort crafting perfect visual tableaux, and while most skilled directors pull this off, sometimes the visuals can distract from the actors’ performances and the heart of the story that the filmmaker is trying to tell. I was recently discussing approaches to filmmaking with my professor and he mentioned that there are directors who are ‘storyboarders’ and those who are more ‘theatrical’ (as in live theater). For ‘storyboarders’ visuals take precedence, and the acting is blocked to fit within the constraints of the necessity for certain types of shots and camera movements. ‘Theatrical’ directors approach the film as though they were staging a play. This approach privileges the acting over the visuals in that it allows the actors freedom to perform without having to agonize about keeping to their mark. Clearly, it seems optimum to strike some form of happy medium between the two approaches, and I think that your films do.
Beginning with The Fighter and continuing with Silver Linings Playbook, and most recently, American Hustle, I would characterize your visuals as being more on the minimalist side. While they are simple, I find them to be incredibly compelling because they are characterized by a certain type of intimacy that evokes powerful emotions within the viewer. To say that it feels like you are within the action of the movie while a member of the audience seems like too much of a cliché. It doesn’t do the movie-going experience justice. I remember walking out of Silver Linings Playbook struck with how closely you shot the entire film. Very few of the shots were wide. Cynics might consider this a type of TV syndrome, insisting that the close-up should only be used as a method of visual punctuation. I firmly disagree. I think a well-shot close up, which occur frequently in your close method of visual storytelling opens up an incredibly intimate window into the lives of the characters being portrayed on the screen. You bring the ‘theatrical’ sensibility of allowing actors freedom to your films, but you shoot them in a way that provides an experience a live theater performance can never achieve. I love being able to see micro expressions flit across an actor’s face. I love it when a complex emotion such as love or hate is conveyed with the subtlest eye movement. This study of the human face is why I have always preferred film to theater. While theater is a remarkable art form in its own right, when it comes to subtle physicalities, film (at least to me) is the clear winner. I think this is why I love watching your movies so much. They allow me to relish in the subtle nuances of an actor’s performance for 2 hours! Yet, what would an actor’s performance be without a wonderfully written character to portray? You write such rich characters that if I had any inclinations towards acting, I would jump at the opportunity to be a part of one of your films too.
As the awards season heads towards its conclusion with the Academy Awards, I want to wish you the best of luck. American Hustle is one of many great works of art graced with nominations that I have been lucky enough to see this year. May you make many more movies that inspire young aspiring filmmakers (like myself) for years to come.