Cinematographer Harris Savides died last Tuesday at 55, but the news made it to the internet two days later. For the five hours during which I felt personally aggrieved, I tried to figure out why I’d been so upset by it. Then I remembered the role of Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry” as a milestone in my uber-impressionable high school viewings. In 2003, Austin — where I spent my formative years — didn’t get nearly every major arthouse release, but “Gerry” did eventually arrive on a tide of perversely enticing anti-pull quotes. J. Hoberman’s review made an especially big impression on me, as he quoted John Waters (“Don’t sleep with anybody who doesn’t love this film”) before warning that “to follow this advice, perverse even by Waters’ standards, may mean taking a de facto vow of celibacy.”
In The New York Times’ obit for Savides, Van Sant was paraphrased on how his first meeting with Savides led to discussions about how to “confound the expectations of moviegoers.” That was on the set of this 1995 Levi’s commercial:
Anticipating a twitchier “Paranoid Park,” the commercial is full of impressionistic snippets of inessential conversations and some serious room tone, pretty young men in jeans and naturally lit landscapes, altogether making for an advertising parody of Van Sant’s trademarks. In “Gerry,” Van Sant and Savides restaged shots from Bela Tarr’s “Satantango,” decidedly severing themselves from visual language easily assimilable for commercial ends. The primary drama is purely moment-to-moment: the shifting positions of Matt Damon and Casey Affleck’s heads as they very slightly shift their paces, the accompanying minimal changes in the sonics of their trudging. My first serious encounter with a movie that foregrounded form over narrative development turned out to be a very particular kind of fun I hadn’t encountered before and instantly cottoned to. I no longer went to any movie worried it might be “too hard,” and Savides’ work has since continued to play a major role in how I think about what kind of visuals are especially pleasing to watch.
Looking up Savides, I discovered his first IMDB credit was the 1993 workout video “Cindy Crawford: The Next Challenge Workout.” Crawford was a video sales juggernaut, and this follow-up to her 1992 “Shape Your Body Workout” deserves at least a 10-minute look. It is, of course, available on YouTube in its entirety:
At various points, Crawford is out in the desert, in shots that (no exaggeration) seem to be plausible studies in preparation for “Gerry.” At the start of the third segment, the camera zooms around Crawford as if she were a pyramid, a striking kinetic/fetishistic moment. Sometimes, the screen is divided into thirds or quadrants, as images of running and jumping are degraded into Eadweard Muybridge motion studies. It’s a constant application of serious craft in the service of inauspicious ends. Seriously: Watch ten minutes or so to get the idea; it’s a workout video, so the set-ups become redundant after a while, but Savides’ way with natural outdoor light is surprisingly, instantly recognizable.
After “Gerry,” in Van Sant’s “Elephant,” interior hallways and spaces become Events, excuses to revisit the finale of “2001 A Space Odyssey.” They bombard the viewer with showy, hypnotic changes in light, sound and patches of darkness, passing from one dramatic zone to another. By 2005’s “Last Days” (another all-time favorite), the images were less overwhelming, full of forest landscapes and shabby indoor spaces more inviting than the hostility of nature in “Gerry” and the (higher-casualty-count) hostility of public high schoolers in “Elephant.”
A strong celluloid proponent, Savides was won over by screen tests performed in an outdoor parking lot and agreed to shoot “Zodiac” digitally on a Thompson Viper. With its meticulously controlled palate and faint patina of faded photography, “Zodiac” is a rare period film that successfully splits the difference between current technological capabilities and getting the intangible look of an era remembered.
Having proven he wasn’t a Luddite, Savides returned to film. In “Margot At The Wedding,” “Greenberg” and “Somewhere,” his calm recording of natural light tempered potentially overheated movies. Tonally, these movies have a sustained palette that (without overwhelming a director’s personality) form a series of variations on the quest to recapture everyday celluloid tones and colors in the face of digital’s unstoppable onslaught. I saw them all projected on film, knowing digital conversion was coming fast for the theaters, but still unaware in 2010 of how fast the change would come. After Savides’ death, I recognized that not only had he shot many of my favorite movies of the past decade, he’d been there to usher film out with last-minute demonstrations of what we’re losing.