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At large: Who let the luddites out?

At large: Who let the luddites out?

In a few short weeks, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will decide which movies released in the past year or so were worth the ticket price. Their opinions, I can confidently say, will largely be wrong. But that's OK.

That's why Oscar night is so much fun. Not because of the spectacular entertainment, nor the star-studded audience. I like Oscar night because I like disagreeing with the judges. Many's the Oscar night I've had to clean butter and salt off a TV screen that's had too much popcorn thrown at it.

The cinematography nominees appear to be a mixed bag this year: a moody drama (The Man Who Wasn't There), an action movie (Black Hawk Down), two romantic fantasies set in France (Amelie and Moulin Rouge) and a New Zealand travel guide (The Fellowship of the Ring). Not much in common, right? Wrong.

Black Hawk Down is a new-style war movie, in which the emphasis is not on illustrating the effects of war on a country or its people, but on "immersing" the audience in the battle. The two romantic fantasies, distinguished from each other by the fact that Amelie is delightful escapism and Moulin Rouge is rubbish, both use audacious visual techniques to visualise inexpressible human longings. The Fellowship of the Ring might seem a shoo-in because of its incredible sweeping vistas, but I would argue that making New Zealand look spectacular is easy.

All of these films have one thing in common: what you see on screen is not what the cinematographer saw down the camera viewfinder. In each case the images have been manipulated, composited, colourised and in fundamental ways altered using computers to increase the realism (in Black Hawk Down and Fellowship of the Ring) or reduce it (in Amelie and Moulin Rouge).

This is the future of cinematography, in which the camera is no longer the arbiter of what the film looks like, but merely the tool to acquire the images. What appears on screen is more than ever the product of what the director wants, and what the director can create in conjunction with the cinematographer and the special effects people.

Running against these is The Man Who Wasn't There. It's in black-and-white. What's on screen is what was in the camera -- the play of light against dark. The cinematographer had to find the angles, light the scenes, create the images. It's old-time tech, but it's what the Academy understands.

The American Society of Cinematographers and others have already given their awards -- to the black-and-white film. Apparently they feel that the cinematography of the others is too artificial.

But isn't that what Hollywood's about?

Matthew JC. Powell is off to buy popcorn. Argue film with him on mjcp@optushome.com.au.


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