I write this piece during the last days of 2020 with as much uncertainty about the future as when I wrote ten months ago when the pandemic was still an unsettling but curious event that few people knew much about.
It crept up on us in plain sight if you recall and, according to some, “took us by surprise”. The inquest into our national COVID response (or lack of it) will hopefully expose the facts but the bare truth is that now, as we enter a new year, uneasiness is still the predominant mood.
The second wave of the virus has delivered an almost crushing reminder of how vulnerable we still are in the face of this airborne catastrophe. Vaccines are being rolled out, but it will take time for them to make a difference. Meanwhile, the dreaded ‘variant’ is threatening to skew the escape plan.
It’s also difficult to ignore the self-inflicted hobbling known as Brexit which, unsurprisingly, is making it difficult for us to keep our eyes on the much-lauded sunny uplands. If there is unease about how the pandemic is going to pan out in 2021, it is only compounded by the knowledge that things will be more difficult now when it comes to almost anything to do with mainland Europe. Certainly no easier, at any rate.
Nobody really knows how Brexit will affect the film and TV industry. It is assumed that we will just deal with it. I can remember in the ‘80s and early ‘90s I was a camera assistant hauling tens of kilos of camera and lighting equipment to the airport with a carnet and the ritual of tracking down the customs office. Once found, I’d then play nice with the officers in the hope that they wouldn’t ‘take us apart’ (i.e ask to see every item listed). It was a ritual that could be painstaking or simply diverting, depending on the Customs Officer. It certainly added another hour or so to the airport experience, plus the associated stress. And that was in the days when airports were vaguely benign places.
Brexit will no doubt bring a whole load of unintended consequences – some bad, some perhaps even good – and it won’t be until a few years down the line that we will be able to tell one from t’other. But the rush for deregulation that will follow this divorce – the primary engine of Brexit – will loom large. In a year when we have seen the necessity for protection in the workplace as well as collaboration on the environment, it would be more than tragic if everything was now merely calculated in terms of monetary return.
A review of this year can only really concern itself, to a lesser or greater degree, with survival. From intensive care to worrying about bills; from 2am moments of doubt and anxiety to the trauma of vulnerable relatives being, literally, beyond reach. It’s been about getting through it rather than celebrating its high points. But perhaps therein lies even greater reasons to accentuate the positive. The way the cinematography community rallied, supported and shared via online forums and platforms was extremely heartening and helped push back that sense of isolation to which we are all prone.
Our industry got up and running faster than perhaps anyone expected. I have written about my reservations regarding the way that happened – an aversion to bringing so-called below-the-line voices to the table – but there is no doubt that everyone pulled together to make it a safe (though weird) return to set. Crews and companies were busy again. A reason to celebrate.
It’s been a good year to re-visit old film favourites and to re-discover one’s love of movies. Responding to Kees van Oostrum’s prompt (see BC Issue 101), I watched Jules et Jim after I don’t know how many years. An extraordinary milestone in film history, full of risk-taking, youthful energy (photographed by the brilliant Raoul Coutard) that must have been explosive in its day. It makes you wonder, watching that film, where the reverential approach in period films comes from. Truffaut’s film was closer to its Edwardian subject matter than we are today to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I re-watched the 1957 movie Sweet Smell of Success, arguably the best work by James Wong Howe ASC during his amazingly productive and inventive career. The capture of New York’s waning glamour using real locations and noir lighting is certainly a thing to celebrate.
The New Year’s Honours list awards Roger Deakins a knighthood. The career of one of the Society’s most lauded sons has been recognised. I once gave a speech in honour of Roger in which I said that cinematographers, by and large, are not household names but if he wasn’t careful, he might become one. I might yet be proved right. This honour not only reflects the craftsmanship and dedication pursued by Roger over the years but also highlights the position and standing of the cinematographer generally. A reason to celebrate: our finest ambassador.
But I’ve missed cinema. I’ve missed going to my church. Every film I’ve seen since March 2020 has been on a screen no bigger than 36 inches wide, diagonal. It’s OK. I’ve set the picture up as best I can, and it’s got decent speakers, and I can make the room dark (easier in the winter), but we should remember that this life, the lockdown life, is the aberration, not the one where we go to the cinema, take our seats and the lights go down. Wishing you all a very happy, healthy and successful 2021.