Sunday, February 21, 2010

Robert Richardson's Shutter

Salvador Dali isn’t available these days to craft a surreal dream sequence, as he did for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound in 1945. But director Martin Scorsese had talented contemporary artists -- among them, cinematographer Robert Richardson -- to help him fashion the freakish cerebral terrain of Shutter Island. Each of those psychological thrillers is set in a mental hospital where the lead character arrives confused and eerie conspiracies abound. But it’s the stunning Vertigo, which opened in 1958, that seems aesthetically similar to the current film by Scorsese -- who has suggested that all of his work taps into much the same “sense of obsession” evident in Hitchcock’s oeuvre.

Shutter Island, adapted from a Dennis Lehane novel set in 1954, comes close but doesn’t quite capture the disorienting power of Vertigo, a quality that’s most apparent in its forward-zoom-and-reverse-tracking shots. The Leonardo DiCaprio picture, however, does match the paranoia of genre fare such as Bedlam, Shock Corridor and The Seventh Victim. These were a few of the many vintage B-movies Scorsese screened for his cast and crew after each day’s labors.

Richardson, interviewed in 2004 and again this month, devised an intricate visual scheme for Shutter Island intended to evoke the delusional ambiance of those earlier films. “There was an attempt to not delineate between what was within the protagonist’s head and what was not,” he explained recently. “In respect to surface textures, (Marty) asked that the nightmare/dream states have a patina that closely resembles Kodachrome; the other portion of the film has slightly desaturated color.”

The primary location was an abandoned Massachusetts mental hospital that may have been haunted. “The facility we shot at carried within it an intense energy that cannot be explained,” Richardson said. “I felt I was under observation at times.” He could well earn Academy Award recognition for his efforts on Shutter Island, a tale with decidedly grim subject matter made tolerable by its magnificent look. (Richardson has two Oscars already under his belt -- Oliver Stone’s JFK in 1991 and Scorsese’s The Aviator in 2004.)

Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are U.S. Marshals assigned to investigate the inexplicable disappearance of a patient at a remote, foreboding Federal asylum for the criminally insane. They confront an uncooperative staff clearly harboring dark secrets. The detective are told that the crazy missing woman (Emily Mortimer), incarcerated for the murder of her three children, believes she’s still at home with her family intact.

Denial is a key issue in this story. The Shutter Island psychiatrists (Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow) probably could relate to Dr. Robert Jay Lifton’s subsequent theory of “psychic numbing,” a survival mechanism people tend to adopt in the face of traumatic events or even just plain unpleasantness. The film takes place in an era when shrinks have just discovered the wonders of Thorazine, but still don’t rule out horrific methods like lobotomy for their suffering schizophrenics. The snake pit is particularly hard on Teddy, who was a solider involved in the liberation of Dachau and later lost his beloved wife (Michelle Williams) during an apartment fire. He comes unhinged. While this deterioration has many interesting twists, the sudden emergence of rats -- thousands of them -- proves to be a gratuitous distraction.

The German doctor portrayed by Von Sydow is suspected of being a former Nazi now conducting mind-altering experiments on the loony bin’s captive population. The always mesmerizing Swedish actor, who last joined forces with Richardson a decade ago in Snow Falling On Cedars, is a human touchstone for the 54-year-old director of photography.“There’s no greater honor or pleasure,” he said, referring to their encounters. “Max has had a deep and enduring impact upon my love of the cinema.”

During the early 1970s, Richardson was a lost teenager messing around with drugs who experienced an epiphany when he saw von Sydow in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal for the first time. Inspired, he began taking every film course available at his college, the University of Vermont. Richardson dropped out after two years but soon enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design, which offered a more advanced production program. He then went on to earn a masters degree at the American Film Institute in California, where frequent Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist was one of his mentors.

Oliver Stone was Richardson’s first major collaborator in the industry, an alliance that began with Salvador in 1986. Together, made almost a dozen high-profile films. “We were of one skin,” Richardson said of Stone. “He’s a brother to me.” But not long after Nixon in 1995, the two men parted ways. When Richardson accepted a job on Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, released in 1999, it meant he was not free for Stone’s next project. “Oliver felt a bit betrayed,” Richardson acknowledged in 2004. “I’ve tried to patch it up without much success. I’d love to work with him again.” (They did embark on a 2007 rapprochement with Pinkville, about the infamous 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam, until the project was axed by the studio.)

Another fruitful partnership has been forged with Quentin Tarantino, whose Inglourious Basterds gave Richardson his latest Oscar nomination. At the beginning of this seriocomic World War II saga, a devilishly clever Nazi official (Christoph Waltz) suspects a French dairy farmer is hiding Jews, who are in fact under his kitchen floorboards during the interrogation. It’s an almost unbearably tense few minutes. “I was so deeply immersed in the creation of the scene that I was blind to the overall effect it would eventually have,” Richardson noted, adding that he grasped the truly wrenching nature of this segment only in retrospect.

The act of shooting a film becomes transcendent for him the instant his eye connects with the camera’s viewfinder. “I lose all sense of time,” Richardson said. “I enter a void and level of concentration that are not readily accessible to me otherwise.” He’s aware of the collateral damage that such dedication can cause. “I’ve destroyed relationships because of my passion for this work,” Richardson once lamented. “It’s just so strong. I believe it’s the one reason I’m here.” Sounds a bit like the sort of obsession -- or perhaps even madness -- that befits Scorsese’s world.

-- Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author, with Randee Dawn, of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

No comments:

Post a Comment