In 1976, singer-songwriter Al Stewart released “The Year of the Cat,” and went from being a cult-favourite to an international success. One of the reasons Stewart cited for his surge in popularity was the work of producer Alan Parsons. Stewart admitted he had never cared all that much about the technical, musical component of his albums. He was all about the lyrics. Parsons, on the other hand, was known for his genius with sound, though he never seemed all that concerned with the words. Together, the two men formed an ideal yin and yang, and the result was golden.
I thought of Stewart and Parsons recently while screening Son of Saul and James White back to back. The two movies do not seem all that similar. Son of Saul, the debut feature from Hungarian Laszlo Nemes, is a riveting story about a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz and his desperate search to find a rabbi to help him bury his son. It took the equivalent of second place honours at Cannes in 2015, and will be a serious contender for the Foreign Language Oscar this year. James White is an intimate and sobering portrait of a troubled young adult in present-day New York City. As with Nemes, this is director Josh Mond’s first feature, though he has served as a producer on several other movies, including 2011’s acclaimed Mary Martha May Marlene.
But the one thing the two movies share is Matyas Erdely, the director of photography.
The reason I thought of “The Year of the Cat” during this double feature was because, like Stewart, I am a writer of words. I know intellectually that the producer of the record, or the DP on the film, is very important, but I am often guilty of thinking of them more as technicians than as artists. Considering Erdely’s work on these two movies reminds me for about the thousandth times of how silly that mindset is.
Both movies employ a similar visual style. The camera-work is very tight. It focuses on faces, primarily the faces of its two main characters. And the camera is constantly roving in both movies, usually just behind the hero’s shoulder as he moves through crowds. There are precious few wide or establishing shots in either film. Without having the benefit of seeing other Erdely movies, I begin to assume this style is, or will become, his trademark.
But although the visual style seems virtually identical in the two films, the effect is very different. This is due to subtle variations in the camerawork. In James White, Erdely maintains an extremely shallow depth of field throughout. Actor Christopher Abbott’s face is almost always framed against a blurry, almost surrealistic background swirl of colour and motion. This is the New York we see in James White, an unidentifiable mass of motion. The very blurriness of the image forces our attention onto James, and we get the sense of how unmoored he truly is. How alone he is even in the busiest city in the world. Early in the second act, James takes a little vacation in Mexico, and in this sequence, Erdely pulls back to a more traditional range of images. Wider shots allow the character to breathe, to become engaged in his environment. This will not last, as James will be abruptly pulled back to New York and the claustrophobia of Erdely’s camera. This may not seem like a good thing for James, but it is good for the movie, because those Mexico scenes were not nearly as involving as the scenes in New York, either narratively or pictorially.
There is no Mexico in Son of Saul. Even when the camera does leave Auschwitz very briefly late in the proceedings, it never releases its death grip on its subject. Erdely stays in relentless close up throughout, usually on Saul, but occasionally drifting off to other characters. And there is nothing soft about the focus. One of the most amazing things about Son of Saul is the swirl of activity that Nemes creates and Erdely reveals. Saul moves through this as a man possessed. It is doubtful he even sees much of the horror through which he moves. But we see it all, in detail only slightly less intimate than what we are watching in the foreground. The camera may stay riveted on Saul, but this is a very concrete nightmare. The choreography alone is extraordinary. How Erdely was able to keep his camera so close to actor Geza Rohrig as he moves through frenzied crowds, through death and slaughter, through the river that may or may not lead to salvation – it is all an act of engineering that I can’t fathom. But he does it, and we should be grateful.
I know Erdely developed his approach in consultation with his two directors, but he no doubt deserves a great deal of artistic credit as well. In James White, his creative decisions keep the focus entirely on James. In Son of Saul, a different set of decisions emphasise the madness Saul must endure. The look of each movie, similar in some broad ways, and very different in the subtleties, fits effectively with each story’s themes.
The movies have other highly effectively elements. I am disappointed that Cynthia Nixon, who plays James’ mother, is not getting more award consideration for her work. Rohrig gives an astonishing performance as Saul. But just as Al Stewart had to give props to Alan Parsons, I think I need to save my award campaigning for Matyas Erdely. The James White work is very good. The Son of Saul work is extraordinary. I have actually seen a couple other movies that I think would make worthy Foreign Language Oscar winners this year. But Erdely would get my vote for cinematography for Son of Saul.