Pierpaolo Morra – Untitled (2015)

If you know a lot of cineastes and they irritate you with their endlessly self-conscious meta-commentary, ask them to name the best example of film noir. Sharks mid-feeding frenzy are a solemn affair by comparison. (I once saw someone successfully defend the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple as the last true noir–a statement with which I hardly agree but you have to appreciate the audacity of choosing that as a last stand and managing to rout multiple attackers.)

This image gets me thinking about film noir. Particuarly Jules Dassin as the prototypical noir auteur. If you want to understand what noir entails, you could do much worse than studying The Naked City and Riffifi.

Ultimately though, I grudgingly agree with the camp that suggests Out of the Past as the last true noir. (I do understand the desire to attribute a more decisive dividing line a la Touch of Evil where you can pretty much say film noir was B&W and neo-noir is predominantly in color, but I think that glosses over a bunch of nuances–I’d argue Touch of Evil is neither noir nor neo-noir and instead exploited distinctions that subsequently demanded differentiation.)

Back to Dassin though: he’s interesting because he employs the ratcheting of tensions common in noir to a pointedly different effect. (Seriously, if you haven’t seen Riffifi, you’ll never be able to watch that scene in the secure vault in Mission: Impossible without shaking your head in visceral disgust.)

Dassin’s films are quite a bit more formal than your typical noir. They may share a common roster of themes and devices, but even after he was blacklisted and moved to Europe, his films never quiet shook the cast of the Hollywood Three Act structure.

That’s both why his films tend to be so bloody good but it’s also why they’re neo-noir or maybe preferable noir-ish.

In late 30s and 40s Hollywood studio films, if you watch closely you’ll notice that as far as B&W cinematography is concerned, there’s a zone system as applied to motion pictures at work. Things are lit in such a way that there is a pure white and a pure black in every frame and as many interval tones as is provided given the latitude of the film stock, creates a gray scale. It’s crazy. I know people who can’t light green screens as evenly as they lit white walls in studio films.

And yes, Dassin is willing to get muddy and grainy–but it’s usual in service of adding immediacy to the action at hand. Noir just didn’t function like that. It’s not that the DPs weren’t as skilled, it’s just that lighting was used in a far more expressionist fashion than as merely a means of illumination.

That’s why I dig this image. The rest of Morra’s work is (in my opinion) overly mannered. He’s definitely got a solid grasp on controlling tones but working in micro-shifts as he does, his editing needs to be much tighter. This image is underexposed but the underexposure works as a sort of life giving spark.

And I guess that’s really my underlying point. Modern image making gear has made it so you can point a camera in more or less the right direction and without thinking produce a pretty decent image.

But what will make you a better photographer is not what you get right or what you get wrong, it’s what you learn from what you get right and wrong.

So with that in mind, if you really want to become a stronger image maker: ditch shutter priority, aperture priority and matrix metering and embrace full manual everything.

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