Do you ever wonder if a film’s look is more a product of budgetary and time constraints than of any artistic decision? As far as “Fruitvale Station” is concerned, I feel like the indie film blues really took over the cinematography. Photographically the film is underwhelming, but I don’t get the sense that it’s from an unskilled team crafting the image but rather a lack of resources.
“Fruitvale” is shot on beautiful Kodak 16mm film, (Vision 3 500T, just like every other film shoot) and I think it was probably the best possible choice they could have made. The organic film grain and texture that the medium offers to Morrison’s images are invaluable. I remember after screening “The Social Network” (2010) someone I know commented on the sound mix during the opening bar scene and later in the nightclub scene. They noticed how the background chatter and ambient noise were mixed unusually loudly compared to the all-important dialogue. Rather than seeing this as a flaw, they found that having the low “signal-to-noise” ratio made them have to pay all that much more attention to what was being said. It actually drew them into the content of the film. I feel like the same thing applies to the use of the imperfections of Super 16. The majority of the movie is a simple story about a young man and the regular encounters of his ordinary day. Morrison’s bold choice to have us see through the film grain and really focus in on Oscar Grant’s story brought life to the film in a way that would have been impossible had it been shot on some other platform. Imagine if "Fruitvale" had the clinically pristine feel of 5K Red Epic. Then, it would be an entirely different film and not for the better.
Despite Morrison's excellent choice in format, she fell flat on her cinematic execution. The big overarching problem is that everything feels rushed. I’m not a fan of shooting fiction like a documentary. The film is dominated by Morrison’s handheld operating, and numerous scenes feel as if she’s running around trying to find the action instead of anticipating it. The camera moves without direction and is just sort of free flowing. It’s ugly. If you compare what’s going on in the handheld shots here versus something from the work of, say, Emmanuel Lubezki in a film like “Y Tu Mamá También" (2001), where there’s actually something driving the camera movement, you will see that it feels like the camera has somewhere to go and goes there. In "Fruitvale," I see confusion. I see an operator hunting for gems to capture and not always finding them. In one laughable shot, the camera is on Wanda Grant (Oscar’s mother) and then pans over toward Sophina, but then it stops short and goes back for Wanda to finish just one more line before finally committing to the movement and panning back to Sophina. That kind of work comes off as clumsy and unrefined. Someone needs to determine where the camera needs to be in order to capture the performances, rather than having the operator wildly go into the midst of the scene and hoping to come out with something usable.
Unfortunately, the results are much the same when it comes to the lighting. In an interview with the director, Ryan Coogler, he said something to the effect of Morrison being able to evoke the characters with her lighting in a way that he wasn’t able to do with words. But I find that statement to be utter nonsense. Morrison leaves many of the scenes feeling flat and unlit. Just about every time Oscar’s in a public place the lighting feels completely directionless. There’s nothing but what looks like an ambient mess spilling over everything. Of the more private scenes that actually seem like some effort was put into them, many are overly simplistic. She’s painting with broad strokes and it doesn’t serve the story. The unfortunate thing is that there are good instincts at work. The actors’ faces look good. She knows when to bring out a warm key light and where to place it, but there are no specifics. There isn’t the meticulous attention to detail that separates films from home movies. The walls are all bland, the fill levels seem kind of random, and the overall composition is faltering at the expense of the faces. If she has to choose one or the other, then of course the logical decision is to prioritize the actors, but it still comes off as lacking in the end product.
"Fruitvale" was a micro-budget indie and as much as we would like to think that budget doesn’t matter, it really hurt the photography in a way that I feel negatively impacts the experience of the movie. There was definitely potential in Morrison’s work, but it didn’t fully come to fruition this time around. She’s actually lensed a few more films since "Fruitvale," and I’d definitely be interested to see what she can do with more resources.