A Thought Provoking Yet Exhausting Visual Experience: THE PAPERBOY’s Cinematography
27 January 2013
Adapted from Pete Dexter’s novel of the same title, The Paperboy tells the story of Jack Jansen (Zac Efron) and the insidious world of sex and violence he inadvertently becomes involved with. The year is 1969, and, after his expulsion from college for vandalism, Jack returns to his Florida hometown to live with his father, a local newspaper owner. Fortunately for Jack, his older brother, Ward (Matthew McConaughey), a Miami reporter, also returns to town to investigate a story. Jack eagerly assists Ward and his writing partner, Yardley (David Oyelowo) in the investigation. The story involves a man named Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), a notorious criminal imprisoned and sentenced to death for the murder to Sherriff Call, a local police officer. A woman by the name of Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman) contacted Ward pleading for him to investigate because she believes Hillary was wrongfully accused. Although they have never met in person, Charlotte and Hillary exchange “exciting correspondence” (smutty letters) and the two are engaged to be married, assuming Hillary is released. However, Jack falls madly in love with Charlotte. As Ward, Yardley, Charlotte, and Jack investigate Hillary’s imprisonment and work tirelessly to set him free, relationships amid the foursome become complicated in the wake of unforeseen revelations and emerging developments in the case. And, just when their painstaking efforts seem to have paid off, they all must confront the realization they have tried so hard to avoid: sometimes appearances are not at all deceiving.
It would be impossible to discuss The Paperboy and not focus on the cinematography. Aside from the acting, which is very strong, the cinematography is the film’s foundation; it is what catches the audience’s eye and keeps their attention for the duration. But, in the case of The Paperboy, the wild and unrelenting cinematography may hold viewer’s attention, but does it begrudgingly.
In short, cinematography is to films as photography is to still pictures; cinematography is how the viewer sees the film. Angles, lenses, movement, distances, colors, filters, focus, and all other tricks of the camera are cinematography’s tools, and the cinematographer, or director of photography (DP), is right-hand man/woman to the film’s director because he/she is responsible for a substantial amount of the film. With The Paperboy, Lee Daniels may have directed the project, but Roberto Schaefer acted as cinematographer and, therefore, is responsible for how the audience views each shot.
It seems Schaefer’s vision for The Paperboy was to shock, disarm, and surprise viewers by using nearly every camera trick in the book. The Paperboy has all the expected camera movements and manipulations, but it also explores more obscure techniques, such as split screens (with wipes), slow-motion, multiple exposures, fades to black mid-action (ellipsis), black and white sequences, steadicam, and so much more. Yet, Schaefer rarely uses the same of these camera tricks twice, which creates a visual experience for the viewer that is so unpredictable it becomes absolutely maddening at times. There are so few patterns in this film’s cinematics that the audience cannot get comfortable, even for a minute. One moment viewers squint, trying to make sense of an unfocused shot that seems far in the distance, but one second later, and after a quick cut from Daniels and Joe Klotz (the film’s editor), a new shot is a perfectly focused close up. Of course, what was out of focus viewers wanted to see clearly, but the focused images, like those of dead/deadly animals and rape, are the ones close-up and focused. Not using the same tricks twice and constantly using dramatic shifts in visual communication keeps viewers on their toes, but, by the end of the film, exhausts the eyes and mind.
Nevertheless, there has to be a reason Schaefer made these cinematic decisions in The Paperboy, as he is not known for wild cinematography in other films, such as Stranger than Fiction and Finding Neverland. Strong cinematography is cinematography that captures the action of a film in a way that somehow compliments the narrative and the director’s vision for the film as a piece of art. As mentioned above, The Paperboy is, largely, about people who misperceive reality, and somehow obstruct the perception of reality. Ward lives a double life, and, despite his visible scars, does his best to distance those two lives and obstruct his younger brother’s perception of him. However, he blurs the line separating the two lives with his excessive drinking, and because of drinking his perception is cloudy. Yardley takes on the persona of a well-educated British man, and that persona obstructs others from seeing him for who he really is. However, he is blinded by ambition and misperceives information in the hope of attaining success as a writer. Charlotte manipulates her physical appearance to satisfy a need to be loved, but her desperation to be loved thwarts her perception of others. Lastly, Jack may not consciously obstruct how others see him as much as Ward, Yardley, and Charlotte, but he misperceives everything. He never questions Ward’s scars, he never questions Yardley’s inability to pin down where in London he is from, and he—who, arguable, has the most intelligence of the lot—never thinks about Hillary’s guilt or innocence in the murder of Sherriff Call. He ignorantly believes everything he is told amid an obvious clan of artifice. None of these characters see what is right in front of them; instead, they all work hard to see what they want to see despite glaring reality. Considering these characters’ relationships to reality, Schaefer’s cinematography becomes more poignant.
In re-viewing The Paperboy, now knowing all the plot twists and understanding the characters better, it seems clear the decisions Schafer makes regarding the film’s cinematography attempt to communicate confusion, misunderstanding, and unstable perception, which nicely aligns with the film’s four main characters. What initially seemed like a wild and aimless misuse of the camera now seems a purposeful disregard of conventional and expected cinematography.
That said, this is a catch-22 because the cinematography in The Paperboy is still wild and unrelenting, which is not exactly enjoyable for a viewer. While the cinematographer’s plausible aim is clever and has a flare of originality, the cinematography makes the shots of an already difficult film difficult to view, which is as convoluted as the plot. In large part, the cinematography makes The Paperboy graphic and raw, yet considering director Lee Daniels and his filmography, that is, most likely, what he hoped to accomplish. Thus, underneath the unrefined and tasteless façade the film itself wears, there is a polished and worthy cinematic experience waiting. Schaefer, under Daniels’ direction, just made it rather tricky to see.