The cinematographers of The General – Bert Haines and Devereaux Jennings – helped director Buster Keaton solidify his vision. It was to be a film centered around motion. The film gallops at a breathless pace as the protagonist overcomes impossible challenges to recapture his train, the General. In one scene, Buster Keaton, who also stars in the film, runs alongside the train, his legs mimicking the motion of the pistons. As I watched, I felt amazed and surprised that a man could keep pace with such a powerful machine. There are countless instances of Keaton and the train careening almost out of control. The movement of the train amazes the audience and shows the determination of the human spirit.
John Ford’s masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath also depicts the determination of the human spirit through a decidedly different emphasis: light. Filmed in black and white, Ford and cinematographer Gregg Toland take advantage of the contrast between light and darkness. They use minimal light to cast an eerie, sometimes claustrophobic shadow on the faces of the actors. Chiaroscuro is defined as “the treatment of light and shade in drawing and painting.” (See the painting above by Fielder.) Ford uses chiaroscuro to “paint” his canvas as shadow, light, grey, and blackness are all prominent throughout The Grapes of Wrath. (See image at the bottom.) In one memorable scene, the Joad family walks into a government-run camp, and the lighting is blindingly bright. A man is wearing a white suit — quite a contrast to the dingy, dirty venues depicted before. The use of bright light here furthers the idea that this camp is perfect; white equates to heaven or perfection. The Joads certainly hope they have arrived in the promised land.
In an academic paper entitled, The Grapes of Wrath (1940): Thematic Emphasis Through Visual Style, author Vivian C. Sobchack writes:
"The chiaroscuro lighting of a major portion of the film does more than merely supply atmosphere and support the thematic darkness of the Joads' odyssey. … The shadows spatially blot out the rest of the world much of the time and are, as well, oppressive and confining. Consider, for example, the sequence in the Joads' abandoned farmhouse near the beginning of the film. Composed quite statically and shot in darkness punctuated only by candlelight and flashlight, the images curl into themselves rather than extend outwards to the corners of the frame and to a consciousness of a physical world in motion beyond its confines. The camera's emphasis is on faces, faces which become not quite real in the semi-darkness, faces which are isolated in cinematographer Gregg Toland's "web of shadows and night" visually reinforcing, for instance, 'Muley's belief that he is just "an ol' graveyard ghost".'"
To read the more from this brilliant analysis, use this link:
Although motion and light are dissimilar foci, each aspect of cinematography is intrinsic to the storytelling. The General would not be the classic that it is without its frenetic pace. Likewise, The Grapes of Wrath would not continue to have the impact that it does seventy-five years later without the masterful use of chiaroscuro.
A final thought I had. Like Job in the Bible, the Joad families endures extensive suffering. Do you think Steinbeck chose the name for its similarity?