Let There Be Light

Prestige film & television are too damn dark

I didn’t get into Game of Thrones during the first few seasons. I read recaps and such so I could be culturally literate enough to nod when friends were discussing the show. I understood that Joffrey was the worst and that Lannisters were not opposed to consensual incest which, wow. Okay. But when I did start watching the show, what really distressed me wasn’t the political and sexual intrigues of Westeros. It was how darkly lit the show was. I couldn’t see a damn thing! And in interviews I read with the cinematographer, it was clear the darkness was a deliberate aesthetic choice.

From one episode to the next, there I was, fiddling with the controls of my television, trying to shed a little light on the situation. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t see much in certain scenes. Whatever atmospheric dread the show was going for, was lost on me. And it made me inexpressibly irate. What is the point of spending tens of millions of dollars or, more likely, hundreds of millions of dollars on scenery and costumes and beautiful people we cannot see? At some point in recent years, someone sent a memo to cinematographers telling them, the darker the setting, the sweeter the Emmy. Or something.

Once I started seeing (or not seeing) dark photography in prestige entertainment, I couldn’t unsee it. So many of the most popular shows make it seem like they have nary a budget for a candle, let alone the proper lighting we know exists. It exists! To willfully not use it is maddening. I spend an inordinate amount of time getting upset about this. Good storytelling is good storytelling. You can enhance it with incredible locations and stunning costumes and all of the many things that go into making great film and television, but you don’t need to force emotional intensity and narrative profundity with unnecessarily dark lighting.

In addition to bad, low lighting, there is a lot of terrible sound design and editing, whether it’s actors hoarsely whispering or mumbling or some combination thereof. It’s as if what they have to say is more important if you can’t understand any of it. I’m not sure what I would do without closed captioning. And I suppose I sound old and cranky but I just want to be entertained by entertainment. Be artful all you want, but being inscrutable is not being artful.

Have you seen the Batman movies? Ain’t no sunshine in Gotham, that’s for sure. In the forthcoming The Batman starring Robert Pattinson, the trailer is so dimly lit I tried to watch it three times, squinting in several different ways to try and make sense of whatever was happening on screen. And then there is The Batman’s voice. Pattinson is working in the vein of Christian Bale. He’s a hero because he speaks in a hoarse, gravelly voice, you see.

Denis Villaneuve’s Dune could easily be called Whispers in the Dark. A great deal of the lighting is excruciatingly dark. The movie cost $165 million but not one single dollar was spent on a lamp. Around 81% of the film is whispered so I spent a lot of time both squinting and straining to understand the dialogue. And it’s a shame. Dune is actually a great movie. When you can see what’s happening, the cinematography is exquisite. The story is compelling. The young man from the peach movie acquitted himself well enough. Oscar Isaacs plays a noble leader and competent father. Jason Momoa plays a heroic, loyal soldier inexplicably named Duncan Idaho. In those fleeting moments when you can see him clearly, he too is exquisite. What’s not to love?