Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Knight of Light: Gordon Willis in Retrospective

A scene from Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979), shot by Gordon Willis.

Near the opening of his 1977 film Annie Hall, Woody Allen (playing Alvy, a version of himself) anticipates a rendezvous with the title character in front of a movie house. She’s running late, however, and during the interlude two wise guys accost him, recognizing his face from television comedian appearances. Unnerved beyond even his usual neuroticism, he practically runs to Annie when she pulls up in a cab at last. “I’m standing here with the cast of The Godfather!” he blurts out as they duck inside. This must rank as one of the great meta-references in cinema. For Diane Keaton, who plays Annie, of course was in the cast of The Godfather, in the role of Kay. You can’t get a better entrance. But it’s actually a double joke, for Annie Hall shares not only a great actor with those movies, but a great cinematographer as well: Gordon Willis. Willis died last year, and he stands prominently among the film luminaries we remember in looking back at 2014. So important was his impact on the art form, in fact, that the Brattle Theatre here in Boston offered a seven-film tribute to him late last summer. And while good doesn’t describe all of those pictures, Willis’ style is so distinctive that worth seeing does.

The Brattle appropriately entitled the series “The Prince of Darkness,” for more than anything, Willis is known for working in the shadows. Perhaps not since Caravaggio himself has an image maker employed the chiaroscuro effect with such technical precision and force of meaning. It levels you instantly when the face of Bonasera cloaked in blackness, eyes and teeth flickering out from sunken sockets and chin appears at the opening of The Godfather (1971). We watch the man from the perspective of his listener, and Willis settles us in for a long, slow reverse zoom all the way back from across the room until we look out from behind a shadowed figure’s head. When the undertaker approaches for an aside, the two men’s profiles merge into one dark mass, matching the hoarse whispers they exchange. Willis has plunged us into the terrifying Mafia universe of the film in one shot, just as he does so again with the first image of its sequel. It’s an image that irresistibly draws us in and makes us accomplices to we know not what but that it’s sinister there can be no doubt. 
Al Pacino in The Godfather

In fact, the lighting of the opening scene – the men hunched under dim, golden lamp light in the study, the women and children frolicking in the sun-drenched wedding outside – sets the visual and thematic motifs for the entire saga. Willis was old school, not given to visual tricks or gimmicks. He rarely calls attention to the camera, even as it does so much for the films. The opening of The Godfather was his definition of panache, and it paves the way for a second, even more famous zoom later: on Al Pacino’s face in the pulsating seconds when Michael decides to shoot Sollozzo and McClusky in the restaurant. Visually, nothing elaborate happens here. But Willis adopts a still, wide frame for so much of the movie that this simple use of motion focuses our attention and builds the climactic tension to explosive effect. For Willis, less is more.

The cinematographer spent most of his energies creating the visual world of a picture, a spacious box for both the actor and the audience to roam in. He loved interiors, where he could soften the light and create acres of black to match the earth tones of performers’ costumes. The way he illuminates gas-lit Little Italy in The Godfather, Part II is haunting. The images are pale, faded, but also glowing somehow, evocative in a way that matches the memory of our immigrant ancestors at the turn of the last century. Willis looks at the Lower East Side the way we imagine it in our nostalgic fantasy. His use of chiaroscuro lends a grainy grandeur and authenticity to the characters, elevating the gangsters to patrician nobility. The light on their foreheads seems to well up from within, no exterior source visible in the dark canopy that surrounds them.

He anticipated this effect in The Godfather a year earlier, actually, in director Alan Pakula’s film Klute. The movie garnered acclaim for Jane Fonda’s portrayal of a high-end call girl being stalked by a man that Donald Sutherland’s eponymous private detective’s come to New York to find. And for sure, Fonda shoots so much electricity into her performance of Bree Daniels that she singlehandedly elevates a moderately captivating noir into a taut head-turner. Willis gives her a few of his star-turn highlights. In one, Bree strips for an older man with a fetish for dressing in 1920s’ formal wear. Willis looks ahead to his work with Coppola here, lighting the gentlemen’s office like Don Corleone’s study, with a single antique lamp glowing from underneath the subjects. The reverse pan appears again, the camera moving back to accent the image of the man, pouring wine out of a carafe, and the woman, standing like a sculpture in the black. In another, Willis employs a single tracking shot that moves backward through a club as Fonda enters. Bree, veering impulsively off-course, has abandoned the safety of Klute and seeks out her former life in the underworld. Fonda shimmies and shuffles across the dance floor, coming on to men, darting away again, flitting through a dozen emotions by the second, high on maybe everything, maybe nothing but the erotic thrill of being back in the game. Finally she settles into the crook of the arm of Frank, her pimp (Roy Scheider), purring against his scratch like a cat, house music beating all the while. Goddamn, what a marriage of camera and actor.

The Parallax View (1974)

Willis shows off his love of lamp-lit interiors again in The Parallax View, which saw him reunite with Pakula. A political thriller, the film fails pretty resoundingly, being a far inferior attempt at what The Conversation achieved two years earlier, in 1972. Like Coppola’s movie, Pakula’s works off the paranoid atmosphere and conspiracy sensibility engendered by the Watergate scandal. Warren Beatty plays a hard-boiled reporter drawn into investigating the assassination of a U.S. Senator in Seattle’s Space Needle. Several witnesses to the shooting have themselves turned up dead in the succeeding months, pointing toward the possibility of a cover-up. The picture’s got a lot of structural problems and collapses under the weight of its own pretensions to profundity. But there’s a fun brawl scene Beatty has in a Northwestern town’s barroom, which gives Willis a chance to work with his gas-lit look again. The earth tones return, the image conjuring a feel of dampness and oil as the light plays off the oak colored whiskey. There’s also a red-white-and-blue motif going on, established at the outset with images of a marching band parading the colors of the American flag. Willis highlights each of those colors throughout the picture: blue boats and rigging in one scene, red flight attendant uniforms in another. This triple color scheme comes back at the finale, too, a political rally for a presidential candidate. But it’s all a bit too obvious and contributes to the movie’s bloated quality. It doesn’t take much to understand the point – America’s really an assassin nation. Willis’ use of chiaroscuro also adds to the pomposity in this case. At the opening and closing, we get the image of a committee towering over us from a bench, mahogany stretching behind, declaring that no conspiracy exists. That’s a bit heavy handed, visually and narratively. I prefer the claustrophobic feel he creates when Beatty evades his enemies in the rafters of the convention hall.

Willis dropped this heavy style when he teamed up with Allen for Annie Hall; you sense the romantic comic material freeing him from all the paranoia and murder he helped cook up (he also helped make All the President’s Men). Still, he creates a similar cramped feeling with one tossed off shot, of Alvy flailing at spiders in Annie’s bathroom with a tennis racket. Willis shoots it at a low angle through a partially-closed door, and you feel like Alvy’s likely to smack you along with the arachnids. The cameraman puts the same effect to even greater use in The Godfather, in fact, after Michael finds the pistol left for him behind the toilet. The angle’s high on this shot, but the fixtures and frames of the small space similarly squish us into Michael’s company. They also occlude his full frame, creating a sense of vulnerability and mystery to him – he’s frantic and searching, not just for the gun, but for a decision. Willis’ penchant for under-lighting an interior conversation returns, too, when Alvy has a brief run in with Duane, Annie’s brother (Christopher Walken). It’s black comic gold as the kid confesses his secret desire to veer into oncoming traffic while driving, and Willis shoots it from behind Allen’s frame as if we're once again Don Vito’s consigliere. Leave it to Willis to find similarities between Annie Hall and The Godfather. But they’re there, even in the way he photographs his actors in closeup, a stipple quality attending the framing of their profiles.

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Annie Hall (1977)

If I had to choose one image that Annie Hall calls to mind, it would be Annie and Alvy walking on the pier at dusk, a velvety liquid East River behind them, bridges twinkling in the twilight as they kiss. Willis and Allen would actually top this effort with a shot of the Queensboro Bridge in 1979’s Manhattan. Here, Keaton and Allen sit on a bench at dawn, their bodies silhouetted under the immense superstructure, which stretches from fore to background, twinkling again. Willis shoots the image in gorgeous black and white, as he does the whole movie, and his cinematography is the best thing about the picture. Allen’s writing loses the wittiness and vitality of Annie Hall, failing to render any interesting characters. He means the movie to evoke the romantic comedies of the Thirties and Forties (Willis’s camera work certainly does the job), but his tone turns acerbic. And he wants us to sympathize with his Isaac when Tracy, the teenage girl he’s been seeing (Mariel Hemingway) rejects him in the end, even though she’s absolutely right: their relationship isn’t real. But once you accept the movie’s mediocrity, you can enjoy its imagery. Willis gives us one iconic image after another: a follow shot of a vintage roadster breezing down the FDR Drive; another one of the car driving at night; a carriage ride in Central Park. He has a lot of fun with silhouettes, especially the scene at the planetarium where Keaton and Allen’s relationship gets transported to a moonscape. But the opening montage makes for the most famous moment of Manhattan, of course. Lasting almost four minutes, underscored sublimely by Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” it captures the quintessence of the Big Apple the way Allen gets the City of Lights at the beginning of Midnight in Paris (2011). Willis utilizes all sorts of angles and images, from everyday street scenes with boro denizens, to renewed perspectives on classic New York cityscapes. It climaxes with the famous concluding piano chords on an iridescent Yankee Stadium glowing like an orb as subway cars enter it like a toy train, giving over to concussing fireworks shimmering on the high horizon, the Manhattan skyline arching with a stolid, titanic majesty.

The Brattle’s tribute concluded with Pennies from Heaven, Herbert Ross’ 1981 film adaptation of the BBC series. Both were written by Dennis Potter, but only the movie features Willis’ cinematography. As great as his work is on the preceding films, Pennies from Heaven shows him at his zenith. He combines the best of his trademark styles while pushing into new visual territory. In Chicago at the nadir of the Great Depression, Steve Martin’s Arthur struggles to make a career selling sheet music of popular songs, while chafing in a sexless marriage at home. His wife Joan (Jessica Harper) can’t match his eager sex drive and when he spots a single school teacher, Eileen (Bernadette Peters) while on a road trip, Arthur strikes up an affair with a woman who can satisfy him. Eileen can do more than that, actually she embraces her desire to be bad so much that she goes even beyond Arthur’s darkest fantasies, taking up a life in the world’s oldest profession with a sly smile. Musicals are usually either backstage or romantic, but here it becomes an unconventional hybrid: the “stage” that the showtunes numbers occupy is the characters’ own consciousness. Ross and Potter employ the ‘20s- and ‘30s-era songs with a kind of Brechtian intention, the performers lip-synching to the overdubs of the original recordings. The effect is a double alienation: as an audience, we’re jarred by the discrepancy between image and sound. Meanwhile, the songs express the gap between the emotional fantasy world the characters inhabit and the grim reality of their everyday lives.

Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters, "Let's Face the Music and Dance" from Pennies from Heaven (1981)

Willis uses the psychic and stylistic freedom of the musical numbers as an opportunity to pull out all the stops. He begins in earnest with “I’ll Never Have to Dream Again,” Arthur’s plea to his wife to put out a bit. Suddenly we go from Martin’s long face in a bathroom to an interiorized life world, his face silhouetted in profile against a deep blue backdrop. Willis gets his dark interior fix in the three-man toe-tapper, “It’s the Girl,” as Arthur and two strangers in a bar wake up in a hobo style clown number on a vaudeville stage. Once again, the lighting dovetails with the brown plaids the actors sport, the square angle letting us see the performance like the audience in the hall. Almost all the songs feature tap dancing, in fact, the most sensational belonging to Christopher Walken in Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave.” Seducing Eileen in a nightclub, Walken’s Tom puts on the sexiest striptease you’re likely ever to see. Willis uses all sorts of gels to light the number – violet flooding Walken’s svelte body from the right as he disrobes on a ledge, framed by two seductive dames; a golden beeswax hue enveloping him as he toe-taps on the bar. Vintage pinup photos make for his backdrop, and – combined with the smoky darkness – the light creates a pulsing, seedy hothouse atmosphere. What a contrast it makes with “Love Is Good for Anything That Ails You,” where Peters cuts a fine figure in a silver sequined gown while school children in white let loose on top of white pianos. Those sequins reappear on dozens of showgirls in the finale, “The Glory of Love,” and Willis offsets their dark skirts with copper penny hats and gold-plated high heels as they do a seated can-can.

But the most gorgeous images belong to two other numbers. The black-and-white from Manhattan returns for “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” in which Arthur and Eileen first mimic, then literally trade places with Astaire and Rogers on screen. You can tell Willis is loving the opportunity to photograph his subjects in their tuxedos and evening gowns, his camera taking more stylish opportunities to circle and play tricks like a Busby Berkeley musical. He’s entered the Astaire film to the same extent as Arthur and Eileen, where the camera is as much a star as the performers. And, at last, the title number, sung by a hobo called The Accordion Man whom Arthur picks up on the road. When he gives the poor man his dinner at a roadside diner –  lit with a torrid red neon sign, like the restaurant that hosts the murder in The Godfather – the hungry wayfarer’s face lights up in astonishment. Into a slow soft shoe number he breaks, actor Vernel Bagneris’ body going gummy and impossibly smooth. Willis throws up an immense wall of Depression photos in the style of Walker Evans as a backdrop, pale yellow rays shooting down through the rain like stage lights. Suddenly the beads of water turn to gold coins, glittering like confetti as they fall, sprinkling the ground as if in a snowglobe. Gordon Willis may have been the Prince of Darkness, but with magic like this, he equally dubbed himself the Knight of Light.

Nick Coccoma is a film, theatre, and culture critic. He blogs regularly at The Similitude and contributes to Full-Stop Magazine. His articles and postings on movies, religion, and drama have been featured on Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, The Rumpus, 3 Quarks Daily, and Catholic How. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as an actor, teacher, and chaplain.

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