“I’m a minimalist. I see things in simple ways…It’s human nature to define complexity as better. Well, it’s not.” – Gordon Willis
Cinematographer Gordon Willis, who passed away on May 18th, leaves behind an incredible legacy of deceptively “simple” lighting schemes and compositions that will forever be stuck in the minds of cinephiles. Willis was perhaps best known for his high-contrast use of shadows and high-key lighting, which filled his frames with a tremendous aura of depth and mystery.
While he was referred to as the “Prince of Darkness” by colleagues, Willis himself stressed that it was visual contrast between light and darkness – not darkness itself – that can produce such memorable imagery. The look of movies in the 1970s, from The Godfather to Annie Hall, is inseparable from the eyes of this master of the craft.
Here is an overview of some of his best work.
For Alan J. Pakula’s enthralling mystery about a prostitute (Jane Fonda) who helps a NYC detective (Donald Sutherland) catch a predator, Willis placed the camera in positions that suggested a character unto itself, hiding in the shadows and stalking Jane Fonda’s character. This sequence illustrates how much Willis’s placement of the camera shapes the way we watch the scene.
We first see Fonda through the john’s eyes, her sparkling dress distinguishing her from an army of garments down a long hallway. She makes her star entrance, ready to act for a one-man audience, and her face eventually reaches the camera in a close-up. But then the camera slowly pulls back and several elements in the screen block and frame our access to the events. We now see the artifice in Fonda’s character’s performance as a prostitute.
But more immediately, we feel a sensation of discomfiting voyeurism. Whose eyes are we now looking through?
Is there a more famous opening shot than this? What’s so insidiously effective about this opening is how gradually it brings you into the world of the film. It’s disorienting – we don’t know what type of room we’re in, who all is there, or even what time of day the scene takes place, until well into the scene.
Willis and Coppola’s approach here was not to give an audience a legible overview of the film’s world, but to distinguish between things seen from things unseen. This is a world that exists in shadows, a world of deep meaning held within euphemism, and a world in which very few are allowed on the inside.
The Parallax View
I can think of few moments that capture the dread, helplessness, and justified pessimism anchored within 1970s American politics than this climactic moment of Pakula’s The Parallax View, in which a Senator is killed and his dead body drives through a row of tables made of patriotic colors.
Where Willis’ work is more largely known for its contrast of dark and light, what’s striking here is how openly the assassination occurs under the omniscient hum of stadium lights, a space in which seemingly everything is visible. The result is an effect more alienating than shocking, yet disturbing in its simplicity.
All the President’s Men
This is the face of a man who took down a presidency. In the third entry in Pakula’s unofficial “paranoia trilogy,” Pakula and Willis keep one of the most notorious and (until recently) enigmatic figures in American history a mystery. Yet Hal Holbrook’s Deep Throat is not simply an ambiguous cipher who provides convenient information to our protagonist reporters: he is a human being who struggles with what it means to be a patriot in an era of top-tier political corruption.
Willis’ lighting doesn’t merely hide Deep Throat, but suggests layers of conflict. The glow on Deep Throat’s left cheek reveals that his mouth has gone dry before he shares that “It was a Haldeman operation.” This isn’t merely the face of a mysterious informant, but a man risking his life and future.
Willis said of Manhattan that he and Woody Allen decided New York was a “black-and-white” city. Allen has attempted similar openings with Darius Khondji for Midnight in Paris and To Rome with Love, but in those moments, while beautifully staged, resonate as the photographic tourism that they are.
Willis and Allen’s Gershwin-infused opening to Manhattan, by contrast, is the purest evidence of artists invoking a home that they consider their lifeblood. It was Willis’ idea to shoot Manhattan in the 2.35 aspect ratio, and I can’t think of a more fitting way to capture the diverse beauty of New York City. It’s impossible to separate Manhattan from Manhattan.
Pennies From Heaven
Despite starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters in their first film together after The Jerk, Pennies from Heaven is a decidedly gloomy affair. An odd Depression-set musical that features name actors lip-synching to period tunes, Pennies from Heaven explores how fantasy and naivety make a difficult life livable despite how out-of-reach those dreams always are.
Herbert Ross’ film was a critical and box office failure in 1981, but it deserves serious appreciation for its tonal audacity. Using bright colors and tones largely unavailable in the rest of his filmography, Willis here embraces wholeheartedly the film’s drastic breaks between carnivalesque fantasy and somber reality. For some numbers, Willis revisited early Hollywood color palettes over two decades before Robert Richardson won an Oscar for doing the same in The Aviator.
Willis received his first-ever (and much belated) Oscar nomination for his inventive work on Woody Allen’s Zelig, in which he and Allen combined bluescreen, archaic photographic technology, and film aging techniques in order to believably insert Allen’s title character into an existing archive of familiar 20th century images and events. Decades before Photoshop, Willis’s meticulously doctored still and moving image footage lent incredible authenticity to this enduringly touching and clever mockumentary about an enigmatic figure hiding in the plan sight of 20th century American history.
In still or moving image form, it’s hard to imagine ’70s Hollywood, or even New York City, outside the “simple” eyes of Gordon Willis. Willis’ vision took us through ’70s political paranoia, the epic legacy of a mafia family, and even an alternative history of the 20th century. While his placement of key lights may have been objectively simple, there was nothing simplistic about the many affects his cinematography realized.