Monday, May 19, 2014

Gordon Willis 1931-2014

Still from Manhattan, by Gordon Willis
When thinking of an era in the arts where there's a strong zeitgeist, I always feel that there a large field of people working within a style, doing this era-defining work. And I'm always surprised when it turns out to be just a handful of people, sometimes only one guy, one group, or one company. Like Saul Bass in the design world. And the cinematographer Gordon Willis, who has just died.

Between Willis, Laszlo Kovacs, Owen Roizman, Conrad Hall, and Robert Surtees— some of my favorite artists ever, in any medium— you cover most of the greatest things done in American film in the 70s. Among Willis's credits are The Godfather, The Parallax View, All The President's Men, and some of Woody Allen's most visually beautiful movies: Annie Hall, Manhattan, Stardust Memories, Zelig, and Broadway Danny Rose.

It's not clear to a lot of people what a cinematographer does; he is the camera man, the photographer— which is not to say he is always the camera operator, a separate job description, lower down the food chain. The usual job title today is director of photography, which gives you more the sense that he is the head of an entire branch of the production.

Because of the popularity of the auteur theory of filmmaking— well, of film criticism, actually— we're prone to giving directors credit for everything that happens in their films, except maybe the acting performances. But there's a lot more involved than just pointing the camera where the director tells you. Unless he was a cinematographer before, the director relies heavily on the artistry of the director of photograpy; shots like the one above could not be executed, or often even conceived, without him. A cinematographer is like a commercial photographer or graphic designer, or studio musician; his art is defined in relation to fulfilling a job in collaboration with a client, which is why the men I listed above are not famous among the general public as artists in their own right. But if you like the way certain movies look as visual art, it's time to start looking past the director, to that DP/cinematographer credit.

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