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Monday, May 19, 2014

Prince of Darkness: Gordon Willis, 1931-2014

Regarding actors, director Francis Ford Coppola said of cinematographer Gordon Willis, “[He] sure is mean to them and he sure is intolerant of them and in some ways he’s in competition with them. Like many great artists, he is the actor.” Collaborating on the three Godfather films, Coppola and Willis were giants with an agonistic relationship that was essential for greatness (one of their arguments on the first film apparently culminated with the director storming off the set and kicking down a door), Coppola a precocious theater prodigy before going to UCLA Film School, and so with a different sensibility to performance when compared to Willis’ photographic approach. In the 1950s and ’60s, motion pictures looked stagier, more evenly lit and heaped with purposeless shadows, the camera following and subject to the actors. The precision of Willis’ austere design for The Godfather in 1972—eschewing long lenses, saturating interiors in blankets of darkness, and having minimal camera movement where one eye-level set-up was constructed to flow into the next like a series of breathing chiaroscuro paintings—not only rendered Mario Puzo’s Mafia opera as magnificently lyrical through a blend of urban realism and lush storybook expressionism, but also stands as the definitive popular marker for the murky and entangled spirit of American movies through the period’s disillusionment in wake of Vietnam and Watergate, a spirit that inspired the title of film historian and critic Robert Kolker’s landmark study A Cinema of Loneliness. Willis is as much of an author of The Godfather as Coppola or Puzo, and his camera, as indicated by Coppola’s quote, as much an active (and laconic) player within the scenes as Pacino or Brando. His work earned him the title as Hollywood’s “Prince of Darkness.”
“The Godfather Part II”
Alongside The Godfather and the even more brilliantly executed 1974 sequel, Willis’ darkness draped over a trilogy of tense Alan J. Pakula paranoia thrillers: Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974), and perhaps most famously All the President’s Men (1976), in which the anxieties of Watergate leapt over any subtext and confronted the subject of a nation’s unraveling certainty directly. Showcasing some of the decade’s most exemplary performances—Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland in Klute, Warren Beatty in The Parallax View, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, and Jason Robards in All the President’s Men—Willis’ landmark work with Pakula is noteworthy by how he lucidly communicates so much information in densely plotted nail-biters whose success is contingent on pacing: after being subject to how these films succeed as thrillers—with long stretches without a gunshot fired (in the case of All the President’s Men, no gunshots or violence at all)–it’s rewarding to study the strenuous tension Willis documents within the frame, and how one shot is timed to move to the next and then the next in a far-reaching macro architecture of the films’ formal backbone. The films are mazes of information, something boldly embodied in All the President’s Men incredible dome shot in the Library of Congress, Willis’ camera slowly pulling back to show Woodward and Bernstein’s aims dwarfed by the growing arena of official documentation.  Set in virtual Panopticons where the heroes try to get knowledge while hopelessly under silently malevolent surveillance, Willis frustrates our own relation to the truth with obfuscating forms of black merging with the frightened silhouettes of his tragically entangled characters.

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