VIDEO ESSAY: In Memory of Gordon Willis (1931-2014)

VIDEO ESSAY: In Memory of Gordon Willis (1931-2014)

A Master of Light, Shadow and the Human Condition: In Memory
of Gordon Willis (1931-2014)

As the tribute articles, obituaries and remembrances for the
late cinematographer Gordon Willis begin to flood in, almost all of them are
sure to lead with “Godfather Cinematographer” in the headline. Surely it’s
partly because Willis’ work in The
Godfather Trilogy
is one of the most influential collections of moving images in
film history—but those headlines probably stem more from the idea that the populace of
readers will only know Willis’ name from those films.  This is too bad because Willis’ equally
significant contribution to the art of cinematography goes back to his
spectacular filmography of sleeper films from the 1970s through mid 1980s. Even then, Willis
was pushing the envelope in regards to the stylistic direction of his then
peers (Vilmos Zsigmond, Conrad Hall, and Lazlo Kovacs, among others). Outside of
his collaborations with Woody Allen (Annie
, Interiors, Manhattan, Stardust Memories, A
Midsummer’s Night Sex Comedy
and Broadway
Danny Rose
), Willis’ dynamic End of
the Road
made spectacular use of the hot vs. cold lighting settings amidst
the film’s rambunctious interior settings. In The People Next Door, Willis was able to light the interiors of family
homes so that they looked real and less like a family setting you would see on
television (note how the neighbors’ house party sequence would later influence
the free-loving car key party scene from Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm). Willis wasn’t interested in recreating the real
world; he wanted to represent it as truly as possible.

In regards to The
films, well, where does one begin? There is just so much to soak
in, from the sepia tone scenes to the films’ controlled, if elegant, framing of
such violent acts as an orchestrated mass murder juxtaposed against a baptism
in a church. Perhaps more powerful than any onscreen kill was Willis’ uncanny
ability to command our attention through his long takes of characters’ faces.
Although bullets fly throughout the first Godfather
film, nothing in that movie captures our undivided attention and excitement
like that slow burning shot of Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) angst-ridden face
that is desperately searching for answers as he prepares to whip out his gun to
kill Solazzo and McClusky in the Italian restaurant. Even in non-violent
settings like a school campus (The Paper
) or a newspaper office (All The
President’s Men
), Willis’ photography keeps the mood riveting because he
allows his camera to study the faces of the screen characters; we see how their
faces twist in frustration or frown in disillusionment against the light that
presses down upon their skin. It wasn’t just that Willis had a unique visual
style all his own; it was that he was a true artist, a visual storyteller.
Willis knew that a pretty shot only had surface merits. He knew he had to let
the camera invade each screen presence by letting the shot study it, through
every prolonged take. As he did so, we became immersed in those moments. We may have
even seen ourselves in Michael Corleone’s face in that restaurant. Gordon
Willis was a great cinematographer not just because he mastered the
fundamentals of lighting design. He was a great cinematographer because he knew
how to look at us, even when we couldn’t look at ourselves.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content
creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually
contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the
London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW
which boasts the tagline: “Liberating Independent Film And Video From A
Prehistoric Value System.” You can follow Nelson on Twitter

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