The Prince of Darkness

On May 18, Gordon Willis died. While his death did make the news everywhere, it was not given the headline treatment that an actor would receive or even what a director or writer may get. But while he may not have been a celebrity of the highest order, few people in history were as clearly at the peak of their profession as Willis was. In 2010, he was awarded an honorary Academy Award for his “unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, color and motion,” and no one will argue with me when I say that is a severe understatement.

Willis began his career with a number of smaller films that have not stood the test of time, but then he took the position of cinematographer for The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, USA 1972). Adapting the extraordinarily successful Mario Puzo novel was an Oscar-winning screenwriter and graduate of the Roger Corman Film School who had not yet proven his ability to tell visual stories named Francis Ford Coppola. It was an important project, and for such an important project with a young writer-turned-director in charge, the cinematographer is an even more important position than it usually is. I’m not enough of a historian of The Godfather to say how Willis was tapped for the job, but his getting it may have had more to do with that film’s success than any other individual.

The Godfather may be more remembered in the public imagination for the dialogue, infused with so many catchy lines that are so common as to be cliche 40 years later, but it was Willis’s mastery of simple-but-effective light-and-shadow techniques that truly made the film exceptional and would earn him the nickname “The Prince of Darkness.” However, even that nickname isn’t worthy of what Willis could do. A good cinematographer has more than one trick up his sleeve, and Willis was more than good. The famed wedding scene in The Godfather is a bright and cheery affair, filled with reflective whites that make the daytime lighting even brighter than it would otherwise have been. The darkness, especially around characters’ eyes, that is the real defining visual feature of the film infuses may of the scenes, but it was his ability to adapt to what each scene needed that made him such a master.

Willis followed a similar path to success with such films as The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, USA 1974), All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, USA 1976), and of course The Godfather: Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, USA 1974), defining a special type of dark, cavernous look that seemingly half of the films of the ’70s tried to mimic but never really could. And then, as luck would have it, he crossed paths with another young director who had some success but was more known for his writing (and, in this case, his comedy) and had yet to develop his own visual style.

In 1977, Woody Allen was already a success. He was one of the most popular stand-up comedians of the 20th century and had successfully transitioned into life as a film writer and director, but his films still often relied on his writing skills over visual abilities. Love and Death (France/USA 1975) had been a fine-looking film thanks to the efforts of long-time veteran cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet, but when Willis came on board for Annie Hall (USA 1977), Allen went from a comedian/screenwriter who made some good films to a genius, and a big part of the difference was actually Gordon Willis.

The two would work together seven more times, ranging from the showy black and white of Manhattan (USA 1979) to the widely varying elegance of The Purple Rose of Cairo (USA 1985). It was a partnership between a great writer and a great cinematographer that led to a series of films that were perfectly structured and loaded with incredible dialogue and visual storytelling. Allen gave Willis the ability to expand his palette beyond the cavernous darkness that Pakula and Coppola had created with him in the early ’70s and Willis made Allen’s films look absolutely beautiful no matter what the subject was.

After Willis and Allen stopped working together following The Purple Rose of Cairo, Willis’s only real noteworthy projects were returns to working with Pakula and Coppola and essentially recreating his earlier work with them. He didn’t do as many important films as, say, Conrad Hall or Sven Nykvist, but I’m not sure any other cinematographer can lay as much claim to having created a dominating visual style as Willis can for his early ’70s work, particularly on the Godfather films.

Gordon Willis had not worked on a film in 17 years when he died, but his legendary career still establishes him as someone who will be missed.

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Anatomy of a Scene: “Annie Hall” (Woody Allen, USA 1977)

Annie Hall, one of the greatest films ever made, is at once devilishly complex and remarkably simple. On the side of simplicity, it wears its point on its sleeve and never hides what it’s saying for a second. However, it also is built on a remarkably complex narrative structure (essentially the same structure that director Marc Webb and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber would use years later for the also-brilliant [500] Days of Summer [USA 2009]) and filled with the type of sophisticated, intellectual humor that only Woody Allen can pull off.

The film can be summed up quite well with two scenes: the opening and the ending. Technically, the ending as I am defining it is actually a sequence rather than a scene, but it’s my blog and there are technically very few scenes in Annie Hall longer than a few seconds.

Opening Scene

The film opens with Allen, by then a star both as a comedian and as a filmmaker, standing in front of a plain red screen and telling us a joke. The character, Alvy Singer, is also a comedian (though we don’t know that yet), and so he relates to the world through humor, even when he isn’t using it for the sake of humor. He tells the joke, but he tells it to make a point.

The joke ends with an explanation: “That’s essentially how I feel about life–full of misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.” Alvy Singer is now quickly defined for us–someone who has a sense of humor, but a sense of humor that is informed by a real sense of moroseness. We also now know something about how this film is going to work–it doesn’t care about the fourth wall and it lives inside Singer’s head. Originally, the film was much longer and included many more sequences like the one that follows this opening in which Alvy discusses his childhood. While the final film is no longer quite so much in his mind, we still have to know quickly that Alvy is our narrator and not exactly a reliable one.

“I would never want to belong to a club that would have someone like me for a member. That’s the key joke of my adult life, especially in terms of my relationships with women.” This may be more personal than any of you want to know, but I used to have a very close friend who told me that she loved Woody Allen, “because he reminds me of you.” I think this line is why. In general, the more I like someone, the more difficulty I have talking to them. Maybe Alvy and I are the only two people like this on the planet, but it’s an important thing to know about Alvy before the film really gets going.

The entire scene is just Allen in front of a red background. It’s not exactly the type of shot that turned cinematographer Gordon Willis into “The Lord of Darkness,” but the restraint and simplicity that Allen and Willis show here is great, and the red background is nice for the way it sets the scene apart from the “reality” of the rest of the film. Red is a decidedly unnatural background color, so this speech is clearly Alvy talking to us as an audience, not talking to someone who is in the audience’s position.

Aside: The Guy in the Movie Theater Line

Yes, I realize that I basically am that guy. (Though his opinions are ridiculous.)

Ending

While this scene is not continuous with the ending, it’s important to understanding the ending: Alvy arrives at a crowded outdoor L.A. restaurant in a long shot that barely allows us to notice him. He’s part of the crowd to Annie now, and as much as he doesn’t fit in with the style of these Californians, he feels like a background character when he’s out here. Allen then cuts to a close-up of Alvy as Annie walks by on the edge of the frame, entering the restaurant unseen and then joining Alvy for the final conversation. It’s shot in simple close-up one and two shots, always showing us whichever character is talking.

A few minutes later, when the ending proper begins, we get close-up one-two shots of two actors repeating the same conversation that Alvy and Annie just had. Then it moves to a longer shot showing us that it’s two actors working in front of a small group including Alvy. He has changed the ending of the conversation–he gets up to end it instead of Annie doing so and she changes her mind and decides to go with him. Then, a close-up of Alvy as he admits to the silliness by saying, “What do you want? It was my first play.” Again, the fourth wall is broken and Alvy relates to the audience through a telling humor. This time, though, one thing that’s different is Alvy’s face as he delivers the line. Before, while he was making a point rather than trying for a joke, he was also pleased with himself. This time, he’s disappointed–Woody Allen has never really been much of an actor, but he’s had his moments, and that look of discontent is definitely one of them.

Then, we get a short montage that begins with a long shot through a restaurant window of Alvy and Annie having lunch as Alvy tells us that they ran into each other and just caught up. It’s a distant shot like what we saw in the restaurant, once again telling us that Alvy is no longer part of Annie’s world but now, with both of them sealed off from the world, Annie is also not a part of Alvy’s. They may be together, but they are also apart.

The rest of the montage is just vignettes we’ve already seen of their relationship that are really just filling time for Alvy’s voice over until it ends with Alvy and Annie standing on a street corner shaking hands. Alvy is again reminded of a joke, “This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, my brother’s crazy–he thinks he’s a chicken.’ And the doctor says, ‘Why don’t you turn him in?’ ‘Well, I would, but, uh, I need the eggs.’ I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships. You know, they’re totally irrational and crazy and absurd, but we keep going through it because most of us need the eggs.” While he’s telling us the joke, he and Annie shake hands, he kisses her on the cheek, and she walks away. Then, the “Don’t Walk” light over Alvy’s head changes to “Walk,” and he walks away. It’s a pretty obvious message, but it cannot be delivered much more beautifully and succinctly than that street sign. And that type of obviousness, done well, is still effective, as Willis showed with some very respected other works of his that you may recognize.

Maybe I’m something of a sucker for that message as someone who is far too shy and reserved to listen to it (After all, I have been trying for months now to find some way to learn to play this admittedly silly song–and yes I am mentioning it because I still am trying!) and I can admit that it’s rather simplistic, but Annie Hall delivers that message as well as it can be delivered: relationships are absurd and crazy, but if we don’t go for them, we wind up just standing still while all the traffic passes us by on a street corner.