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Gordon Willis (1931-2014) R.I.P.

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  • Eddy Q
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    #153965

    Gordon Willis, Legendary
    ‘Godfather’ Cinematographer, Dead
    at 82

    Gordon Willis Craft Truck

    Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Gordon Willis, who helped define the look of 70s cinema and worked closely with Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen and Alan Pakula, died on Sunday at 82.

    As the DP on iconic 70s films such as “Klute,” “The Parallax View” and “All the President’s Men,” as well as “The Godfather,” Willis created a heightened sense of tension. Later in the decade, with Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” Willis helped to cement the iconography of New York City on film.

    He also worked with Allen on “Interiors,” “Zelig,” “Stardust Memories,” “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy,” “Broadway Danny Rose” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo.”

    READ MORE: 5 Tips from Master Cinematographer Gordon Willis

    On the set of “Annie Hall”  
    “Gordon Willis is a major influence for me and many cinematographers of my generation,” Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Darius Khondji, who has also worked regularly with Allen, told Indiewire. “But the modernity of his work will influence as much the generations of filmmakers to come. He had a major importance on this new American Cinema in the seventies.”

    Dubbed “The Prince of Darkness” by his friend and fellow cinematographer for his use of shadows, Conrad Hall, Willis was known for using low-light photography and underexposed film to create a “noir” look — even when using color film.

    “Our job isn’t to recreate reality, our job is to represent reality,” Willis told the web site Craft Truck in a recent interview.

    Willis received Academy Award nominations for best cinematography for “Zelig” and “The Godfather: Part III and, in 2010, was awarded an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar for  “unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, color and motion.”

    In an interview with People Magazine when “Zelig” was released, Allen said, “He’s an artist. He’s got a great sense of humor—he taught me a lot.” 

    Born in Queens, NY, Willis was interested in film from an early age, inspired by his father, who was a makeup artist for Warner Bros. He studied photography, a skill which served him well in the Korean War as an Air Force Photographic and Charting Serviceman. He started his film career as an assistant cameraman and worked in commercials and documentaries before entering into narrative feature films in 1970 with “End of the Road,” “Loving,” “The People Next Door” and Hal Ashby’s “The Landlord.”

    After the heyday of 70s cinema, in which Willis was a key figure, he continued to work steadily through the 80s and 90s on films such as “Presumed Innocent” and “The Devil’s Own,” both directed by Pakula.

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    #153967

    Willis is in the top five of cinematographers of all time.

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    Scottferguson
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    #153968

    Not really a fan of his work, with a few exceptions. Way too dark most of the time, distinctive but not often successful. He was a polarizing figure in the 1970s, for good reason.

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    Eddy Q
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    #153969

    ^ I guess that’s why he was never nominated himself for all those Oscar films during that time. Understandable, but I still think it’s silly he wasn’t nominated for Godfather II or Manhattan, his greatest achievements.

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    Scottferguson
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    #153970

    Part of the lack of prime noms was because he was NY based, and back then the Academy was much more parochial about that sort of thing. But part of it was because his style – which was distinctive – turned off a lot of cinematographers.

    He and Owen Roizman pretty much dominated the (at that time less common) NY area work in the 1970s, and as such both worked on a lot of big name films. I’ve always thought a lot of Willis’ reputation came more from the films he worked on than the actual quality of his work.  

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    babypook
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    #153971

    Very sad news. Thanks for the many gifts you gave to cinema.

    RIP

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    Atypical
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    #153972

    RIP to an iconic cinematographer. Such sad news. 🙁

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    Jake
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    #153973

    Iconic job on “The Godfather” films and Woody Allen’s classics. I don’t know why he was polarizing but he did stellar job and will be remembered.

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    Scottferguson
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    #153974

    Because of lot of viewers and particularly cinematographers (and I agree with them) thought his work was often mediocre and too obscure and murky for no good artistic reason. I remember in the 70s groaning when I saw his name coming on in the credits. Some films were better than others (it usually depended on the director) but I didn’t care for most of his work.

    He was distinctive, sure, and was associated with some (not a lot) of otherwise good films. But totally overrated by some as far as I’m concerned. 

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    K-Hole
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    #153975

    I think Gordon Willis’ work was excellent, and the darkness or “murkiness” of his cinematography is entirely appropriate to the subject matter, e.g., The Godfather. In addition to The Godfather, some of the best paranoid thrillers of the 1970s (Klute; The Parallax View; All the President’s Men) were photographed by Willis, not to mention his work on Woody Allen’s best pictures. My only quibble with Gordon Willis is that he directed Windows, which is a revoltingly homophobic and idiotic piece of crap. But his shadowy cinematography was distinctive and influential and memorable, and it is entirely fitting that the Academy awarded Willis an Honorary Oscar in 2010.

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    Scottferguson
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    #153976

    So it’s clear – my reaction has more to do with tamping downing on the idea that he was some master (I think someone said one of the 5 best cinematographers of all time) than that he didn’t have some basic talent and competence (which he did). But his main achievement from what I see was being the go-to NYC based cinematographer when he didn’t have a lot of competition.

    The Woody Allen films? Mostly ugly visuals and unimpressive, with a way too obvious look of a DP who had a director not interested much in the visuals of his film and told him to give them the look of something that looked like the director had some style. The scope use in Manhattan was far more notable than the washed-out looking b&w. Didn’t hurt that it included stunning panoramas of the city, which were hard to screw up. 

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    K-Hole
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    #153977

    I would not call Manhattan “washed-out,” which implies no dark grays or blacks or even bright whites, all of which are amply evident in the film’s cinematography. See the Blu-ray release of Manhattan for proof.

    I understand your complaint that Woody Allen’s films are “ugly,” which is true to a certain extent, although films like Manhattan and Interiors are exceptions, but I don’t think Woody Allen’s oeuvre belongs to the art for art’s sake school of filmmaking (except for perhaps Interiors) and so it is pointless to criticize his films for not being pretty.

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    Scottferguson
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    #153978

    Film is first and foremost a visual medium. If the visuals don’t work, by definition a film in its essense fails.

    Great comedy directors (Chaplin, Keaton, Sturges, Tashlin, Guitry, Tati, Lewis, Brooks) understood this. Woody Allen never has, and his films are (along with other reasons) mostly minor and inconsequential,

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    K-Hole
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    #153979

    Well I agree with you insofar as I also think Woody Allen is overrated. But that doesn’t mean Gordon Willis is overrated. Wills’ best work was done with directors other than Woody Allen.

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    Scottferguson
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    #153980

    Yes, agree, but little that is standout.

    Sure The Godfathers (1&2) are terrific films. Their cinematography though is workmanlike and competent, not brilliant. When Coppola wanted brilliance, he chose Vittorio Storaro to shoot Apocalypse Now. 

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