Try to sympathize with me, for a second: Dallas, Texas was a very difficult place to grow up during the 1980s. Put more specifically, it was a difficult place to grow up if you were artistically minded or vulnerable or smart, all of which I was. (I think.) Cars were important. Money was important. Football was important. Status was important. Religion (as long as it was Christian) was important. The intellectual life? Not highly valued. Sensitivity? Not highly valued. Wit? Nix. Erudition? Nix. As I got older, all I began to think of was escape: how would I free myself from this environment? What could I do, as I grew up, to ensure that I might live in a world that welcomed me, to a certain extent, or at least tolerated me? As time passed, the answer became increasingly clear: get to New York. And Gordon Willis had a great deal to do with that development.
I was nine when I first visited New York; I would be twelve when I visited it again. I had heard plenty from my parents and their friends, faculty at the local university, about the life of the city: the subways, the homeless people, the smell of pretzels, the endless lines of numbered streets, the speed, the intense conversations, the immediacy. But it was film that would truly draw me in, that would ultimately tell me New York was my destination. Which films, exactly? Annie Hall and Manhattan. Again, I’ll ask for your empathy. I was 12. Most kids at my age were hopelessly sarcastic; I was hopelessly self-deprecating. The idea of a man making fun of himself and gaining something like an artistic reputation for it was both beyond my understanding and seemingly too good to be true. But even farther beyond my understanding was the city itself. What world was it Allen and his characters were living in? A world in which a man and a woman might sit, all night, at the foot of a grand bridge, its contours shadow-lit as the sun came up. A world in which a man and a woman might stand on a balcony and the beauty of the skyline behind them might be just enough to eclipse the wit and awkwardness of the dialogue rolling out of their mouths. A world in which a writer might make several false starts to a novel as the camera soared over a Petri dish of skyscrapers. A world in which the soft-focus intimacy of a bar scene, of a group of well-heeled friends out for drinks, might be enough to make you forget Allen’s character was dating a teenager. A world in which there was no trash on the sidewalks, everyone seemed fairly clean and well-dressed, the sky was always sunny, the stone of the New York apartment buildings was always a brilliant white or a blood-dark red or a surprisingly vivid brown. A world in which the unspoken message was, You think you’re watching a story onscreen, and you think you’re only here for the laughs, but in reality, I, the city, am the real story. You’re here for me.
Gordon Willis was responsible for this. I had emotional reactions to other films Willis had a part in, as well, of course. The first time I saw The Godfather, despite all the encouragement I had had to dislike it for its glorification of violence, I would have to admit that its visual lushness was breathtaking—again making the action on screen, the shootings, the conspiracies, the tests of manhood, the pathological Mafia rituals, the inherent sense of machismo, seem almost beside the point. When I saw Pennies from Heaven at age 11, I expected little from it besides a novel performance by Steve Martin (was it going to be funny?); little did I know that, apart from being introduced to the surreal mind of Dennis Potter, I would have a visual funhouse ride ahead of me: not only was the intensity of the atmosphere he created—with its rainy nights, its dismal, impoverished apartments, and its Hopper-like tableaux—thrilling to me, though I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain why, My Eleven Year Old Self was both scandalized and exhilarated by Christopher Walken’s dance number. The dimly lit bar in which Walken tries to seduce Bernadette Peters with a wild tap-dance to “Let’s Misbehave” was a magical place, not only because of its dim light but because the light was not dim enough to conceal what seemed to My Eleven Year Old Self like a waterfall of topless photos of women, a cascade of large, fulsome female breasts. My Eleven Year Old Self’s jaw stayed open for a week. I have only Willis to blame, or thank.
The fact is this: if you want real life, live it. If you want psychodrama, create it. If you want to fall in love, go after it with an open heart. If you want to be transported, though, if you want to feel that you’re immersed thoroughly in an individual’s vision of a story, a world, and the degree to which one might shape the other, go to the movies. Most specifically, if you wish, Gordon Willis’s movies. He was a master of unearthly transport who, without knowing it, changed my life. I moved to New York when I was 18 and would live there, with few interruptions, for 25 years. And, regardless of what I discovered—that New York is dirty, that not every conversation will be backlit with golden light, that staying up all night is not as glorious as it might seem—Willis’s vision stayed with me, and still stays with me.
Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.