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 Hall, 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 Godfather 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 Chase) 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 here.