Wednesday, September 24, 2014

In love with a feeling: A tribute to Gordon Willis and the warm embrace of the cinema

Mia Farrow goes to the movies in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo.
It is a feeling familiar to anyone with a deep and abiding love for cinema. When a movie hits you just right, it feels as though the characters are speaking right to you, and for a couple hours, your world and theirs are one and the same. But then, the lights come up to wash out the beauty of the fiction and bring back into focus the harshness of reality. There is not a movie lover alive who has not wished at one time or another to harness the fleeting moments before the credits roll and hold on to that sensation as long as possible.

This is the premise of Woody Allen’s stellar 1985 romantic fantasy The Purple Rose of Cairo. Mia Farrow plays a woman who trades the brutal realities of her life for the soothing embrace of the cinema, and for once, the cinema chooses her back. If you have not seen it, I will not say any more than that in order to preserve the mysteries and delights of the picture. Suffice it to say, the film is a lovely blend of classic cinema and modern anxieties with a truly touching core.

I was lucky enough Wednesday night to view a 35-millimeter print of the film at the IFC Center in lower Manhattan. The screening was followed by a panel discussion on the brilliant cinematographer Gordon Willis, who died earlier this year at the age of 82. Two of Willis’ assistant cameramen, Tibor Sands and Douglas C. Hart, were joined by former Willis camera operator Craig DiBona for a funny and touching tribute to one of the true artists of film.

Such was the respect Willis garnered in his craft that when shooting in Italy, the locals referred to him as Michelangelo, according to DiBona. The moniker was well earned. In addition to The Purple Rose of Cairo, Willis lensed seven other Allen pictures, including my pick for the most beautiful movie ever filmed, Manhattan. He also gained acclaim for his work with Francis Ford Coppola on all three Godfather films. DiBona picked The Godfather Part II as his personal choice for most beautiful film of all time.

The Godfather Part II was Willis' second collaboration with Francis Ford Coppola.
The evening was filled with the kind of great old Hollywood stories that are catnip for cinephiles such as the time Willis walked out of a dailies screening with Coppola because the projectionist had loaded the film wrong, causing it to run upside-down and backward. His workman-like process and dedication to quality were matched by an unparalleled technical prowess.

Hart related a story about Willis stopping a screening and calling in the film-processing lab technicians. From the briefest look at the dailies, he could tell the lab was not changing its chemicals often enough, resulting in a look he did not intend. And if there was one thing you could say about Willis, he always got the look he wanted. Lenses, film stocks, lighting, and color – his knowledge on these subjects could fill tomes, and he used all the tools at his disposal to great effect every time he stepped behind the camera.

Willis was a cinematographer who created images so beautiful, they blur the line between our world and his cinematic one. His work expanded the idea of what could be done with film. He shot fewer than 40 movies in his career and never worked as the director of photography on a picture after 1997, but the mark he left on the cinema will be forever emblazoned on the images viewers cannot forget. And, if we cannot always hold onto the feeling the theater inspires in us, thanks to Willis and others of his ilk, we can still close our eyes and remember the beauty we were fortunate enough to behold.

Craig DiBona (far left), Douglas C. Hart (second from right), and Tibor Sands (far right) spoke about their time working with Gordon Willis during a moderated panel discussion Wednesday night at the IFC Center in Manhattan.

No comments: