Gordon Willis Speaks (‘Purple Rose of Cairo’)

Cinematographer Gordon Willis, the man behind such films as All the President’s Men, Klute, the Godfather triptych and many of Woody Allen’s finest, has become a conscientious objector.

When I mentioned Willis to the only notorious Hollywood insider whom I call my friend, he said, “A bunch of us were wondering the other night if he were still alive.” A quick IMDB search would easily have settled that score, but it also would have revealed that Willis, 74 next week, hasn’t made a film since 1997’s The Devil’s Own. Following a Cinematographers Guild breakfast screening of the The Purple Rose of Cairo last weekend, the DP shed some insight into that disappearance when he submitted to a rather lengthy question-and-answer period for his brothers and sisters.

The Guild had been kind enough to include me in their monthly Saturday morning shindig, their version of the more traditional beery union local picnic. I’ve a soft spot for unions of all sorts, and the cinematographer’s union boys are as good a lot as any. They sit on the arms of each other’s chairs, huddle close when they tell a story, regard each other with unmitigated affection, and somehow all seem alike, regardless of age and gender and race: avuncular with regional accents and bright eyes gleaming behind thick-framed glasses. They seem like family, in other words.

It’s a good scene overall, one certainly worth a temporary exodus from the briny bogs of Cape Cod, where Willis dwells these days. And you can bet the Guild nabs the finest prints possible of whatever film they screen.

Willis looked on from the back of the Tribeca Screening Room while Rose, which has aged into a lovely timelessness, ran. One of my favorite Allen flicks, it features Jeff Daniels as screen actor Gil Shepard who in turn plays Tom Baxter, the pith helmet-clad anthropologist who steps off the screen of a black-and-white Nick and Nora-style romance into the Technicolor Depression-era New Jersey movie theater to woo hapless fan Mia Farrow (who keeps her stammering to a tolerable level here). Less of a metamovie than a lovesick valentine to the transcendent power of ‘30s-era Hollywood glamour, Rose actually carries some of the same wistful contrasts as Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. But even Allen’s worst films spring more out of magic realism than the drab nihilism that Trier seems to regard as due punishment for those frivolous enough to attend movies, so Rose is infinitely lighter in its loafers — thanks in no small part to Willis’ mastery of the visual understatement.

Afterward, the cinematographer ambled to the front of the room. He has a shock of white hair and watery blue eyes, his confidence and acumen better telegraphed by the tough NYC kid posture and voice that New England hasn’t successfully erased. He speaks easily with colorful metaphors, the way almost all union guys do, whether they be ironworkers or cinematographers. Because of that, and because he’s such a compelling character, I’m including most of his comments verbatim.

About Purple Rose, he said, “We shot the black-and-white movie first, including the characters’ interactions with the people in the theater, and then photographed it again in color stock as it was running in the theater.

“Working with Woody is like working with your hands in your pockets. I would say how I thought something should work and then he would say how something should work and then together we would pound the dough. He shot it with Michael Keaton first and didn’t like the effect so they had to reshoot the first two weeks again. Not as many reshots as you’d think; just embarrassing for Keaton, I’d imagine. Allen has a writer’s mentality but I tried to make it difficult for him to redo things — and it was a film in which it was very hard to redo things.

“To make the black-and-white movie [within the movie], I just picked up the light pattern of ’30s movies and reconstructed it. For the rest of the film, choices were made to minimize color. Everything in the movie was sets except for the theater exterior, which was in Piermont, NJ. The interior of the theater was a real porn house in Brooklyn.” [Because this fact was not greeted with loud guffaws and whistles, at this point it became obvious this wasn’t a typical union.]

Willis moved into the health of movies, past and present. He’s not a big fan of technology for the sake of technology. “Zooms are lazy closeups. And too many people hang their hats on video assist; it’s a way to avoid too much. Video assist helps people dissociate from the scene that they are directing. Pretty soon the director will be directing all the way from his apartment.

“Coppola and Beatty got very into it. Frances used VA from his trailer and then a speaker to communicate with the actors,” he noted with a dry grin. “But I wouldn’t suck on that tube all day long. The truth is that video assist will always show you something different than what you throw on the screen. I used it for tech check and stunts only.”

Or: “Anamorphic [widescreen technology, in uber laymen terms] is in vogue right now. The smaller the indie movie, the more anamorphic. Back when I did The Paper Chase, I told Fox to do it anamorphic. Their response — and keep in mind Fox invented anamorphic — was ‘It’s not a Western.’ Like everything else, it’s how you use the format. Any idea in this business is like poison gas in a room. I liked how they used it better in the ’70s than how they do now.

Another cinematographer said, “Labs are laundromats now, so how you do get repeatability these days?”

Willis’ response was succinct: “I wouldn’t know; I haven’t done a movie for six years. Last time, the lab tried to help me but there was blood over all the walls. Working on The Devil’s Own I knew you get sick if you try to fix everything for everyone. [Note: According to IMDB, eight years have elapsed since The Devil’s Own was released.]

“When doing the Godfather movies, I had trouble with continuity, of course. Decades passed between making II and III, for example. I used brassy, burnt yellow a lot. The only problem with III besides it not being a very good movie is that it used a different technique. Super 185 to blow into 70 mm. I didn’t care for that, but Francis did…”

GW is very nuts and bolts. When asked how he developed as a cinematographer, he responded: “My wife was pregnant and I needed some money.” You both believe him and you don’t — he’s utilitarian but also clearly takes pride in doing his job well.

“Who mentored me? I guess not too many people. I did what I liked. I learned from watching at first, sure. You have to learn how to cut if you’re going to learn how to shoot well. Then I pushed through what everyone else was doing and thought I should be doing, and I did what I wanted. I was very specific about what I should do. In concert, it’s luck but it’s also always your attitude.

“A director would walk around for two days trying to sort out how a shot should look and I would just say in two minutes,’I think it should be this way.’ ”

Not shockingly, Willis is an enormous proponent of less is more. “I spent a lot of time on films taking things out. Art directors would get very cross with me. If something’s not going well, my impulse is to minimalize. The impulse of most people when something’s not going well is to add — too many colors, too many items on a screen, too many lights. If you’re not careful, you’re lighting the lighting. American films are overlit compared to European ones. I like closeups shadowy, in profile — which they never do these days.

“People by nature like complexity and rarely recognize the elegance of simplicity. I like simplicity. So I just do it. I figure out what you have to say in this scene and how it connects to the last and to the next and then shoot. Today they do what I call dumpster directing. They shoot too many angles in scenes. Two problems result: 1. It tires out the actors. 2. The editor ends up making the movie, since there’s no true point of view if you shoot it every which way.

“What’s needed is simple symmetry, but everyone wants massive coverage these days because they don’t have enough confidence in their work and there are way too many cooks in the kitchen.

“My philosophy has always been that it should look easy even if it’s hard to make.“

Someone asked him about a piece of Local 644 folklore and with a mix of chagrin and some residual pride, he said:

“Yes, it’s true. I threw a camera out on the street once during the shoot. The thing had broken three times, and each time they fixed it just well enough to get it running again but not enough for it to not break again. It’s a common mindset. And I’m not the type to fetishize a camera. I always say that ideally, something would have French design and German make. Because then it would work.

“Finally, I just got fed up. Each time it held up production. I threw it out, yes. You can believe the next camera they sent over was perfect. Well. I like stuff that works.”

Since not enough seems to work these days, Willis is for all practical purposes retired. He seems to think the industry and the world are in such dire straits that he’d prefer not to be actively involved. I talked with him alone afterward at the guild luncheon and he said he worries a lot about the world that his children, and all younger people, are inheriting.

Then, he seemed less gruff than sad. Sad and unfailingly kind.

Funny Ha Ha in All Its Unglamorous Glory

Funny Ha Ha’s charm sneaks up on you in the same flatfooted, backhanded way as its characters do. Grainy, not even prettily unpretty, and superficially inarticulate, it draws less directly on Cassavetes’ cinema verité than on early John Sayles films like Return of the Secaucus 7 (the 1980 inspiration for better-known, worse-for-wear The Big Chill).

Like Sayles’ early movies, which no doubt draw in turn on Cassavetes (at that, the entire genres of reality TV and Dogme 95 should be laying wreaths at his grave), Funny Ha Ha ambles along with less of an explicit agenda than with a set of circumstances, ones that 24-year-old unemployed Marnie (Waking Life animator Kate Dollenmayer) idly nudges with her long, unmanicured toe. In Secaucus 7 especially, Sayles succeeded admirably at making plausible sexual desire between characters who, though not repulsive, wouldn’t necessarily be considered attractive by audiences watching them. That’s a lost art, for sure; a lost ambition, even, in this era when “would you fuck her/him?” prevails as the most urgent casting question (Shrek aside). And it’s an art resurrected by director Andrew Bujalski, who has captured in Funny the bloodless exchanges of a certain breed of Greater Boston-based recent grads. But that’s where the comparison between Bujalski’s and Sayles’ characters, also New England-based, stops. For whereas the Secaucus guys wring their hands over ideological questions and the wisdom of their choices, Marnie and her loose network of friends are just starting to arrive at the idea that commitment of any kind is required in life — if only in terms of committing to a clear sentence.

In his review, A.O. Scott shows his old-school colors when he describes the film as “a generational statement.” The movie’s “statement,” a term that may be too strident for this mumbling venture, is at once much more universal and much more specific than that. Specifically, it’s about the type of middle-class, recent grads who proliferate Neutered England. Basically nice kids (in Boston, you’re called kid until you die) who’ve got no play.

The film looks as if it were shot back in a Slacker ‘90s, when boys and girls alike donned the androgyne uniform of unflattering jeans and ripped, unironic tee shirts, but that’d be Bostonian twentysomethings in their natural habitat in any era, alas. It’s hard to imagine how these kids will get around to procreation (or doing the things required for procreation) until you realize that they’re infinitely patient with each other as they’re all, at least, similarly socially retahded. They slouch; they’re post-ironic enough that they apologize endlessly if even a little presumptuousness creeps into their tone; they barely meet each other’s eyes; and though you suspect their alma maters weren’t community colleges, they’re hard-pressed to formulate a direct thought or request, especially if it trespasses into the world of emotions or, God forbid, carnality. (In an NPR interview, Bujalski acknowledges that all the ums, likes and you knows that his nonprofessional cast utter all like you know pretty much derive verbatim from the script).

In any other film, for example, Alex, Marnie’s unrequited love, would be the hopeless sadsack rather than the glib Lothario who dances (awkwardly) in the face of Marnie’s wistful affections. He’s got small, shifty eyes, wears white sneakers with his jeans, and mumbles rather than fumbles once he gets a girl out on her porch in the middle of the night. If you know what I mean. Watching all these characters stumble around their desires is as excruciating as watching your seventh grade math teacher (the one in a short-sleeved button-down and a pen protector) putting the mack on a girl.

But that’s the charm of the film. There isn’t a soundtrack. There are no clever pop culture references. There are no montages. There are no big showdowns. There’s nothing, in fact, to mitigate the excruciating self-consciousness of one’s 20s, which is typically aggrandized without measure in both American and European cinema alike. In Marnie’s features and body, for example, you can glimpse an inkling of a woman who may one day be beautiful, but right now is inchoate and hopelessly floppy, a female equivalent to Linklater’s Wiley Wiggins. When she applies for a position as a research assistant, the professor who interviews her seems less stodgy than self-assured, insouciant compared to Marnie and her crew’s fidgety self-consciousness. Rather than wrinkled, his features seem, well, defined. And they remind us how, for most of us in the real world (the cinema verité kind as opposed to the reality TV world), one’s 20s are actually years to fast-forward through as rapidly as possible. The weight of the world-as-oyster is actually fairly intolerable.

When watching this film at Cinema Village, I was sure it’d just look like shitty public access if seen on a TV (not that CV’s screens are much better). But when I got home, it was playing on the Sundance Channel, and I settled in with a surprising degree of pleasure to watch Marnie float through a sea of bad parties and awkward encounters one more time. It makes sense, though: A lot of Funny‘s appeal stems from its rejection of typical filmic devices; dramatic moments that would typically escalate into either slapstick or confrontation merely devolve. At one moment, for example, while Marnie is waiting for Alex in his bedroom, she happens upon some other girl’s birth control pills. She puts them away, then fiddles with his tiny wrench to an effect that is sadly, slowly funny.

Made back in 2003 and only now hitting theaters in cities like NYC, Funny Ha Ha has taken its sweet time to gain any momentum — also like its characters — but it has finally accrued the kind of critical accolades typically only awarded European film these days. And it has a sort of European feel, in its closeups and blurred edges. Even the film’s ending, obstensibly the resolution of the film’s only dramatic conflict, is swallowed rather than spat. A welcome restraint.

House of Whack(s)

House of Wax has got to be the loopiest Doublemint commercial ever made. Starring not one but three sets of errant twins — fraternal teens, fraternal serial killers, and Paris Hilton’s (fraternal) tweens — it takes more cues from ’70s slash-and-gash than the J horror inspiring the recent spate of psychological terrors (the Ring franchise, vanilla bean Boogeyman). And, lo, it’s got little in common with the 1953 Vincent Price vehicle of the same name. Except for, well, wax.

This House poises a gaggle of road-tripping teens at the wrong campsite. Enter a bone-squelching, squirting set of murders, dumber-than-dirt dialogue (like, my cell reception totally sucks, you guys!) and a lot of innuendo between future has-been Chad Michael Murray as Goofus to his scrappy-sexy twin Elisha Cuthbert’s Gallant. A tortured artist who wears an ominous mask and is ace with a blade. A goofball sidekick with the now-standard video camera. A black stud making it with a flaxen nymphette, as interpreted by Paris-Barbie Hilton. Box-office gold, in other words, for who’d resist watching that corporation-unto-herself put into, uh, bankruptcy once and for all? With no less than a pole rammed through her least vital organ, as my colleague delicately pointed out.

Which brings me to my three cents:

1. Never has a movie invited more Mystery Science 3000 narration. Best for DVD, albeit with the parental warning: To be watched in the comfort of your own snark.
2. Any Moral Majority that would have me as a member (or is that any member that would have me as its Moral Majority?) would be protesting the movie’s violence-as-porn already.
3. I am convinced that the under-25 airess has submitted to botox already. Insert Paris Hilton wax joke here, dollbabies. I’m just too underwhelmed.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy