There’s never a large sock filled with manure when you need it*

May 21, 2014

Gordon Willis, the renowned cinematographer, died on Sunday. If he had shot only the two Godfather films, he’d still be mourned as a serious artist. I never met the man but I do have a personal story that says as much about him as it does the wannabe culture of Los Angeles.

It happened on a Friday morning in spring 1979. My (then) girlfriend and I left Malibu at about eight o’clock for the hour drive in heavy traffic to Westwood, where we were eager to get in line for the first showing of Woody Allen’s newest film, Manhattan. In the days before multiplexes, even A-list films played in only a few theaters located several zip codes apart.

Sure enough, the line was already formed when we got there, and would quickly grow long enough to sell out—this for a weekday 10 am showing of not the next blockbuster in the Star Wars saga but a Woody Allen film. Everyone was sure he would atone for his last film, Interiors, his stab at a Bergmanesque family drama so intentionally devoid of humor that it was unintentionally hilarious. That it had followed Annie Hall magnified our disappointment with it.

The atmosphere in the auditorium buzzed. Judging by the chatter, I doubt there was anyone among the several hundred people who didn’t know that (a) the film was shot in black and white, and (b) Allen was again working with his favorite cinematographer, Gordon Willis. This was, after all, L.A., where residency is supposed to confer company-town familiarity with everyone and everything Hollywood.

When the lights dimmed, several voices actually ssshed the crowd, something I’d never heard. Once it was dark, the opening notes of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue brought sighs of contentment—except for one thing. The images that had faded in onscreen were blurred. What?

After 20 or 30 seconds of this, I began shouting, “Focus!” Maybe because I’d already done it, no one else yelled. Or maybe it was because, well—

“Hey, man,” the guy behind me said, tapping me on the shoulder, “it’s Gordon Willis.”

I looked at him like the idiot he was, turned back around, and shouted “Focus, focus, focus, focus…” Some people actually ssshed me, including the guy behind me.

A few moments later the film stopped and the house lights came on. A young man ran down in front of the screen and apologetically explained that the film had arrived just minutes before the showing, so they hadn’t had time to correct the throw, which apparently was different because of the black and white photography.  He said they were already rewinding and would start the film again in mere seconds.

The lights went down, the music came up, and onscreen appeared gorgeous tableaux of New York City, one shot after another composed like paintings.

After several of them, I turned around to the guy behind me and, with barely suppressed glee, said, “Now that’s Gordon Willis.”


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

LukeHandCool May 21, 2014 at 9:02 am

Now that’s Joel Engel.


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