Recently RogerEbert.com editor and New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote an impassioned call-to-arms for film critics to consider the formal elements of what they were evaluating. “I see a lot of writing that describes what a piece of art is about, not so much how it is about.” Consequently film criticism skates on surfaces, using adjectives regarding the artifice without digging in and asking why the artisans behind these ingenious visual and aural behemoths have made their decisions. The negation has increasingly fed into a film culture consumed by celebrity and easy to take political stands, while the idiosyncrasies of creativity, subject to myriad tools of machinery, are largely ignored.
Considering the author’s formal design: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Seitz is a film lover fascinated by the sensual touch of authors, and he understands the pressing need to anatomically dissect a film’s connective tissue and sinews. Look at his visual essays on Michael Mann and Terrence Malick—two of the most accomplished formalists in feature narrative filmmaking—or his book The Wes Anderson Collection. Anderson’s newest project—and arguably 2014’s best film—The Grand Budapest Hotel, is as interested in its own storytelling medium as Cervantes was with Don Quixote, with fictions constructed within fictions through an artificial pre-war Europe of false capitals, liveries, and armies, Anderson and cinematographer Robert Yeoman’s camera aspect ratio alternating through different historical periods, beginning and ending with a contemplation on the beguiling sepulcher of the “Author” and the mystery of what the creator wants to communicate to us.
Regarding actors, director Francis Ford Coppola said of cinematographer Gordon Willis, “[He] sure is mean to them and he sure is intolerant of them and in some ways he’s in competition with them. Like many great artists, he is the actor.” Collaborating on the three Godfather films, Coppola and Willis were giants with an agonistic relationship that was essential for greatness (one of their arguments on the first film apparently culminated with the director storming off the set and kicking down a door), Coppola a precocious theater prodigy before going to UCLA Film School, and so with a different sensibility to performance when compared to Willis’ photographic approach. In the 1950s and ’60s, motion pictures looked stagier, more evenly lit and heaped with purposeless shadows, the camera following and subject to the actors. The precision of Willis’ austere design for The Godfather in 1972—eschewing long lenses, saturating interiors in blankets of darkness, and having minimal camera movement where one eye-level set-up was constructed to flow into the next like a series of breathing chiaroscuro paintings—not only rendered Mario Puzo’s Mafia opera as magnificently lyrical through a blend of urban realism and lush storybook expressionism, but also stands as the definitive popular marker for the murky and entangled spirit of American movies through the period’s disillusionment in wake of Vietnam and Watergate, a spirit that inspired the title of film historian and critic Robert Kolker’s landmark study A Cinema of Loneliness. Willis is as much of an author of The Godfather as Coppola or Puzo, and his camera, as indicated by Coppola’s quote, as much an active (and laconic) player within the scenes as Pacino or Brando. His work earned him the title as Hollywood’s “Prince of Darkness.”
“The Godfather Part II”
Alongside The Godfather and the even more brilliantly executed 1974 sequel, Willis’ darkness draped over a trilogy of tense Alan J. Pakula paranoia thrillers: Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974), and perhaps most famously All the President’s Men (1976), in which the anxieties of Watergate leapt over any subtext and confronted the subject of a nation’s unraveling certainty directly. Showcasing some of the decade’s most exemplary performances—Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland in Klute, Warren Beatty in The Parallax View, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, and Jason Robards in All the President’s Men—Willis’ landmark work with Pakula is noteworthy by how he lucidly communicates so much information in densely plotted nail-biters whose success is contingent on pacing: after being subject to how these films succeed as thrillers—with long stretches without a gunshot fired (in the case of All the President’s Men, no gunshots or violence at all)–it’s rewarding to study the strenuous tension Willis documents within the frame, and how one shot is timed to move to the next and then the next in a far-reaching macro architecture of the films’ formal backbone. The films are mazes of information, something boldly embodied in All the President’s Men incredible dome shot in the Library of Congress, Willis’ camera slowly pulling back to show Woodward and Bernstein’s aims dwarfed by the growing arena of official documentation. Set in virtual Panopticons where the heroes try to get knowledge while hopelessly under silently malevolent surveillance, Willis frustrates our own relation to the truth with obfuscating forms of black merging with the frightened silhouettes of his tragically entangled characters.