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Famed Cinematographer Visits the Brattle

By Josiah P. Child, Contributing Writer

As a 50th birthday present to itself, the Brattle Film Foundation plans to host a series of special events this year, drawing on a long guest list—including last week’s visit from cinematographer Gordon Willis, whose filmography includes such cornerstones of American cinema as the Godfather Trilogy, Annie Hall, Manhattan and All the President’s Men.

Willis discussed his life’s work, focusing on Klute, the 1971 private eye film starring Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and Roy Scheider. A screening of Klute—which Willis himself chose to be played—preceded an interview interspersed with clips from his other films and moderated by David Thorburn, a professor of film and literature at MIT.

Introducing the film, Willis said that “the visual structure of this film was not the general genre of Hollywood…not in the Doris Day structure of films.”

Willis’ cinematography “made everybody very nervous” at the time, he said, though the passing decades have obscured his innovations.

Willis said that the “ambience” of a film served as the crux of his decision-making. Also, he said his key technique was “relativity,” which means shooting scenes “light to dark, big to small” to provide an eye-pleasing variation within single shots and across an entire film.

Asked why the visual ambience of his films tended to be so dark, Willis jokingly replied that “we didn’t have enough money for the lighting.”

When Willis said that the experience of filming “Godfather I was a shit-bath,” Thorburn countered quickly, “I’ve never had one of those.”

Francis Ford Coppola, the film’s director, was almost fired several times by the producing studio, and ran into many other complications, partly because he was not quite sure at times what he wanted done. “There’s this kind of little boy in Francis,” Willis commented critically, adding with more sympathy that “they [the studio] kept trying to shoot Francis in both knee-caps.”

Of the Godfather films, Willis said, “I didn’t want to shoot the first one, I didn’t want to shoot the second one.” But Coppola cajoled him into it.

Willis often spoke critically of the directors he had worked with, though Thorburn mentioned Willis’ dictum that “why you do something in a movie is more important than how you do it,” a humble remark for a cinematographer, who typically concentrates on how to shoot something and leaves the “why” to the director.

The Brattle’s building began its life in 1890 as a lecture hall and theater, but in 1953 became a private cinema for classics and overlooked films. Although a full calendar of guests has not yet been confirmed for the year, Ned Hinkle, one of the Brattle’s co-directors, said that his organization had been “approaching a lot of different celebrities to make appearances.”

In addition, he said the Brattle will inaugurate two new “pseudo-annual” awards: the Bogie Award, named after Humphrey Bogart, to be given to an actor who has made “a distinctive contribution to screen history,” and the Orson Award, named after Orson Welles, to be given to “someone behind the scenes.”

Guest appearances will usually take the form of “‘an evening with’ and a screening of one of their films,” said Hinkle.

The next event in the Brattle’s birthday celebration will be the presentation on May 6 of a Lifetime Achievement Award to Albert Maysles, one of the most influential documentary filmmakers of the 1960s.

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