Queens-born cinematographer Gordon Willis died this weekend at the age of 82. When a celebrated filmmaker passes, all manner of cinephiles queue up to pay their respects. While there is typically a consensus about that individual’s most significant contributions to film – in this case, the Godfather trilogy will undoubtedly be the centerpiece of most retrospectives – a truly great back catalog implies that there is something for everyone.
Personally, I like to think of Willis as the quintessential New York shooter thanks to films like “Klute” and Hal Ashby’s criminally underappreciated “The Landlord.” But foremost in my mind are a sequence of scenes in “Annie Hall” that serve as the film’s getting-to-know-you moments – a crucial sequence in all romantic comedies. Woody Allen fans are familiar with the hilarious balcony scene in which the subtext of Annie and Alvy’s pseudo-intellectual conversation is revealed via subtitles. But prior to that brilliant but overt gag, the distance between the two potential lovers is revealed far more subtly through Willis’ camera work.
It begins in the lobby of the sports club where Diane Keaton’s Annie offers Allen’s Alvy Singer a ride home after a doubles tennis match – their first encounter. The two flirt awkwardly at each other over what seems like a vast distance, never in close-up, never in the same shot until they are caught uncomfortably in the doorframe together while trying to exit the building. Soon after, Alvy pursues Annie around her apartment in another awkward dance, the use of close-ups conspicuously absent presumably to indicate a lack of intimacy. These scenes are certainly not as grandiose or universally memorable as any of the more iconic shots from “The Godfather" or "Manhattan," but they are just as effective and therefore equally valuable as examples of the diverse work of a brilliant filmmaker who will be missed.