is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. You can reach him through one of the services below.+
In order to recover a bit from a recent feeling of exhaustion, I spent a significant amount of this past weekend diligently sitting on my ass, in front of the television. On Saturday night, I popped in my copy of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” which, among other things, is as stunningly designed a movie as I’ve ever seen. This is largely thanks to the work of Gordon Willis, a master cinematographer who, apart from his incredible work on this film, was also responsible for photographing an alarmingly high share of my favorite movies of all time: “The Godfather,” “The Godfather Part II,” “All the President’s Men,” and “The Parallax View,” among others.
If you’ve watched these films, then you know what I mean: they strike an uncanny balance between the naturalism that dominated film discourse during the 1970s and a kind of visual abstraction, an artful sense of framing that treated actors and scenery alike as stark compositional images. On the other hand, if you haven’t seen these films, take a look at these captures to see what I mean…
Scenes from the City
The most enduring shot from “Manhattan,” probably, is this early morning scene with Woody Allen and Diane Keaton looking onto the Queensboro Bridge. This image alone is probably responsible for more tourism and new residents than any number of advertising dollars the city ever spent promoting itself.
It’s one of my all-time favorite images of New York, to be sure, but I also find something beautiful about Willis’ more modest, almost refractive glimpses of life on the island. This one, also taken near the water’s edge, uses trees and street signs to cut up the composition (in a fashion that is, yes, almost grid-like), creating an unexpectedly effective sense of privacy for Allen and Michael Murphy’s characters, at the far right, to discreetly discuss Murphy’s former mistress.
Willis uses a similar kind of visual partitioning in this scene in Allen’s apartment, with Mariel Hemingway perched on a couch at far left, and Allen descending the spiral staircase at far right. Physically, it’s the same room, but for all intents and purposes, the characters occupy two separate spaces — almost two separate scenes — at least until Allen crosses over that immense black hole in the middle of the frame to join Hemingway on the couch.
Willis’ fondness for challengingly lit compositions earned him the nickname “The Prince of Darkness,” and it’s completely evident that few others will ever master black and white with quite the same skill. Perhaps what makes his work so singularly stunning was that it never seemed too enraptured with its own beauty; his work in “Manhattan” is sometimes brazenly abstract, but when abstraction and naturalism collided, he managed to find an unexpected, almost impossibly judicious balance between the two.
In this scene shot in the Hayden Planetarium, Allen and Diane Keaton are shown in glorious silhouette. Their profiles are graphically striking, and a lesser cinematographer would have jealously preserved those silhouettes in the frame and allowed nothing to interfere with them. Instead, Willis allows the natural pattern of the planet in the background to cut right through both figures’ shapes quite unceremoniously. The black diagonal utterly destroys the silhouettes but Willis is so confident in the inherent beauty of his work that he allows it to happen without interference; the whole frame is his canvas, not just the profiles of the actors.
Finally, here’s my favorite shot from the whole film: a plain, almost random view of Allen in his apartment, fiddling aimlessly as he begins to work at the typewriter. For my money, this image is almost perfect; Allen’s human frailties are shown in exact proportion to their real significance: just an eighth of the frame. Fully half of the frame is dedicated to a simple wall — again, an abstraction that᾿s as bold and flat and rich as anything Richard Diebenkorn ever painted. There’s also wonderful depth to the picture; it extends all the way from the front room, where the camera sits, to the back of the apartment, with hints of the building behind just barely visible through the curtains. Modest and absolutely gorgeous at once.