Woody Allen’s films have a certain look. Have you noticed? They are beautiful to look at. I feel at ease watching them. It’s like entering a familiar world. I can not speak for others, but the cinematography in Allen’s movies has always been one of the things I personally love the most about them, to the point where I think you can not talk about his films without talking about the way they are filmed, just as you can’t talk about them without talking about the writing. So I wasn’t surprised, but I was certainly glad, that the element of cinematography is brought up so often in the book Woody Allen: A Retrospective, by Tom Shone. That’s the one aspect of the book I would like to talk about. Because “cinematography is the medium,” as the writer-director himself insists.
Until Allen came along, comedies did not look like this. “Mostly the good-looking stuff is stuff without laughs in it,” he remarked. The look of comedy, its status as cinematographic artifact, was not something anybody paid attention to or considered important. “I don’t see any reason why movie comedies can’t also look pretty,” said Allen, who hired Belgian cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet, who had worked with Jacques Demy and Robert Bresson, to shoot Love and Death (1975). He then went on to employ The Godfather‘s cinematographer Gordon Willis to shoot Annie Hall (1977), and continued to work with him on seven more movies, including Manhattan, “one of the best-photographed movies ever made,” as Roger Ebert described it, along with the thematically and visually chilly Interiors (1978), probably Allen’s most Bergmanesque film, and Zelig (1983), one of Woody’s most visually complex movies.
Woody Allen: A Retrospective, by Tom Shone
Manhattan (1979), with the city appearing almost as another character, was all shot in black and white because that’s how Woody Allen remembered the city from old movies. I admit that I am guilty of having sometimes fallen into the trap of holding his vision of New York against Woody Allen; a New York that is recognisable to everyone but which does not exist in reality. But you know what? Woody Allen has never tried to pretend otherwise. The New York in his movies is the New York he had seen in the movies in his childhood, that is to say a New York that has more to do with cinema’s escapist nature than with reality. And you know something else? We need that kind of cinema, too, maybe most of all.
“I not only was totally in love with Manhattan
from the earliest memory. I loved every single movie
that was set in New York, every movie that began high above
the New York skyline and moved in.”
Manhattan “brought to maturity the simple, elliptical style they had worked on-the-fly for Annie Hall,” is noted in the book – long scenes playing without a cut, without even a close-up or a reverse angle to break up the flow, with actors repeatedly wandering out of frame entirely, still speaking, only to return at a later point in the conversation.
“Annie Hall”, 1977
“Midnight in Paris”, 2011
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) marked the beginning of Woody Allen’s collaboration with Michelangelo Antonioni’s cinematographer Carlo Di Palma (Blow-Up, Il deserto rosso), who had had an auspicious beginning in cinema with Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943). They would work together on eight more films. Di Palma’s ravishing autumn colours of Manhattan (the narrative goes throughout the course of two years and three Thanksgivings) are a highlight of the film and the movie itself is another one of Woody Allen’s love letters to the city of his heart. It was in fact argued that it was Di Palma who brought a cosmopolitan, Europeanised look to Allen’s New York, and one of the arguments in this regard was the travelling shot he devised for the restaurant quarrel scene in Hannah and Her Sisters.
Another Woman (1988) was the first time shooting with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who had developed an intimate, close-up-driven style of shooting with Ingmar Bergman which he called “two faces and a tea cup”. Another Woman is a very Bergman-like movie, both in tone and look, even though Allen was less enamored with close-ups than Bergman and preferred a darker palette that took some getting used to. Allen and Nykvist would do two more films together, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Celebrity (1998).
For Midnight in Paris (2011), Allen had discussions with cinematographer Darius Khondji, who would film three more of Woody’s films, about shooting the 1920s sequences in black and white, but they eventually decided to go with colour. “Matisse said that he wanted his paintings to be a nice easy chair that you sit down in, and enjoy. I feel the same way: I want you to sit back, relax, and enjoy the warm colour, like take a bath in a warm colour.”
“Annie Hall”, 1979
“Manhattan Murder Mystery”, 1993
photos taken by me from the book Woody Allen: A Retrospective, by Tom Shone