Pretty as a Midsummer Night’s…

18 Jul

Well, it doesn’t look like Michael and I will be going to Arkansas for a mini-vacation this year: we’ve gone there three of the past four summers, opting instead for a trek to Oklahoma in 2010.  Arkansas, of course, is beautiful, it’s not terribly expensive, and it’s just a great way to get out of the harsh concrete-ness that is Dallas and to soak up Mother Nature.  I think all of us at one time or another need to get out of the city and get out of our heads. Arkansas gives us the opportunity to do both, and it’s not so very far from home, so we can drive; flying is such a hassle. I really wanted to see the new Crystal Bridges museum in Arkansas (even with the Walmart connection), but the timing isn’t right. I’m lucky because I live in a nice walking neighborhood near a golf course, and it is quite lovely, so I still get a chance to do some outdoorsy stuff. I love my daily walks. I have walked as much as 10 miles in one afternoon.

Of course, this is Texas in the summer, so the heat can be an issue (though not so much this summer), which is why a good movie is another great vehicle for escape–and one doesn’t even necessarily have to go outside the home and fight traffic, the crowds at the theatres, etc.–not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. I love watching a movie on a big screen with lots of eager, like-minded folks, emphasis on the word like-minded: for me that means being respectful of others, who’ve dropped more than a few bucks to be there,  and turning off the gd phone, but I digress.

The influence of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night can clearly be felt in Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. The same source material also inspired Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, which introduced the world to the evergreen “Send in the Clowns.” A 1977 film version, starring a wildly miscast Elizabeth Taylor, flopped with audiences though it actually won an Oscar for its score (adaptation) and earned another nod for costuming.  Taylor aside, the movie, which also stars Len Cariou, Diana Rigg, and Lesley-Anne Down, is not without its charms. I saw it in its brief run at the old Park Forest theater way back when.

Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982) is like an old fashioned weekend getaway to the country. I say old-fashioned because it’s set in the early part of the 20th century. The first few scenes take place in New York City as a distinguished Columbia University professor, played by José Ferrer, prepares to embark on a trip to his cousin’s summer retreat (filmed in Poncantico Hills, New York, near Sleepy Hollow). The purpose of the trip is that the longtime bachelor professor has finally met the–much younger–woman of his dreams, and a wedding in the country offers a lovely respite from the harshness of the city and all the rigors of academic life. Of course, the set-up is barely–just barely–more than perfunctory because what Allen has in mind is a pastoral variation of a classic bedroom farce, a metaphysical lovers’ roundelay in which the hosts (Woody Allen and Mary Steenburgen) and the guests (including Tony Roberts and Mia Farrow) engage in all kinds of hanky-panky with lovers lost, found, and lost again in a spectacular woodsy setting. Anyone who knows of Allen’s fascination with legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman can surely spot the similarities–intentional or otherwise–between Allen’s film and Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (itself the officially acknowledged source material for Stephen Sondheim’s much vaunted stage musical A Little Night Music); additionally, as Allen’s title suggests, the influence of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also surely evident. Indeed, not only does normally slick and cynical urbanite Allen go so far as to introduce an element of magic in his story, he fills the movie with the sounds of composer Felix Mendelssohn, whose music was also famously featured in Max Reinhardt’s celebrated 1935 film adaption of Shakespeare’s play.

That’s Diane Keaton (l) and Woody Allen (r) in silhouette in Manhattan. Their characters have just spent most of the night getting acquainted, and now dawn is slowly creeping up on them. I can only imagine how many hours it takes to make a shot this painterly happen.

A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy is not vintage Allen. Not really. Oh sure, I like it, especially when I’ve had to cancel my vacation. No, the real focus of this article is not so much what Allen does in this film but to celebrate the work of Gordon Willis, Allen’s amazing cinematographer. Willis, to put it mildly, was one of the most under-appreciated cinematographers in the biz back in the day. Well, he’s still alive but definitely retired–and he was recently honored with a lifetime achievement award–but for the longest time, he seemed to command respect from top tier directors and critics though not so much from his peers in the Academy. For example, Willis was the dp (director of photography) on both Godfather movies in 1970s, and even though both films scored multiple nominations and both won Best Picture, Willis wasn’t even nominated. Really? How did that happen? It’s rare when a Best Picture front-runner (both with 11 nominations) somehow gets completely overlooked in the cinematography category. Just two years after Godfather II, Willis was once again snubbed for a heavy-duty Best Picture contender, All the President’s Men.

It has been reported that Willis often favored shooting during what is known as “The Magic Hour, ” which is “when the sun is low and creates a golden glow.”

Film aficionados know that Allen has long kept his distance from the Academy–a post 9/11 appearance aside; this, in spite of being a 4 time winner himself. As I recall, one of Allen’s biggest gripes against the Academy was that it never made sense to him that it took so long for the Oscars to recognize Willis’s brilliance.   On the other hand, though I do not have the actual quote right in front of me–I probably read it in an Oscar book or American Cinematographer, to which I once subscribed–I believe one of Willis’s detractors once complained that it was often hard to clearly see the eyes of the actors in a film shot by him. Well, I guess that could be a legitimate criticism, but I also think context needs to be considered as well.  Yes, Marlon Brando was often photographed in shadows in The Godfather, but wasn’t that part of his mystique in the role? Likewise, wouldn’t the web of confusion, deceit, and paranoia during the investigation of the unfolding Watergate story in All the President’s Men be better visualized through the use of dramatic shadows?

Besides, Willis was never as shadowy as all that. Just look at the stark imagery in Allen’s Interiors–or even the same film’s mournful nighttime shots by the beach (most likely a day-for-night effect achieved with filters) during the last reel. Magnificent! The audience gets everything it needs. Then, of course, there’s Manhattan, the first of several black and white Allen movies.  You know, the 1970s were not necessarily a great chapter in the life of this grandest of all American cities, but somehow Allen and Willis managed to make it look as breathtaking as it ever did in any old Hollywood film–the main difference being that many of those old films were actually shot on Hollywood soundstages and backlots whereas Allen and Willis serve the real deal in all its splendour.

Actually, Allen’s choice to film a period comedy in the midsummer’s warmth of the countryside was quite a surprise back in the day. Though Allen has filmed his recent movies in such European locales as England (Match Point), Spain (Vicky Christina Barcelona), France (Midnight in Paris), and Italy (To Rome with Love), Allen was famous in the 70s and 80s for wanting to film as close to New York City as possible, and that’s exactly what he did in Annie Hall, Interiors, and Manhattan. He ventured away just a bit with Stardust Memories, but there was something else at work in those movies: Interiors was cold, too cool and calculated for its own good (which was really the point) and the black and white imagery in Manhattan, as rich as it was, somehow turned too studied in the b&w follow-up, Stardust Memories; therefore, it was startlingto see Allen venture out into the great outdoors with A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and embrace Mother Nature in such a delightful manner.

Director Woody Allen and cinematographer Gordon Willis move in a little closer on Mia Farrow (l) and José Ferrer (r).

Willis’s expertise makes almost every image in this particular film a joy to behold. An early morning montage just pops with one luscious image after another, mostly babbling brooks and animals frolicking in the woods, but lots of texture, lots and lots of beautifully rendered green tones along with sun dappled lighting effects.   One particular shot that never fails to amaze is a close-up of a ladybug crawling atop a lily. The clarity of it blows my mind. It’s certainly as beautiful as anything in, say, Terrence Malick’s award winning Days of Heaven (shot by Néstor Almendros), which was only 4 years old at the time of this movie’s release. There’s also an amazing marriage of image to music as a deer bounces along, perfectly in-sync to the strains of Mendelssohn’s score. There was either a lot of planning involved, or someone just got lucky with this snippet. Another tricky bit of business is aerial footage shot from Allen’s point-of-view as his character takes to the sky in his latest invention, a flying machine. Even though this movie is about magic, these shots don’t happen through sheer enchantment. Another swell sequence occurs as the characters dine al fresco during the early evening hours. The sun all but set, the sky turns a dark bluish gray, and the actors’ faces are awash with the warmest, most flattering light, seemingly possible with only the available glow of the table lanterns. When I saw this in theaters–yep, 30 years ago as of this very summer–I marvelled at how gorgeous everything was in this particular scene. I don’t think any of these performers has ever looked lovelier before or since. Of course, it seems unlikely that there wasn’t some kind of artificial lighting and/or filters involved, some cinematic sleight of hand, but, again, that’s the allure of movies–and this portion of the movie maintains much of its beauty on a DVD seen on a much smaller screen.

Though under-appreciated by the Academy while he was actively employed as one of the most sought after cinematographers in the business, Gordon Willis (above) was finally awarded an honorary Oscar in 2009. Between working with Allen on such films as Manhattan (1979) and Stardust Memories (1980), Willis briefly tried his hand at directing with 1980’s Windows starring Talia Shire and Elizabeth Ashley–as Shire’s lesbian stalker. The film is referred to in the documentary The Celluloid Closet as part the late 1970s/early 1980s trend, along with Cruising and The Fan, of depicting gays and lesbians as villains. Willis tired of directing because he reportedly wasn’t fond of dealing with actors.

Of course, many skeptics and movie biz insiders, also known as skeptical movie biz insiders, insist that it’s always easier to predict which movie will win the Best Cinematography Oscar each year by just focusing on “what” is being filmed rather than the actual quality of the film. In other words, movies with breathtaking natural vistas are almost always a safe bet. It’s hard to argue with that line of thought too much when looking back at the likes of such past winners as, again, Days of Heaven (1978), The Mission (Chris Menges, 1986), Dances with Wolves (Dean Semler, 1990), A River Runs through It (Philipe Rousselot, 1992),  and Legends of the Fall (John Toll, 1994). It’s true that it’s hard for many of us city dwellers to not get choked up at images of wide open spaces of amber waves of grain and purple mountains’ majesty. Guilty.  On the other hand, as easy as it is to dismiss such imagery as mere calendar art–of which I have also been guilty–it pays to remember that the logistics of shooting a film outdoors provide more obstacles than shooting on a studio soundstage or other locations that offer more control [1]. For example, in a piece on the Turner Classic Movies website, Allen describes just how much thought, detail, and time went into getting each and every shot in this movie exactly right. In fact, the shoot ran so long that it not only caused Allen to work on it and his follow-up, Zelig, at the same time, he ended up having to paint the leaves on the trees green when summer started turning into fall. Allen does not mention his second unit crew in the article, but I’m sure they also spent a lot of time in the trenches filming actorless nature footage, so I’ll mention them here: Frederic B. Blankfein, Tony Gittleson, Thomas A. Reilly, and Duncan Scott.

Besides his work for Allen and Coppola, Willis’s other high profile films include 1981’s Pennies from Heaven, featuring Vernel Bagneris (above), director Herbert Ross’s stylized Depression era musical starring Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Walken, and Jessica Harper. Willis is also famous for his frequent collaborations with director Alan J. Pakula: Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974), All the President’s Men (1976), Comes a Horseman (1978), Presumed Innocent (1990), and The Devil’s Own (1997)

In this particular instance, Allen’s film, again, wasn’t even nominated for the Best Cinematography Oscar. Well, the movie was far from a box office success, as Allen notes in the TCM piece. Plus, at that time, the Academy just wasn’t as enthralled with Willis as they were–or had been–with Allen though this is the movie that should have made a difference. No problem with actors not being well lit here.  Of course, any discussion of who won/didn’t win, was/was not nominated must also take into consideration the other films in contention that year. Not surprisingly, Gandhi was the winner of the Best Cinematography Oscar–and why not?  The movie was an elaborate location shoot with complex action sequences and all kinds of crowd scenes.  It even took the award winning efforts of two cinematographers to make it happen: Billy Williams and Ronnie Taylor. It also helped that Gandhi was also the Best Picture frontrunner, thereby adding support to the my previous point about Willis and the Godfather movies. The competition also included the aforementioned Néstor Almendros for Sophie’s Choice, which featured two completely different lighting schemes: warm and inviting for the Brooklyn scenes; cold and gritty for the concentration camp flashbacks. Another candidate was the great Owen Roizman, who was burdened with the task of lighting Dustin Hoffman in drag for Tootsie, making the actor look as soft and femme as possible, while also lighting the seemingly effortlessly beautiful Jessica Lange. Of course, the trick was to make both performers look great in medium shots and to make them look like they actually existed in the same realm, at the same time, when shooting their close-ups. Point taken. Compared to these obvious feats, Willis’s work looks like less of an achievement, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily so.

The critics were not especially kind to this movie when it was first released, one of the biggest gripes being that the female characters seem all too willing to be sexual playthings for the menfolk. Hmmm, that’s not exactly what I get out of it. What I get out of it is that the women are in many ways less hung-up about sexuality than are the men, which the men, for all their talk, somehow can’t quite grasp. All of this makes sense to me given the time in which the movie is set: yes, women are starting to think–and do–for themselves, and part of that means that they realize that they are in control of their bodies, their sexuality, and men cannot be the only ones calling the shots when it comes to sex–and that women are just as capable of experiencing pleasure as men are.  Allen punctuates the point by showing that the women confide in each other, and if that weren’t enough, he even adds a quick shot of  the women stealing away for a smoke.  The women aren’t necessarily pushovers, but they are learning to assert their identities.  What’s so bad about that?

How are the performances? Well, Allen isn’t doing anything in this film as an actor that he has not done already, nor is Tony Roberts.  On the other hand, the performances by the rest of the bunch,  including wide-eyed Julie Haggerty,  as Roberts’s latest squeeze, are a lot of fun. Mary Steenburgen is another delight, and Jose Ferrer has fun playing a pompous windbag.  This was the first film collaboration between Allen and Mia Farrow, and the latter plays her role in such a way that brings to mind the flaky charms of Diane Keaton, perhaps Allen’s ideal onscreen partner. (I believe Keaton was originally cast but had to bail due to other commitments.)  I like Farrow in this role though it reportedly holds the distinction of being the only performance in an Allen film ever nominated for a so-called Razzie award, that is, among the worst of a given year. Well, I don’t know about all that. I think it’s amusingly spot-on.  Of course, we all know that Woody and Mia didn’t live happily ever after–well, at least not with each other–but once Allen started writing scripts with Farrow in mind, the actress turned in one incredible performance after another: Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Radio Days (1987), Alice (1990), etc.

Gordon Willis earned his first Oscar nomination for 1983’s Zelig, which presented Allen’s Leonard Zelig (center) alongside such historical figures as Calvin Coolidge (l) and Herbert Hoover (r). Willis reportedly even used older, practically antiquated, equipment to get the look he wanted during the difficult shoot–and beat Forrest Gump to the punch by 11 years.

The costumes by Santo Loquasto are exquisite, surely as richly detailed as anything in either Reds or Chariots of Fire, both of which were released a year prior to A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy; Milena Canonero’s designs for the latter actually won the Oscar. Pity the poor wardrobe supervisor who had to worry about keeping the cast’s summer-whites–and off-whites–fresh and spotless during a mostly outdoor location shoot.

I guess, in keeping with the fun and lightness of this film, there is a happy ending or two.  First, Willis was nominated the very next year for his work on Allen’s Zelig–and good for Willis. Zelig is a marvel.  Later, Willis earned a second nod for Godfather III though, of course, he lost to the previously mentioned Dean Semler for the more panoramic Dances with Wolves. Obviously, Allen has recovered in more ways than one.  I think most interesting of all is how many blog pieces I’ve actually come across about A Midsummer Night ‘s Sex Comedy as I set out to write about the movie myself.  Most of the comments are about what a great looking movie it is, so that’s cool–and a welcome reminder about the powerful afterlife that movies can have these days thanks to advances in home video. Actually, on some level the movie is actually about modern technology and the invention of the movies, but I digress. At any rate, a wonderful DVD, of this or any other movie, is a neat way to beat the summer doldrums when a weekend getaway to the country–say, Arkansas–just isn’t convenient.

Thanks for your consideration…

^ Mary Steenburgen in A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. Critics of cinematographer Gordon Willis often complained that performers weren’t lit as clearly as they needed to be, especially their eyes, but this interior shot with light filtering in through an open window acts as a powerful rebuttal to such a notion. In one well choreographed vignette, the camera follows Steenburgen and Allen down stairs, through a series of small rooms, and back up the stairs all in one lovely interrupted shot. Natural light floods the rooms with some of the action photographed via a large wall mirror. It’s like a nifty cinematic parlor trick, which is aproppos given the movie’s concerns.

Some of the posts about A Midsummer’s Night Sex Comedy on the IMDb complain that the obvious “day for night” shots are not especially well-rendered. I freely admit that I’m not a fan of the concept in general–even as a child, I found it oddly distracting–but I think Willis and Allen make it work about as well as possible. Btw: that’s Allen on the left; Mia Farrow on the right.  For those out of the loop, “day for night” is simply the process of trying to replicate nighttime shots during broad daylight. The effect is usually achieved by under-exposing the film and/or the use of filters; Day for Night is also the name of Francois Truffaut’s Oscar winning film from 1973.

[1] On the other hand, the three most recent winners in this category, Hugo (Robert Richardson), Inception (Wally Pfister), and Avatar (Mauro Fiore) show appreciation for the difficulties cinematographers face with big budget effects-driven vehicles, such as shooting in 3-D,  as was the case with Hugo, thereby reducing Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeous nature-driven work on Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life to also-ran status. But I digress.

Gordon Willis at the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0932336/

Woody Allen at the IMDb:

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000095/

A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy at the IMDb:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084329/

Smiles of a Summer Night at the IMDb:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0048641/

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) at the IMDb:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0026714/

A Little Night Music at the IMDb:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0076319/

An article about A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy on the Turner Classic Movies website:

http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/247089|0/A-Midsummer-Night-s-Sex-Comedy.html

Link to the historic Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills NY, where much of A Midsummer Night ‘s Sex Comedy was filmed:

http://www.hudsonvalley.org/historic-sites/kykuit?gclid=CLjv1MzAo7ECFURfTAodW1GnJw

Rockefeller State Park Preserve:

http://nysparks.com/parks/59/details.aspx/

UPI article about Gordon Willis:

http://www.upi.com/topic/Gordon_Willis/wiki/

Glossary of film terms, including “day for night,” via Dartmouth:

http://www.dartmouth.edu/~writing/materials/student/humanities/film.shtml#glossary

One Response to “Pretty as a Midsummer Night’s…”

  1. listen2uraunt 22 May 2014 at 10:28 pm #

    Reblogged this on Confessions of a Movie Queen and commented:

    Alas, famed cinematographer Gordon Willis passed away on Sunday at the age of 82. Willis first made a name for himself in the 1970s with such credits as The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and many films with Woody Allen, including Annie Hall, Interiors, and Manhattan. That’s three Best Picture winners in the bunch; however, Willis was never a favorite with the Academy though critics–and directors–loved him. He never won a competitive Oscar and was only nominated twice, yet he was ultimately honored for his body of work by the Academy in 2009. I originally wrote this piece, mostly as a celebration of him and his work on Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy back in 2012, and now I repost it in his memory. Enjoy (I’ll be back soon!)

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