Vittorio Storaro, the world's most important living cinematographer, has worked on some of the most visually influential films of the 20th century. The Conformist, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, Apocalypse Now, One From the Heart, The Last Emperor — all are imbued with Storaro's impeccable gift for rendering ugliness gorgeous and beauty tangible. His dexterous use of color as an emotional instigator, along with his understanding of composition and camera movement, remains unsurpassed, even as the rapid ascension of digital technology has made visual manipulation easier than ever.
And that leads us to a perplexing question: Why doesn't Storaro work on great movies anymore?
Since 2000, Storaro's body of work includes Picking Up the Pieces, the so-bad-it-makes-Lynch's-Dune-look-brilliant remake of Dune, and two (two!) atrocious Exorcist prequels. He's only made two movies in the last six years: the Iranian epic Muhammad and Woody Allen's Cafe Society.
Cafe Society is the first movie Storaro, who is 76, has shot digitally, and it's a little hard to believe he's a digital neophyte. (He first experimented with Sony's early HD camera technology in 1983, and Francis Ford Coppola tried to convince him to shoot One From the Heart digitally, but Storaro rebuked him.) The film is a decadent evocation of classic 1930s Hollywood, as well as the ashen confines of Jewish life in New York. The septuagenarian cinematographer suffuses each frame with the kind of effervescence that makes you think you're watching a profound movie. Without those lush streams of light pouring through windows, washing over mahogany desks like waves of nostalgia, Cafe Society would be another late-late-period Woody Allen, all angsty pseudo-intellectuals spouting pontifications and fawning over whip-smart young women. Instead it's a late-late-period Woody Allen that looks really great.
Storaro's innovative use of colors helped define two of the 20th century's most influential auteurs. In The Bird With the Crystal Plummage (1970), Storaro helped Dario Argento take the idea of giallo, the Italian proto-slasher mystery genre, and turn it into a smorgasbord of Technicolor horrors. That same year, in Bernardo Bertolucci's sumptuous, anti-fascist The Conformist, Storaro immersed viewers in a world of ireful, neon-drenched reds, arsenic greens, and morally corrupt purples. For Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, a movie that really earns the overused word "epic," Storaro steeped the world in golden hues and fervid reds (that the same shade of red can be used to elicit so many emotional responses in different contexts is a testament to Storaro's gifts).
In Last Tango in Paris, it was the absence of vibrant colors in the mundane Parisian apartment-turned-house of pleasures that was so striking. The only colors, and emotions, in the apartment are articles of clothing the characters bring with them — ties, sweaters, dresses, boots — like cloying memories. Even Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, the most comic book-y comic book movie ever, pops (or, more appropriately, POPS!) off the screen. Storaro, who keeps the camera still for most of the movie, seems to yank colors right out of the rainbow and saturates each frame with them. Madonna's sizzling red lipstick has more pizzazz than anything Hollywood has given us this year.
It's hard to exaggerate Storaro's importance to every film he's worked on. With his crowning achievement, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, Storaro helped Coppola erect a nightmare hellscape. The film's infamously troubled production presented its director and photographer with comically complex problems, so its very existence remains astonishing. Not mitigating the situation, Marlon Brando notoriously showed up on set fat and aloof. For most of the film, Brando's Colonel Kurtz is a specter who exists as whispers in the minds of men. His corporeal introduction, a gleaming, sallow head beaming against the abyss of his jungle sanctuary, establishes one of American cinema's most haunting presences. Wrapped in inky shadows, he looks more like something imagined in an unsound mind than someone possessing an unsound mind.
So why is the man responsible for so much sublimity not making more movies? And why is he wasting his time on Cafe Society? Lest we sound unfair to Storaro, Muhammad was a massive undertaking, and filming was done mostly in secret, to prevent riots regarding the film's religious themes. But filming ended in 2013, and Cafe Society didn't start until summer 2015 and lasted for a month (Bruce Willis left the project and had to be replaced by Steve Carrell, which necessitated reshoots because Steve Carrell does not look like Bruce Willis). Storaro has yet to announce any new films.
Storaro, who is a walking, talking encyclopedia of film technology, seems to be spending his twilight years advocating and educating more than actually shooting movies. And that's fine. When not working on Exorcist prequels, he's dedicated most of the last 20 years to trying to change the way we shoot movies. Essentially, he spends a lot of time advocating for a universal film format that would frame films in a 2:1 aspect ratio and shoot at 25 frames per second. So far, the system, which he started in 1998, has yet to take off. He's also worked on a project called Writing With Light, which expounds on how cinematographers use light and color. With a filmography replete with masterworks and milestones, Storaro is working on changing the legacy of film instead of his own legacy.
What's so puzzling is not that Storaro is trying to change the way movies are made. It's that when he does make movies, they're mediocre at best, and often much, much worse. He deserves better. And we'd all be better for it.