News And Commentary – Vilmos Zsigmond Est Mort

In a tough week for cinematographers, Vilmos Zsigmond, one of the legendary figures of the New Hollywood, died on January 3.  At the age of eighty-five he was still going strong, coming off a very busy 2014 and associated with a number of upcoming projects. 

Zsigmond, along with fellow countryman and fellow cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, escaped from their native Hungary in 1956, smuggling out footage of the Soviet invasion of their homeland.  Each would go on to enjoy long careers in America, most notably taking their place among a handful of the innovative cinematographers intimately associated with the New Hollywood.  (Kovacs, who died in 2007, shot about a dozen seventies films, including Shampoo and possibly his best work, The King of Marvin Gardens—he supervised a recent restoration of that classic film.)

Zsigmond, who chose his projects carefully, like Kovacs remained very active over the course of a long career: high points included shooting Melinda and Melinda (2004) for Woody Allen, The Crossing Guard (Sean Penn 1995), and The Two Jakes (Jack Nicholson 1990).  But his place in the pantheon of the great artists of the Seventies Film will mark his legacy.  He was an essential contributor on The Hired Hand (1971), Peter Fonda’s revisionist-western directorial debut, Deliverance (John Boorman 1972), and Scarecrow (1973), Jerry Schatzberg’s offbeat road picture with Gene Hackman and Al Pacino.  He also shot Steven Spielberg’s feature debut, The Sugarland Express (1974), and was one of the dream-team of cinematographers that Martin Scorsese deployed as camera operators to capture The Last Waltz (1978).  Above all, however, stand his collaborations with Robert Altman on three great films, McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Images (1972), and The Long Goodbye (1973).

On McCabe, Zsigmond was responsible for the then-controversial muted, washed-out visual style of the film that so expressively captured its mood, period and location.  He showed Altman how to achieve this effect with filters, and, most daringly, by flashing the negative (briefly exposing it to light)—with results that caused enormous consternation in the lab and, worse, the studio.  For the beautifully shot Long Goodbye (which also deployed more subtle flashing to shape the visual feel of the film), Altman and Zsigmond adopted a distinct style of unmotivated camera movements: however slightly, throughout the film the camera is always in motion—a choice designed to express a voyeuristic feeling, and also to subtly undercut the sense of an “objective” point of view on the opaque motivations of most the characters, to say nothing about the “facts of the matter.”

A very fine long-form interview with Zsigmond can be found here, also of interest is this more recent interview with Filmmaker Magazine.  For more of a personal flavor, here is a short clip of Zsigmond on the role of the cinematographer, and a small snippet from his Academy Award win (presented by Goldie Hawn and Jon Voight, who appeared in Sugarland and Deliverance). 

A great director “knows exactly what he wants, but gives you lots of leeway” Zsigmond once explained, emphasizing the joy he found in filmmaking and the pleasures of the process.  “I like good, exciting things, and I keep trying to improve on everything.”  

McC 1

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Warren Beatty with cigar on left)

 

McC 2

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Beatty with Julie Christie)

 

LG1

The Long Goodbye (Elliot Gould as Phillip Marlowe, revised)

 

LG2 

The Long Goodbye (Gould with Sterling Hayden)