The great Hungarian-born cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond died earlier this year at the age of 85, and his passing truly feels like the end of an era. Gone with him are the misty, obscure, tenderly lit and photographed images of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Deer Hunter, Blow Out and The Long Goodbye. And gone with him also are the very tools that made his work so exceptional, at a time when digital video has more or less replaced 35mm film as the principal medium for shooting and projecting movies.
In Close Encounters With Vilmos Zsigmond, French filmmaker Pierre Filmon uses an extensive interview with the director of photography, shot in 2014 on the occasion of a Paris retrospective, as the starting point to explore Zsigmond’s prolific and impressive career. Alongside the humble-sounding cameraman, who recounts various anecdotes in an accent thick enough to cut with a meat cleaver, a host of other colleagues and collaborators — including John Boorman, Peter Fonda, Jerry Schatzberg, Darius Khondji, Haskell Wexler, Bruno Delbonnel and Vittorio Storaro — speak inspiringly about how Zsigmond influenced both their own work and a major period in American filmmaking that we now call the “New Hollywood.”
Jumping from Budapest (where Zsigmond lived until fleeing after the 1956 uprising against Soviet rule) to Big Sur (where he spent his latter years in a quiet seaside residence), with a major stop at the Grand Action cinema on Paris’ Left Bank (where he engages in discussions with Khondji and Heaven’s Gate star Isabelle Huppert), this Cannes Classic premiere is a worthy companion piece to like-minded studies Visions of Light, Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff and the 2009 documentary No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos, which already dealt with the life of Zsigmond and fellow Hungarian cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs (Easy Rider).
Zsigmond is principally known for shooting some of the best films of Robert Altman, Michael Cimino, Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg (for whose Close Encounters of the Third Kind he received his only Oscar). But before working with such masters, he made his way in the business by lensing tons of forgettable B-movies — with titles that include The Nasty Rabbit, Psycho a Go-Go, Hot Rod Action and Satan’s Sadist — as he tried to earn a steady living throughout the 1960s, often taking screen credit under the Americanized name of “William.”
It was only in 1970, when actor Peter Fonda hired Zsigmond to shoot his first effort as a director (a Western called The Hired Hand) that the cameraman truly came into his own, as evidenced in a haunting magic hour sequence-shot used for the movie’s final scene. His next job would be Altman’s McCabe, whose nuanced use of color — enhanced by a camera technique known as “flashing” (exposing the negative to additional light sources either before, during or after shooting) — would become Zsigmond’s trademark, providing the perfect aesthetic to accompany the kind of ambiguous, character-driven stories that would mark the best movies of the ‘70s.
Zsigmond relates a few such tricks of the trade — how he overexposed the closing sequences of Close Encounters to give the impression there was more light than they could afford; or how the famous roller skating scene in Heaven’s Gate required his camera operator to keep adjusting the aperture whenever a cloud rolled by — although Filmon doesn’t really offer up a full technical assessment, but rather a compact biographical portrait with lots of praise from those who were lucky enough to work on one of the master’s movies.
Boorman, for whom Zsigmond shot Deliverance, talks about how fearless the cinematographer was compared to everyone else on the set of such a hazardous production, while Schatzberg remembers how his DP convinced him that the Al Pacino-Gene Hackman starrer Scarecrow should be seen as a modern fairytale, with much of the film’s memorable opening sequence improvised to take advantage of the outdoor locations and natural light.
If Zsigmond doesn’t make any comments about the onset of digital imagery, he does mention his preference for widescreen Anamorphic framing and for films that don’t rely on too many cuts to tell the story. Otherwise, Close Encounters mostly lets the man’s work — including a series of impressive black-and-white photographs taken both in Hungary and the U.S. — speak for itself, offering up a rich visual assessment of “a thinking photographer,” as Schatzberg calls him, and arguably one of the greatest to ever hold a movie camera.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Classics)
Production companies: FastProd, Lost Films, Radiant Images
Cast: Vilmos Zsigmond, John Boorman, Jerry Schatzberg, Darius Khondji, Nancy Allen, John Travolta, Peter Fonda, Mark Rydell, Vittorio Storaro, Isabelle Huppert
Director: Pierre Filmon
Directors of photography: Olivier Chambon, James Chressantis, Luca Coassin
Editor: Charlotte Renaut
Composer: Samy Osta
Sales: Tamasa Distribution
In English, French
Not rated, 80 minutes