A few days after the passing of legendary dp Haskell Wexler, the great Vilmos Zsigmond — a contemporary of Wexler’s whose career also flourished during the auteurist heyday of the 1970s — has died at age 85. Zsigmond’s sterling reputation largely rests upon groundbreaking photography he captured in films released between 1971 to ’81. During this decade he shot Robert Altman‘s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (a sombre, lantern-lit, snow-sprinkled western — probably Zsigmond’s best work), John Boorman‘s Deliverance (which used a rarely-seen desaturated color scheme), Altman’s The Long Goodbye (one of my favorite L.A. mood films), Steven Spielberg‘s The Sugarland Express, Jerry Schatzberg‘s Scarecrow, Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Michael Cimino‘s The Deer Hunter, Mark Rydell‘s The Rose, Cimino’s disastrous Heaven’s Gate and Brian De Palma‘s Blowout.
After Blowout (which I’ve never been a fan of) it was like the air just whooshed out and Zsigmond was stuck shooting…well, films that were nowhere near as good. Jinxed!, The River, The Witches of Eastwick, The Bonfire of the Vanities (the fuck?), Sliver, Intersection, Maverick (a $75 million Elvis Presley film), Assassins, The Ghost and the Darkness, Playing by Heart, Life as a House, Jersey Girl, Melinda and Melinda, The Black Dahlia, Cassandra’s Dream and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. What happened?
A dozen or so years ago I spent a couple of days at the Newport Beach Film Festival. The highlight was a cinematography panel that included Zsigmond. Toward the end I raised my hand and asked about his camerawork on The Long Goodbye, which was entirely composed of slowly arc-ing tracking shots, always gently floating from right to left (or vice versa) and never sitting still. I told him I loved this because it seemed like an apt metaphor for the fluid, always-moving impermanence of life in Los Angeles. And Zsigmond said, “What you’ve just said is an intelligent interpretation, but when Altman and I talked about it there was no rationale of that kind. All he said was, ‘Let’s keep the camera slowly moving the whole time.’ I asked why and he said, ‘I don’t know but let’s just do that.’”