This holiday season has seen the saddest days in film history since July 30, 2007 when both Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, two of the most influential directors of European cinema, died. And now we have lost two of Hollywood’s finest cinematographers: Haskell Wexler on December 27th and Vilmos Zsigmond on January 1st. Both changed not only the way movies looked, but how we looked at them.
I was very lucky to have met both men. In 1986, Wexler brought his film “Latino” to the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge MA. I was employed at the theater as staff supervisor, and enjoyed talking with him in the theatre lobby before the 8pm screening on opening night. Boston Herald film critic Nat Segaloff attended the screening, and wrote a mixed, if largely favorable, review of the film. He was roundly embarrassed the morning after the screening when, while riding to the airport with the director, he discovered that his editor had done a hack job on his review, removing many passages referring to the film’s political relevance, and shifting the general tone of the review to one that was entirely negative.
Sometime later, one of my best friends, who worked as a projectionist, mentioned to me that Wexler was his uncle. As he had ambitions himself to work in the film industry, I asked him why he had never broached the subject with his uncle. He answered that he would have felt not only forward but a little stupid to come up to who we both agreed was one of the greatest cinematographers of the time, and say “Hey, I want to be a cinematographer too. Can you give me a leg up?” I don’t know if he ever got to speak with his uncle, but I hope he did. Being two of the nicest guys I had ever met, I am sure they would have got along famously.
In addition to directing “Latino,” Wexler also made one of the best films of the sixties, “Medium Cool.” It is the story of a disillusioned television cameraman who inadvertently becomes an eyewitness to the Chicago riots of 1968 in Lincoln Park. The riots were not planned as part of the film, but ended up dominating it, and the footage remains a shocking reminder of one of America’s most shameful episodes of police violence against innocent citizens. His films as cinematographer include “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and John Sayles’ Limbo” and “Matewan.” Wexler has also directed and shot several documentaries and short films.
Sometime in the mid-seventies, I don’t remember the year, Vilmos Zsigmond participated in a cinematographer’s symposium somewhere in the Seattle Center, I don’t remember where. He had brought the first reel of his 1973 film, Scarecrow, only to discover that nobody, anywhere, had an anamorphic lens necessary to the proper screening of the reel. So here he was, one of the country’s finest cinematographers come to Seattle to discuss his art, and he accepted the misery of having to show his work in a grossly distorted image. Such was the good nature of this remarkable man.
More than any other cinematographer, Zsigmond was responsible for the distinctive look of American film in the mid-seventies. He loved shooting in the Northwest because its overcast skies diffused and softened the color palette. In California, hot primary colors dominated. Still, the magic of his lighting caught the special quality of a shadowed Los Angeles in “The Long Goodbye.”. A western like “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” could never have been made in the deserts of the Southwest. In “Cinderella Liberty,” he immortalized the old Seattle, the lost Seattle of First Avenue’s pawnshops and sailors and whores and beer dives.
This Hungarian immigrant learned his craft on crappy movies like “The Sadist,” “Psycho a Go Go,” and “Horror of the Blood Monsters.” For eight years, he gussied up the look of the drive-in movie, until teaming with director Robert Altman on “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” in 1971. I saw that movie over a dozen times, drawn by the cinematography and the songs of Leonard Cohen, although I couldn’t stand either the script or the performances by leads Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, and would invariably fall asleep in the cinema before the film ended. I wasn’t crazy about their next collaboration, “Images,” either, but I fell in love with “The Long Goodbye.” Watching that film, I began to wonder if the cinematographer, rather than the director, should be credited as a film’s auteur. Zsigmond continued to do inspired work on several movies throughout the century, and toward the end of his career lensed three pictures for Woody Allen.
I will always treasure the beauty Haskell Wexler and Vilmos Zsigmond brought into the world through the movies they worked on. Now that they are gone, the light of cinema has grown dimmer.