PART OF AMERICAN CINEMATHEQUE TRIBUTE TO VILMOS ZSIGMOND AT THE EGYPTIAN THEATRE
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But what about movies in which people are often indoors, talking? Zsigmond could put his subtle mark on those, too, as he did with the three films he shot for Woody Allen, Melinda and Melinda (2004), Cassandra’s Dream (2007), and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010). But among Zsigmond’s finest work are the four movies he did with [Brian] De Palma, Obsession (1976), Blow Out (1981), The Black Dahlia (2006) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990). Zsigmond had the technical skill to handle the elaborate tracking shots and split-screen effects so beloved by De Palma, but just as significantly, he could effectively key into the director’s particular brand of bleak romanticism and political mistrust. He gave Obsession—in which Cliff Robertson plays a man who becomes obsessed, Vertigo-style, with a woman who resembles his dead wife (Geneviève Bujold)—a look that balanced the coolness of old marble with the textured warmth of a peeling fresco, suitable for a love story wrapped in its own cozy little crypt. Zsigmond earned an Oscar nomination for his work on The Black Dahlia, a flawed picture whose visual magnificence is almost enough to hold it together. Zsigmond doesn’t just give the movie, set in the late 1940s, a period look; he lends it a burnished immediacy that unifies past and present, making whatever stereotypical sense we have of tawdry old Los Angeles seem as clichéd, and as wrong, as last year’s crushed hat.INDIEWIRE: REMEMBERING VILMOS ZSIGMOND IN 9 ESSENTIAL SHOTS
Zsigmond also left his signature, paradoxically both vivid and translucent, on one of the greatest of De Palma’s movies, Blow Out. John Travolta is a movie sound-effects guy who inadvertently captures audio evidence of an assassination when he witnesses a car driving off a bridge; Nancy Allen is the young woman he rescues (and falls for), a pawn in the plot. This is a quietly shimmering movie about disillusionment and doomed romance, and Zsigmond’s nighttime exteriors, both alluring and vaguely spooky, foreshadow despair rolling in like like fog.
Yet that thing we so casually think of as movie magic is really, when you boil it down, the even more magical summation of what happens when people know how to do their jobs. Zsigmond talked a little about Blow Out in in The Devil’s Candy, Julie Salamon’s superb study of the making of De Palma’s Bonfire of the Vanities: “There we were in the middle of the winter and there was this huge canyon and we were shooting a frog in the foreground and the river beyond and the trees and bridge above, and [De Palma] just walked up to it and said, ‘Light it. I don’t care how long it’s going to take. Light it.’ ” Zsigmond laughed in the story’s retelling. But also—damned if he didn’t light it.
Meanwhile, Indiewire's Zack Sharf posted nine essential shots by which to remember Zsigmond. Choosing the climactic shot of Jack holding the lifeless body of Sally as fireworks go off in the sky, Sharf writes, "Climaxes don't get more gorgeous than this one. As John Travolta's Jack Terry races through Philadelphia's Liberty Parade in order to save an escort (Nancy Allen) from the hands of an assassin, fireworks begin exploding in the sky as Zsigmond captures these blasts of color on their faces like bombs in a hectic war zone. Only when Terry holds Sally's lifeless body in his arms does the camera spin to reveal the actual display exploding in the sky —it's a moment of pure visual and emotional opera."
While his work with Spielberg and Cimino is his most acclaimed, Zsigmond’s greatest partner in crime was Brian De Palma, the most purely cinematic filmmaker of the last half-century, for whom the cinematographer did some of his finest, most innovative work. De Palma’s films are not governed by the rules or laws of reality; they adhere to a consistent, internal logic that favors excitement over emotion. Zsigmond extrapolated De Palma’s deep-rooted love for genre and exploitation, and helped the auteur construct his homage-laden films using the visual language written by earlier filmmakers. Together they were like a jazz duo drawing inspiration from their forebears, carving out of pulp scenes of brilliance and brutality. They employed an arsenal of in-camera tricks, from split-diopters to long Steadicam shots and meticulous use of zooms. Zsigmond shot Obsession [(’76)], a fervid Hitchcock homage, and Blow Out (’81), a contender for De Palma’s Best Film. For Blow Out, Zsigmond and De Palma deconstructed the art of filmmaking, reveling in the minutiae of filming and editing and spinning a story of paranoia and murder out of so many reels of celluloid.
Zsigmond’s final masterpiece, and one of his most impressive achievements, is also one of De Palma’s most maligned films: The Black Dahlia (’06), which Zsigmond considered the last good film he worked on. A mostly faithful adaptation of James Ellroy's serpentine novel (it retains the terse dialogue while carefully uncoiling the notoriously difficult-to-follow plot), there's nary a shot here that doesn't get the De Palma touch: the camera looms and moves with purpose, zooming in, pulling out, hovering above a dead body splayed on a slab before slowly descending to a low-angle of our heroes framed against effervescent lights, or a crane shot showing the Zoot Suit riots sprawling across streets lined with burning cars and sprinkled with so much broken glass. The narrative is, admittedly, of minimal importance here, as is De Palma's and Zsigmond’s wont; the director fixates on the mood which his DP captured with stunning, sepia-steeped photography. If that isn’t a fine encapsulation of Zsigmond’s endearing legacy, then nothing is.
In 1992, Zsigmond directed the feature film The Long Shadow. In recent years, he made three films with Woody Allen, and also shot several episodes of NBC's The Mindy Project.
"IF YOU PLAY EVERYTHING IN CLOSE-UPS THEN YOU MIGHT AS WELL JUST READ THE BOOK"
In a 2014 interview with Filmmaker Magazine's Kaleem Aftab, Zsigmond was asked about when it is frustrating to work with a director. "If the director doesn’t like long shots and doesn’t like establishing shots and everything is based on words and dialogue and he wants to play everything up in close-up and use it that way, that’s no fun for me," replied Zsigmond. "I really think a movie should be visual, if the visuals are not good then I’m not interested. If you play everything in close-ups then you might as well just read the book. If you really want to have dialogue and just talk, talk, talk, there is no reason to go to the movie theater."
When asked what was the most difficult shot he had ever achieved, Zsigmond responded, "I don’t know what is the most difficult shot. But a difficult shot is to do something like at the start of Bonfire of the Vanities, the opening shot which is going on five minutes with a Steadicam, going from a basement, up an elevator, getting out of the elevator, going along the hallway until you end up a thousand feet away from where you started. That is all in one shot. If it works that’s great, it’s good for a film. The closer a film looks like reality and real life, the better it is." Asked how much planning went into that shot, Zsigmond said, "A whole day. One day of rehearsing and lighting and then the next night we were shooting at least ten times and one of them turned out good."
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In a pre-award interview at Cannes, Zsigmond was asked by Le Monde's Clarisse Fabre how he had approached the transition to digital camera in the early 2000s. "I had no a priori," Zsigmond replied. "For example, The Black Dahlia, Brian De Palma, was shot on film, and then we did the post-production digital. This allowed me to reduce the color and give an impression of black and white. I love digital to 'manipulate' the film: the color with less color! I like black and white, when the shadows are growing."
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