A quintessential force in the artistic revival of American cinema during the late-’60s, early ’70s studio downturn, the late cinematographer John Alonzo receives a respectable if unremarkable doc portrait with “The Man Who Shot Chinatown: The Life and Work of John A. Alonzo.” Helmer Axel Schill’s doc doesn’t sufficiently delve into what gave “Chinatown” its cinematographic distinction, though it more than delivers the latter half of the pic’s title. With some key figures participating, and others conspicuously missing, this specialty item for Hollywood cinephiles and lens-heads will draw solid fest interest and enjoy long vid shelf-life.
The toughest challenge for docus on film artist or craftspeople is to select the appropriate clips that illustrate points raised by interview subjects, and this film has problems in this area in the first minutes: While a fine clip of Brian DePalma’s fabulous-looking “Scarface” underlines William Friedkin’s point that Alonzo “contributed magic realism through the camera,” another clip of hand-held camera movement in Mike Figgis’ “Internal Affairs” contradicts Frank Sinatra Jr.’s argument that Alonzo’s “goal was to make the camera disappear.”
A summary of Alonzo’s early years is the pic’s most fascinating contribution, starting with details of his Mexican immigrant parents and his progress from public school in Dallas to working in a local Dallas TV station. It was there that Alonzo met future legendary sports doc and TV producer Andy Sidaris, who marveled at the young guy’s tireless work ethic.
Alonzo’s pilgrim’s progress reads as atemplate for how to get into the system as an outsider; after several acting gigs, including a small role in “The Magnificent Seven,” he was Sidaris’ go-to-guy on several David L. Wolper docs, distinguished for their realism. His work on James Wong Howe’s crew for “Seconds” helped him to become the first Mexican American member of the clubbish Intl. Cinematographers Guild. It was also his entre to becoming close to Howe’s longtime director friend, Martin Ritt.
To his credit, Alonzo remained mindful of Hollywood’s longstanding discrimination against minorities by filling his crews with non-Anglos, but Schill also doesn’t shy away from addressing Alonzo’s flaws, particularly his problems with his family. Daughter Gorgiana describes their conflict, and her eventual renewed relationship with Alonzo in 1999, only two years before his death.
The personal story is rounded with the happy presence of his second wife, Jan, legendary for her support of the busy, high-in-demand lenser, and brings — along with Ritt’s daughter Tina — some warmth to pic, along with an amusing anecdote over the end credits.
Insider examination of the cinematographer’s work is sacrificed for the life story. Even such nuggets as critic Roger Ebert’s observation of how shadows were deployed in a specific shot in “Chinatown” begs questioning, since Ebert assumes that such an effect was Alonzo’s alone, when in fact the pic’s classicism was the result of a tight collaboration between him and director Roman Polanski. Neither Polanski, star Jack Nicholson nor producer Robert Evans make an appearance here, rendering the account of the making of the pic superficial. Other major helmer-partners with Alonzo, such as DePalma, are also AWOL.
Editor Sid Levin does appear, and his remarks that Alonzo learned to dispense with the conventional master-to-medium-to-close shooting syntax is the pic’s best insight into the cinematographer’s increasingly sophisticated film language.
Interview segments are shot in standard fashion, but elicit some impassioned statements from Richard Dreyfuss, Sally Field and leading cinematographer Haskell Wexler. Pacing is a bit lumpy, but photo archival selections are intelligent.