For any true-blue movie buff, cinematography is actually a sexy subject — it’s not just about how movies look, it’s about how they flow and feel, about how they live inside our mind’s eye. “Close Encounters with Vilmos Zsigmond,” a French-made documentary that explores the life and artistry of one of the virtuoso founding fathers of contemporary cinematography, the Hungarian-born neorealist Vilmos Zsigmond (who died, at 85, this past January), has some lively and resonant anecdotes that testify to what the highly cultivated craft of lensing a movie is really all about.
Peter Fonda, who hired Zsigmond early in his Hollywood career to shoot a film that Fonda was directing, “The Hired Hand” (1971), recalls how he showed John Ford’s “My Darling Clementine” to Zsigmond several times, all to draw attention to one interior shot in which it was all too obvious that the lighting was done by lamps. His message to Zsigmond: Never give me a shot like that. And Jerry Schatzberg, director of the landmark eccentric buddy road movie “Scarecrow” (one of two films to take the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1973), talks about how Zsigmond’s concept for the film was, at the outset, totally different from his. It was the expatriate cinematographer’s idea that they should shoot Al Pacino and Gene Hackman against found backdrops of “beautiful” Americana, a decision that Schatzberg went with and that ultimately became the essence of the film.
Yet if “Close Encounters with Vilmos Zsigmond” has a handful of good stories, the movie, made in a style that could generously be called relaxed, still leaves you with the nagging sense that there’s too much you want to know about Zsigmond that you never get to find out. Take, for instance, the story of how he shot “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” the revolutionary 1971 Robert Altman Western that was Zsigmond’s first major Hollywood production — and, in hindsight, one of the most visionary (and influential) acts of cinematography in the history of motion pictures. The movie shows us clips from “McCabe,” letting our eyes feast on what was so atmospheric and tinglingly gorgeous about it: that ethereal look of drizzly haze, which made it somehow resemble a woodland documentary painted by Matisse. How did Zsigmond achieve that look? And how did he first imagine it? The film barely gives you a clue.
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The director, Pierre Filmon, skates through Zsigmond’s early years in Hungary but scarcely mentions the part he played in filming the events of the 1956 Hungarian revolution — an essential chapter that was given fascinating treatment in the 2008 PBS documentary “No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos.” He also skips making so much as one reference to the years in the ’60s that Zsigmond spent in Hollywood shooting low-budget B movies. Not every documentary has to be conventionally structured, but if a filmmaker is going to skimp on the basics, he should give the audience something in return. This movie, for the most part, does not. Zsigmond himself comes off as a rather mild explicator of his own brilliance. Though he moved to the United States in 1962, his English remains tentative, even as Filmon sits down to talk to him in various settings (a movie theater in Paris, a hot tub in Zsigmond’s beloved Big Sur). Zsigmond has a warmly appealing and youthful presence but, it must be said, a certain lack of articulation that you might almost expect of an artist so purely devoted to the science of imagery.
Yet once the movie begins to travel through Zsigmond’s career, film by film, it’s still a treat to experience the dazzle of what he accomplished. John Boorman, the director of “Deliverance” (1972), explains how he hired Zsigmond because he knew that he’d be able to create a texture of long-lensed naturalism and keep the camera moving at the same time — a nearly impossible trick that Zsigmond made look easy. You can hear Zsigmond’s joy when he talks about the freedom he felt in shooting Steven Spielberg’s first feature, “The Sugarland Express” (1974), with its nonstop choreographic flow of cars, and there’s also a moment of slight churlishness when he disses “Jaws” (1975), which he didn’t get to shoot. He was back with Spielberg, of course, for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and it’s amazing, when you look at it now, to see how much of that film’s poetic sci-fi techno splendor came directly from Zsigmond: the oversaturated heat of those orange alien headlights — and, more than that, the whole soft-edged glow of the mothership. Sure, it was a special-effects coup, but when you look at how the images were shot, they’re a direct cousin to the misty melting landscapes of “McCabe.” It was Zsigmond who made the awesomeness of alien spacecraft romantic.
Zsigmond’s great period was bracketed, almost literally, by the 1970s. By the time we get to “Heaven’s Gate” (1980), the Michael Cimino epic that is routinely thought of as the movie that put a stake through the heart of the New Hollywood, it seems oddly appropriate that Zsigmond’s cinematography for it remains so singularly stunning. As a drama, “Heaven’s Gate” — despite the fig leaf of critical revisionism that’s been placed upon it in recent years — remains a scattered, inert movie, but the problem really comes down to this: The film is nothing but cinematography. And therein lies a lesson. You could make a case that movies today look better than ever, and if that’s true, it is one of the legacies of Vilmos Zsigmond. But even Zsigmond couldn’t be Zsigmond without the extraordinary films he worked on. He now stands for an era when even images of genius were regularly called upon to serve a greater good.