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Vilmos Zsigmond

Review: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), December 14, 1977]

It’s getting harder and harder for a movie to just happen anymore. I’m not talking about the ways movies get made (although, to be sure, that’s become an extremely messy business), but the ways movies and audiences get together. In the absence of a vast public that simply “goes to the movies,” film-selling has become a matter of creating Events—Events that may or may not live up to the induced expectations but which in any, er, event have an uphill fight to stay alive and spontaneous. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is having a harder time than most. It’s a $20 million film that a lot of people are anxious to recover their money on. It’s a film in a genre, sci-fi, variously blessed and burdened with an enthusiastic/rabid following whose specialized requirements for satisfaction do not necessarily have much to do with a film’s being good as a film. It’s a film in a genre, moreover, that has recently given the cinema its Number One Box-Office Champ, Star Wars, and hence become newly embattled among critics and commentators who deplore the preeminence of “mindless,” two-dimensional, feel-good flicks on the top-grossing charts.

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Review: Scarecrow

[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]

Scarecrow, the latest film by Jerry Schatzberg (Puzzle of a Downfall Child, Panic in Needle Park), is a warmly authentic and unselfconscious examination of a highly unlikely friendship between two misfits whose respective stances vis-à-vis life seem, at first glance, totally incompatible. Al Pacino turns in an understated performance, mannered yet unpretentious, as Lion, a diminutive dropout from the school of hard knocks—hard knocks being what you get if you stand still, allow people to get too close, get serious; in short, if you grow up. Instead, Lion chooses to stay on the move: five years at sea to dodge the scary stasis of matrimony and fatherhood, a current trip as a constantly clowning naïf whose jokes block blows and caresses with a desperate lack of discrimination. On his way back to claim his son, Lion picks up a father of sorts, an unpredictable bear of a man named Max (Gene Hackman). Max, unlike the cowardly Lion, gets in the way of hard knocks—as well as less hostile strokes—as often as he can, indeed more often than he should, since he frequently ends up in jail after one of his enthusiastic rough-and-tumbles. He is a man willing to mark and be marked by the men and women whom his life touches in his peregrinations about the country. Though at first Max comes off as much the less “practical” or survival-minded of the two friends, it soon becomes clear that the reverse is true. Lion’s comic camouflage and strategic withdrawals ultimately result in the loss of his son (and by implication his own adulthood) and, ironically, all contact with the world he tried too hard, too successfully, to keep at bay.

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Review: The Long Goodbye

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

The Long Goodbye has been touted as a farewell to a whole genre, or at least to the Raymond Chandler subgenre, of the detective thriller and film noir. But this version of Chandler’s only unfilmed (till now) Philip Marlowe novel is best seen as neither farewell nor spoof, but as another Robert Altman film and as an extension of McCabe and Mrs. Miller in particular. The two films are almost companion pieces: each an exercise in a familiar but still evolving genre, each concerned most of all with a more or less solitary boy/man/entrepreneur who mumbles his way through a world of questionable worth, each converting the lost innocence of a film genre into a kind of reluctant elegy for Hollywood, the U.S. of A., and “America.” Altman’s Marlowe and McCabe are both lone gamblers who are seen grousing to themselves a good deal, and each ends up being a deliberately shaky version of the American movie hero—the lone gun as sucker, the klutz as (mostly unnoticed) man of principle.

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Blu-ray/DVD: Robert Altman’s ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’

mccabeMcCabe & Mrs. Miller (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Robert Altman’s third film since staking out his claim on 1970s cinema with M*A*S*H (1970), turns the western myth into a metaphor for the fantasy of the American Dream colliding with the power of big business.

Warren Beatty is John McCabe, a drifting gambler who rides into the mining camp town of Presbyterian Church (named after a building that has yet to open for business), surveys the possibilities of the muddy streets and rough-hewn buildings carved out of the Oregon wilderness (Vancouver, Canada, stands in for Oregon), and stakes his claim as the slick sophisticate to give these hicks the delights of civilization, namely a whorehouse and a well-lit bar with clean floors and fancy furniture. Julie Christie is Constance Miller, a veteran hooker who hitches a ride on a steam-powered tractor and pitches McCabe a partnership. She comes on strong and knowledgeable, a professional with plenty of management experience, but look carefully in the scene where McCabe negotiates for a handful of haggard prostitutes and you’ll catch her through a doorway, just another bordello working girl taking a break. Altman does nothing to draw our attention to her but it’s the only backstory we get and you can just imagine her hatching a scheme to escape her dead-end trajectory and roll the dice on this flashy backwoods businessman who has more ambition than talent. McCabe plays the would-be frontier tycoon for the miners, striding the camp in his fox-red fur coat and Eastern bowler hat, but Mrs. Miller is the brains behind his success. That’s clear when the corporate mining concern sends in it negotiators (Michael Murphy and Antony Holland) to buy up the town and McCabe plays the hard-sell dealmaker in an ultimatum dressed up in polite ritual.

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Blues for Mr. Chandler: ‘The Long Goodbye’

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]

Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye, and others of its genre and worth, operate somewhat like a Socratic dialogue. Philip Marlowe (or whoever) moves from chance meeting to chance meeting, from one seemingly unrelated event to another, and by these means a Gestalt of existential accident and dislocated drift is achieved. That these dark tales are often played out in an urban environment of sleazy hotels and bars, sinister vacant lots, heavily guarded and highly suspect private sanitaria, plush residences, bookstores and photography shops without clientele, and of course the disreputable backrooms of police stations, only adds to the general ambience of paranoia and disorder. This geographical web, without apparent center or pattern, in which men like Marlowe operate perfectly mirrors the tangled, convoluted motives and desires of those enmeshed in its toils. However, a thread of logic, a path towards ultimate clarification, is consistently extended, delineated by the proliferation of event and character, though it is not until practically the dénouement that the reader fully apprehends the overwhelming sense of fatedness and design which retrospectively permeates the novel.

Inevitably, these novels generate a sort of mythic significance: the private eye takes on some of the benighted grandeur of a Greek hero seeking blindly for the key to a divine—whether benevolent or malicious—plan or doom; he becomes like some medieval quester for the Holy Grail, or the solution to a spiritual conundrum that will set all the world right—until the next quest is initiated. Ross Macdonald has authored few books in which he does not deal with the classical theme of familial sin that taints generation after generation until some final purgation is achieved, usually by means of Lew Archer’s (Macdonald’s Marlowe) intervention. Macdonald sets his characters in an environment that reflects their spiritual malaise: in his next-to-last published novel, The Underground Man, he turns L.A. into a hellish arena in which, surrounded by encroaching brush fires and blinded by smoke and smog, Archer and his clients confront old sins and new retribution.

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Review: The Sugarland Express

[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]

Sugarland is a small, undistinguished Texas burg not far from the Mexican border. The Sugarland Express is one commandeered highway patrol car and a caravan of half a dozen other h.p. cars, then a few dozen local police cars, then a couple Louisiana highway patrol cars, then a few hundred civilian cars, trucks, campers, and at least one Houston-based TV news van, all bound for the aforesaid Sugarland, Riding in the lead car are an escaped convict, his wife (also recently a con), and one relatively new state policeman whose dialogue sounds like a mélange of the Highway Patrol rule book, the safe-driving code, and Reader’s Digest. The convict may be even more hapless than his prisoner: he broke out—walked out—of the minimum-security prerelease farm from which he’d have been freed in another month anyway, persuaded by his wife that swift action is needed in order to rescue their infant son from a foster home. Before his journey had fairly begun he found himself guilty of grand theft auto, speeding, resisting arrest, stealing a policeman’s gun, and kidnapping—all within about eight minutes. Now it promises to become a very bad scene, what with Clovis (the con) garbling the syntax of all those threats that are supposed to keep his cop prisoner in line, Lou Jean (the wife) impetuously shoving a riot gun at police cars that draw too near, and half the local constables and deerslaying rednecks in the state trying to be the agent of retribution for these desperados.

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Video: Framing Pictures – March 2016

Robert Horton, Richard T. Jameson, and Bruce Reid sat down at the Scarecrow Video screening room on March 11, 2016 to discuss talk Wim Wenders, Terrence Malick, and remember Vilmos Zsigmond (1930-2016), cinematographer on McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Seattle-shot favorite Cinderella Liberty, and more recently TV’s The Mindy Project, and French filmmaker Jacques Rivette.

The Seattle Channel was there to record the event. It is now showing on cable and streaming via their website. Or you can see it here.

Restored and revived: ‘The Epic of Everest,’ the first film cameras up Everest, and ‘Summer Children’

The Epic of Everest (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), the film record of the third British ascent of Everest, was an event in itself in 1924. Its restoration is almost as much an event. Unavailable for years, with elements in the BFI film vault waiting for years to be resurrected, the restoration was completed and unveiled in 2011.

Presented with a solemnity befitting the gravity of the event (two of the greatest and most celebrated climbers of the day, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, died trying to reach the peak), it’s also as beautiful a nonfiction film you’ll see from the era. Captain John Noel hauled a hand-cranked camera (developed specifically for the challenge of shooting in the snow and ice) along with the expedition party (of 500 men and animals, according to the titles) and captured truly astounding images. He brought state-of-the-art telephoto lenses which enabled him to get viable images from as far away as two miles. But he also brought art and aesthetics to his shots, many of them like landscape portraits alive with passing clouds, shifting shadows, and halos of snow and mist whipped up by the winds. They are framed beautifully and use the light and shadow as dramatic elements.

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The New Life Begins: Dantean Obsession in ‘Obsession’

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

Once you’ve experienced the multiple twists and revelations in the last reel of Brian De Palma’s Obsession, and you think about what’s gone before, the basic storyline appears not only terribly contrived but in several ways downright impossible. But the film nevertheless works by the sheer power of a marvelously inventive, multi-layered screenplay brought to life by the simultaneously literary and stylistic genius of one of the most important young American directors. A story as involved and rich as Paul Schrader’s scenario must be firmly grounded in explicable plot; but Vilmos Zsigmond’s richly suggestive cinematography and Paul Hirsch’s relentless-pace editing, under the careful and inspired direction of De Palma, mix memory and desire even more effectively than Schrader’s story. The ultimate achievement of Obsession is not a matching of style to content so much as a resolution of content into pure style.

Inferno

At its most immediately obvious, the film’s title refers to New Orleans businessman Mike Courtland’s fixation on, first, the death of his young wife Elizabeth in a 1959 kidnap plot; second, his guilt for her death, in having delivered false money to the kidnappers; and, third, the stunning resemblance of a young Florentine art student, met 16 years later, to his dead wife. Court’s is the central experience of the film, the one which most drives its development.

Yet a second association with the idea of “obsession” arises when Court’s psychiatrist describes the student, Sandra Portinari, whom Court has brought back from Florence to his home, as having become “obsessed” with the idea of Elizabeth, to the point of hoping completely to replace the woman she so dramatically resembles. (This is the turning-back point for those who have not seen Obsession; reading on can irreparably harm one’s experience of the film.) When, toward the end of the movie, we learn that Sandra is really Amy, the daughter of Court and Elizabeth presumed killed with her mother 16 years earlier, we perceive yet another obsession motivating her: a methodic repetition of the events of 1959, with the hope of either restoring lost certainty of a father’s love or confirming forever his guilt and avenging herself on him for her mother’s death.

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Review: The Rose

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

“You know, I’m so tired of the road,” sighs Bette Midler into a telephone near the end of the film. There’s a hesitation in her voice on the word ‘road’ as if she were going to say, “I’m so tired of The Rose” instead. This would not be unusual since the Rose consistently refers to herself in the third person. The film concerns her attempts to slip out from under that suffocating title, and the most intriguing tension within The Rose is that while wanting to make this escape the Rose nevertheless takes refuge behind her misleadingly flowery appellation whenever necessary. She has the ability to snap to brash, acid-tongued life, even from the depths of depression, when she is confronted by an audience: pursuing her sulking lover (Frederic Forrest) through a men’s steambath while keeping up an entertaining banter for the boys; being easily coaxed onstage at clubs she entered as a spectator; and finally, hopelessly drugged at her last concert appearance. This idea of the Rose being more at home while performing than at any other time is underscored by the way director Mark Rydell has filmed an early concert number. “When a Man Loves a Woman,” an exhausting ballad, is shot almost entirely in one long take—and the interesting thing about this song is that the closer we get to the Rose, the more we realize that she is making love with the microphone, her lips trailing over it, with a greater intimacy than we see in her contact with humans.

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