While the holidays unfolded, we lost two of the greatest photographers to ever work in cinema, and it's only when you look back at the filmography they leave behind and the legacy they passed on to all the cameramen who worked under them and then went on to shoot films of their own that you understand the magnitude of what we've lost.
There was a point in my own film education when I stopped going from actor to actor or from director to director in the way I was watching movies and spent a summer going from cinematographer to cinematographer, and doing that proved to be an education in the tricky definition of what we call “authorial voice” in film. I think it is only in collaboration that magic happens, and one of the people who has to be absolutely killing it for that to work is the cinematographer.
The two titans we lost had a surprising amount in common. They both helped define a sort of hyper-real '70s vibe. Vilmos Zsigmond shot a lot of smaller films and genre movies and exploitation, and then he broke through with his truly remarkable work on “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”. The films he went on to shoot are jaw-dropping. “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.” “The Deer Hunter.” “Heaven's Gate.” “Blow Out.” “The Long Goodbye.” “The Sugarland Express.” “Deliverance.” I mean… goddamn “Deliverance.” “The Hired Hand” is an underrated gem of his, and I really like his work on Altman's “Images,” more than I like the film itself. Partially because of when I saw his movies and partially because of how they looked, I remember them almost as dreams. The snowscapes of “Miller.” Roy Neary grabbing little Barry out of the road as the UFOs roll by. The fireworks death of Nancy Allen in “Blow Out.” The LA haze of “The Long Goodbye.” And that river, so angry, so alive, kicking the ever-lovin' hell out of the poor bastards in “Deliverance.”
When Wexler hit his stride, he started changing visual language. “The Loved One” and “Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf” are two of the most tactile and grotesque black and white films I can name, and “The Thomas Crown Affair” is both experimental and super-slick at the same time. He gave movies like “The Conversation” and “One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest” and “Bound For Glory” a sense of both naturalism and high style, not an easy thing to pull off. And as a director, his film “Medium Cool” is an absolute landmark, part narrative, part documentary, deeply political and angry. He worked with John Sayles over and over, shooting some of the best-looking of the director's films including “Matewan,” “The Secret Of Roan Inish,” and “Limbo.” And while he wasn't given credit for it, his work saved “Days Of Heaven,” one of the single most beautiful films ever photographed, as Nestor Alemandros struggled with degenerative eye failure.
We are at a strange moment in the history of cinematography. While we have directors who are pushing back to make sure that film is still in the conversation, with movies like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “The Hateful Eight” both resolute about the role that shooting on film plays in the overall impact that they have as movies, it's hard to deny that we have entered the digital age now. Two of the most visually arresting films of last year, “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Revenant,” were shot digitally, and could really only have happened because of the nature of the digital cameras. I've heard many people talk about how the role of the cinematographer is waning because “it's easier now” with digital photography. But I think more than ever, it's time for us to celebrate the people who can take all of these disparate tools and turn them to such striking uses. If an old master like John Seale can come out of retirement to shoot something as ferocious as “Fury Road” using over-the-counter HD cameras at the same time that we see Robert Richardson resurrect lenses that hadn't been used to shoot an entire film since the mid-'60s, then it's clear that it is still the human being using the equipment that makes the difference.
Yes… we grow ever closer to that time that Francis Ford Coppola once predicted where the tools to make a great film are very cheap and in the hands of anyone who wants them, but tools are just that. Tools. Nothing more. Cinema is about the communication of ideas and emotions, and as much as any directors they ever worked with, both Zsigmond and Wexler understood that and they helped push the entire art form forward with their work. They worked in difficult circumstances at times, and they would use any trick they could to get the images that they and their collaborators saw as essential. One of the things that breaks my heart is that I've been to hundreds of sets over the years, and on every visit, the cinematographer is the person who is least available for conversation, while they are often some of the people I am most interested in overall. I never met either Zsigmond or Wexler. Wexler was largely done working at this point, while Zsigmond was still busy, shooting episodes of “The Mindy Project” and attached to plenty of projects that were set to shoot this year. But their influence can be deeply felt in films like Lubezki's “The Revenant” this year, which feels at times like a tip of the hat to “Days Of Heaven” and “Deliverance” and “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” among others. One of the most frustrating things to witness over the Christmas break was the way projections problems plagued Quentin Tarantino's “The Hateful Eight,” with The Weinstein Company telescoping the original fourteen-day exclusive 70MM roadshow engagement to five days. To be fair, I talked to lots of people who saw amazing presentations of it, and there are theaters out there that went above and beyond to guarantee that experience. The film vs digital conversation often overshadows what those tools are being used for, and who they are being used by. Roger Deakins seems to go back and forth from film to digital without any fuss at all at this point, and there are directors who seem equally open to the full spectrum of what they have available now.
Here's hoping the spirit of invention and visual wonder is alive and well as we say goodbye to these two masters of the form, and that we start to move past the conversation about the tools themselves and get back to a celebration of the art those tools are used to create.
Vilmos Zsigmond was 85. Haskell Wexler was 93. Their work is eternal.