Remembering Vilmos Zsigmond

February 4, 2016 § Leave a comment

Vilmos Zsigmond

Vilmos Zsigmond

Although the great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond died unexpectedly on New Year’s Day, I missed the news and didn’t learn of his passing until yesterday. I was amazed to learn that he was 85, since he always looked much younger and worked constantly, amassing a hundred credits as a cinematographer. According to IMDB, he had five projects lined up, an astonishing workload for someone in the sixth decade of his career.

Among Zsigmond’s many features are “The Long Goodbye,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “Deliverance,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Blow Out” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” for which he won an Oscar. (He was nominated three other times, for “The Deer Hunter, “The River,” and “The Black Dahlia.”) Unlike a lot of cinematographers, he didn’t impose a visual signature on his films. Instead, he paid close attention to their scripts and shot accordingly. Perhaps because he was a director himself, he was particular about those he worked with. After shooting Steven Spielberg’s debut, “The Sugarland Express,” and later “Close Encounters,” he decided that Spielberg saw him as “a glorified cameraman” and never shot another of his films.

I met Vilmos Zsigmond only once, at a filmmaking seminar in 1999. After finishing his talk, he settled in the audience for the rest of the program, sitting in my row. Because we had a mutual friend, I moved over and introduced myself. He was charming, we chatted, and for the next hour we were instant friends. The next segment featured some producers, and during the Q&A an audience member asked how they handled difficult directors. Vilmos laughed merrily and said to me, “I tell zem, ‘Gettout of my shot!”

Yet he was notably generous, often making his directors’ work look better than it was–see “Heaven’s Gate.” He also made a point of working with younger directors, including first-timers. (With the exception of Kevin Smith, who refused to vary his shots, they tended to take his advice.) He also worked in TV, most recently on “The Mindy Project,” for which he shot twenty-four episodes.

Zsigmond was a both product of Hungary and a victim of it. In 1956, he and his friend and fellow film student László Kovács escaped the revolution together, filming as they went. After making their way to Los Angeles, the two worked on documentaries and horror films before getting their big breaks. (Kovács shot such classics as “Easy Rider,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “Ghostbusters” and the perfect “Paper Moon.”)

Kovács died in 2007; now, with Zsigmond gone, the era of great Hungarian cinematographers in Hollywood has come to an end. Fortunately for us, their films live on.

His Other Brilliant Career: Remembering David Bowie’s Acting

January 23, 2016 § Leave a comment

David Bowie in "The Man Who Fell To Earth"

David Bowie in “The Man Who Fell To Earth”

"Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence"

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”

"The Hunger" (with Catherine Deneuve)

“The Hunger” (with Catherine Deneuve)

"Basquiat" (with Dennis Hopper)

“Basquiat” (with Dennis Hopper)

Like countless others, I was stunned and deeply saddened by David Bowie’s death; nearly two weeks later, I’m still processing the fact that he’s gone. Although I only saw Bowie in concert once, his music permeated my life, providing an indelible soundtrack that began in my childhood and ended with the newly released “Blackstar,” a stunning coda to his 50-year career as a musician, singer and songwriter. (Since this is a film blog, I won’t write a dissertation on his music, but a brief reminiscence of mine appears here:

During the 1970s, as he released a torrent of albums and shape-shifted from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane to The Thin White Duke, David Bowie began to appear in leading roles in notable films. Although I had assumed Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell To Earth” (1976) was his screen debut, it wasn’t: he had appeared in a handful of English films and TV shows before it, beginning in 1967. Nevertheless, “The Man Who Fell To Earth” established David Bowie as a serious actor, rather than a rock star dabbling in movies. In it, Bowie is the quintessential alien, but his performance is nuanced and at times quite funny–my strongest memory of the film is of him singing off-key in church, not an easy thing for a singer with excellent pitch.

Over the next 30 years, Bowie went on to appear many more features–23 in all–along with numerous shorts, TV shows, documentaries and music videos. He made his Broadway debut in “The Elephant Man,” (1980), the first rock star to appear on Broadway in a drama. (His performance was pronounced “splendid” by the New York Times.) He was a pioneer of music videos, putting out filmed performances of his songs before MTV existed, as well as two of the most famous videos ever broadcast (“Let’s Dance” and “Ashes to Ashes.”)

Though not all of Bowie’s movies are good, a number of them– including “Just a Gigolo,” “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” “The Hunger,” “Labyrinth” and “Absolute Beginners”–are, and showcase his skill and range as an actor. One of my favorites is Julian Schnabel’s “Basquiat” (1996), in which he plays Andy Warhol. Although Bowie doesn’t nail Warhol’s accent–his English r’s creep in–he captures the artist’s odd way of mumbling out of one side of his mouth, as well as the diffidence that was his most striking characteristic. It’s an amazing performance, and the fact that Bowie’s fame as a musician already matched Warhol’s as a visual artist makes it mind-bending.

In 2006, Bowie’s played Nikola Tesla in “The Prestige.” In his remembrance the director Christopher Nolan wrote, “[David Bowie] seemed to be the only actor capable of playing the part. He had that requisite iconic status, and he was a figure as mysterious as Tesla needed to be.” After 30-year feature film career in which he famously played an alien, a soldier, a goblin king and a vampire, David Bowie’s last movie character, fittingly, was closest to himself: a genius of invention whose work is eternal.

2015 in review

January 8, 2016 § Leave a comment

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 53,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 20 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Merry Christmas from Under the Hollywood Sign

December 24, 2015 § Leave a comment


The photo above shows California holly (toyon) in bloom in the Hollywood Hills. Some believe this plant inspired the name Hollywood, although it was more likely a random choice by Daeida Wilcox, who met a woman on the cross-country train with a vacation house of that name. You can read more about California holly here:

This is the seventh Christmas for Under the Hollywood Sign. As regular readers know, I began the blog to promote my documentary of the same name. That film, as well as my others, is now on sale at half price (that’s $12.50 for features; $6 for the short) on my website The sale continues through the end of the month; please check it out.

My New Website, and A Holiday Sale on DVDs

December 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

IMG_4113Today I’m launching a new website to showcase my films, books and future projects. In celebration, I’m selling all my DVDs at half price for the rest of the year. If you’ve enjoyed this blog, please support the work that inspired it at

Many thanks to Heath Woodward for building my website.

“Jim Thompson, Silk King,” Remastered with Extra Features, is Available on Vimeo

November 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

Jim Thompson in the Living Room of his Bangkok House, circa 1967/Courtesy Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company

Jim Thompson in the Living Room of his Bangkok House, circa 1967/Courtesy Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company

Previously I wrote about the new DVD edition of my first documentary, “Jim Thompson, Silk King.”

It’s now for sale by download on Vimeo. Please go to

Setsuko Hara, One of the World’s Great Actresses, Is Dead at 95

November 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

Setsuko Hara

Setsuko Hara

Although Setsuko Hara passed away on September 5th, her death was not announced until today. Retired from acting and public life since 1962, Hara maintained “a Garbo-like silence” (as Variety put it) for over five decades. She lived in Kamakura, Japan, where many of her most famous films–those directed by Yasujiro Ozu–were set.

In 2008, I wrote this about Hara and her work.


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