February 27, 2016 § Leave a comment
The second time I saw “Close Encounters” was on video sometime in the 80s. By then François Truffaut had died (of cancer at 52), and I was as focused on his strong performance as the lead scientist as I was on the story and effects. I’d forgotten a lot of the details and thought the film could have been considerably shorter, but the effects were still impressive.
The third time I saw it was last weekend, again on the big screen. It was shown as part of the American Cinematheque’s tribute to the cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who won an Academy Award for his work on “Close Encounters.” It was the film’s only Oscar, and no one deserved it more than Zsigmond. As his colleague James Chressanthis described, “Close Encounters” was such a difficult shoot that when Zsigmond was fired (more than once), no other cinematographer would take over, forcing his return.
The technical challenges were enormous. There were multiple, far-flung locations, each with its difficulties. The film that was used in the 70’s demanded more lighting than today’s, which resulted in vast shipments of lights to the main location in Alabama (and a corresponding shortage in Los Angeles). The set for the spaceship landing area was housed a vast dirigible hanger that was further enlarged, necessitating even more lighting. Add to these logistics the fact “Close Encounters” was filmed before CGI: all the effects were done with models that had to be shot separately in 70mm and matched to the 35mm film. The effects budget was so large–$3.3 million of the $18 million total–that Douglas Trumbull, the visual effects supervisor, joked that it could have paid for another film.
Yet the effects and cinematography remain the best things about “Close Encounters,” despite advances in cameras and CGI in the decades since it was shot. Other aspects of the film that should have aged better than the effects haven’t fared as well. The script (credited to Spielberg but written with four other screenwriters, including Paul Schrader) is unwieldy and lacking in character development. Women and children are stick figures, and less interesting than the aliens (who, unlike them, have no lines). Dreyfuss, never a subtle actor, chews the scenery so much that it’s hard to fathom why Melinda Dillon would spend two minutes in his company, much less climb Devils Tower with him. And Spielberg’s obsession with angelic little boys, absent fathers and overwhelmed single mothers plays better in “E.T.” For anyone who has seen both,” “Close Encounters” sometimes resembles a rehearsal for the later film.
These significant problems keep the film from being a masterpiece, but they don’t diminish Vilmos Zsigmond’s achievement in the least. Along with the work of Douglas Trumbull and Carlo Rambaldi (who created the aliens, and later E.T.), his work stands the test of time: nearly forty years later, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” remains beautiful and awe-inspiring. It’s well worth watching again, in as large a format as possible.
February 4, 2016 § Leave a comment
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.