Moving images

Recently, within about five days of each other, Haskell Wexler and Vilmos Zsigmond passed away, at the ages of 93 and 85 respectively. They’re not household names, though they worked with plenty — Spielberg, Altman, Cimino, Malick, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen. It’s a lot easier to discuss films in terms of directors than in terms of cinematographers — the latter are always distinctly yoked (at least in American and most European filmmaking; Polish cinema is something of an exception) to the former’s thematic/conceptual/aesthetic preoccupations, which is the stuff we like discussing; and it isn’t cinematographers who get final cut. Cinematographers might simply be seen as capital: useful tools for realising the vision of the auteur.

A still from the transcendent Close Encounters of the Third Kind, filmed by Zsigmond
A still from the same film
Zsigmond again, this time in Caspar David Friedrich mode in this still from The Deer Hunter. That’s Robert De Niro on that rocky escarpment ridge. Again — don’t bother watching it on a small screen.

But cinematographers are the guys and gals we can thank for the stuff we, y’know, actually see. It may have been Iñarritu who came up with the bravura conceit of filming Birdman as a “single take”, but it was lensman Emmanuel Lubezki (and his team) who managed to pull it off. The power of The Deer Hunter lies largely in its acting and editing, but without Zsigmond’s stunning compositions, the famed contrast-cut between the men huddled in a Pennsylvania bar and the same men being helicoptered into Vietnam would not have been so potent. Likewise the astonishing “match cut” in Lawrence of Arabia, courtesy of Britain’s own Freddie Young. And if you haven’t yet seen Days of Heaven, do so as soon as it’s on a big screen — and when you’re done watching it, thank Mr. Wexler and Néstor Almendros as well as Malick himself.

Malick is a genius, but spare a thought for Haskell Wexler and Néstor Almendros when appreciating this sublime shot of locusts on a Texas farm (actually an Alberta farm, but the film is set in Texas).

It’s true that directing, writing, acting and editing are much easier aspects of cinema to discuss over pints in the pub (or over a small table at the BFI bar — take your pick). But next time the credits begin to roll on a movie whose images have moved you, wait ’til the cinematographer’s credit climbs slowly up the screen. And remember their name, and look out for them again; for they are the undersung heroes of the moving image.

Here‘s the famous “match cut” from Lawrence of Arabia, which should really only be seen on a big screen — and preferably in a 4K or 70mm print!


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