Losing the Light, Keeping the Inspiration: Vilmos Zsigmond

In January of 2011, I saw 2 films that changed the way that I think about masculinity and cinema: ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE (James William Guercio, 1973) & SCARECROW (Jerry Schatzberg, 1973).
Really, they became two of my favorite films in life. But that is a whole other story.
Looking back, my impetus to attend stemmed from two things: my friend Cathie’s love of the EGIB soundtrack (which we played all the time in the car) and my purchase of the VHS for Jerry Schatzberg’s SCARECROW when I was working at Amoeba in the early ’00s. I remember the cover –
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And I remember thinking: Hackman and Pacino did a movie together?? What???
So that story ends in a rather anti-climactic manner. I never watched the VHS. In fact, I no longer have the damn thing.
But I’m so glad. You can only lose your Movie Virginity for a film once and theatrically is the best way to do it.
This is the second time I’ve written on this screening. It had a heavy impact on me.
The first time, I wrote about ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE for the film noir blogathon. This night was one of the best film memories/screenings of my life. And considering how many movies I’ve seen….THAT’S saying something.
Retracing my steps to 5 years ago. I had originally had plans for the night but they fell through so I did what any normal, red-blooded, cinematically-charged girl would do: I biked over to the LA County Museum of Art and attended the series that I had (sadly) missed most of, entitled “True Grit: The Golden Age of Road Movies.” I had no idea that there was a guest that night. I was there to see these rare films that never screen. And I was really excited about SCARECROW. I knew nothing about it- was it a comedy? Drama? Thriller? Somewhere in between? I had intentionally done no exhaustive research on it because I wanted to go in fresh. To be fair, even now it is rare to find people who are that familiar with the film, even though I feel it is top quality, desert-island material.
My time-memory is not perfect, but considering that the photo I took of my ticket says the double-feature began at 5:00pm, I think that it would make sense that our man Vilmos took the stage post-double feature.
I could lie and say that I was highly educated on the man’s career. But why? I wasn’t. It was more educational and beautiful to be introduced to him in this manner.
It would be absolutely fair, however, to say that yours truly had a decent idea of who he was. While I couldn’t name any film titles off the top of my head, I had seen many by that time.  Mostly, I knew that there was this wonderful bearded signatory of the cinematographic community being welcomed gloriously to the stage, and…I just wanted to give him a hug. He beamed from ear to ear and I’m still not sure if I breathed during the Q&A or just smiled dumbly like I was high on drugs. Vilmos was infectious!!
He laughed and enjoyed the questions and discussion, thought it was funny that people were in such awe of his work. He shrugged so many times. “We just did it,” was his approach. A very classical no-nonsense approach.
He smiled, shook his head, told stories. He thought the whole thing was a gas.
All the things that he spoke about that night, I now treasure- as a professional in the film industry, as an archivist, preservationist, historian and film lover.
He spoke about coming to this country and working with Lazslo Kovacs, and how their relationship and Hungarian”ness” really added a new flavor to what was going on in film at the time.LazloVilmos
He even spoke about working on THE SADIST (James Landis, 1963) a little bit, where he was billed as William Zsigmond. This was pretty thrilling to me because I really love this film.SadistLobbyCard1963
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Vilmos was allowed to talk, mostly uninterrupted, about certain technical and narrative aspects of SCARECROW that he was involved in.
The film relied quite a bit on improvisation (not always a cinematographer’s friend) and yet Zsigmond rolled with it, going so far as to call this work one of the “better of my films.” Even though he admitted that it was quite dark- content-wise and visually, matching many European films at the time as far as lighting went.
An audience member asked about an opening scene in which there were tumbleweeds rolling by as Pacino and Hackman stand at opposite sides of the road. Was this planned out? Did they choreograph the tumbleweeds? Vilmos just laughed. “They were tumbleweeds! They were around. They do what those things do.” No, Virginia, there were no tumbleweed wranglers.
Vilmos Zsigmond spoke about the way the film was shot and their “cinemobile.” He said it was dreadfully hot inside the car and while it was certainly a communal experience, it was a learning opportunity and tough.
I felt like I was going to film school just listening to him reminisce. But it wasn’t in a sad-nostalgia way or “tough-guy-walk-up-the-hill-in-the-snow” way. He treated the audience as though we were friends.
Debra Levine quotes Zsigmond in her review of the evening‘s double feature at LACMA:

[Scarecrow] was a real road movie, made on a very low-budget, $800,000. We went to Bakersfield, we had to shoot in sequence. We were on the road. We sent someone ahead to find locations. There were no sets in the film. We used motel rooms and bars. We had a cinemobile [bus] that held everything, actors, equipment, crew. We had unusual crew, the smallest I ever saw, camera, gaffer, key grip, sound man, dolly man, boom operator. Everyone was helping; the driver of the cinemobile was pulling cables. We were traveling every day. At the beginning, in L.A., we went through the script and agreed on what we were doing. We settled in Denver, but we had no time to rehearse. [On the road] we had no time for rehearsal.

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Al Pacino and Gene Hackman in Jerry Schatzberg’s SCARECROW (1973). Courtesy Warner Bros./Jerry Schatzberg

Vilmos Zsigmond’s eyes sparkled as he spoke, he had passion in his voice and love for his art. But he was a relaxed and centered guy. I never met him one-on-one, but I met his movies. I met him that night when I saw him speak about the film that I have now had the privilege to see twice on a big screen- once at LACMA and once at the Turner Classic Film Festival (TCMFF).
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When you love what you do and you live for what you do, it’s hard to keep it inside. You exude that joy and dedication. That is the only way I can adequately describe Vilmos Zsigmond. He is so inspiring in that sense. Although he has passed away, he will always be inspiring in that regard. This is a man who filmed the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, escaped his homeland, and then shot films as diverse as HORROR OF THE BLOOD MONSTERS (Al Adamson, 1970), BLOW OUT (Brian DePalma, 1981) and REAL GENIUS (Martha Coolidge, 1985).
Aside from SCARECROW (obviously), I’m a sucker for BLOW OUT (Brian DePalma, 1981), THE LONG GOODBYE (Robert Altman, 1973), and MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER (Robert Altman, 1971). I consider these films to be part of my family. I will certainly admit to playing favorites on SCARECROW and BLOW OUT, however.
Tonight I will be watching SUMMER CHILDREN (James Bruner, 1965), another film that Zsigmond was credited on as “William Zsigmond” and lit by his pal, Laslo Kovacs. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve never seen it. There is very little written on it and I may pursue this more.
Wish I could see it in a theater, but them’s the brakes.
From what I have found, this film is another interesting addition to his oeuvre. It has been labeled “neo-noir” and American New Wave and all sorts of things. I’m excited because it features Catalina Island- one of my favorite places on the planet.summerchildren1965
I would like to do some more in-depth research on it (especially as to the actual restoration process) but my brief look came up with a reasonable synopsis.
It was thought to be a lost film (although it was finished) but elements (including original camera negatives) were found in the early 2000’s and sound elements were located in other vaults. Apparently (as it goes in a case like this, from my understanding) a restoration was completed using a combination of the best elements that they located from all of these vaults over time, and Zsigmond assisted on the creation of the final product, getting it back to some estimation of what it was to look like.
If you have Amazon Prime, you can watch this tonight as well. I’m greatly looking forward to it.
I consider myself lucky to have been so warmly gifted with his laughter and stories for one night. I am also lucky because I will be able to have his films forever. While I absolutely am not a binary “digital or film or die!” person, I will say this about Zsigmond: he knew how to use the format of film. And I hope that those working with digital instruments today will take that under consideration and experiment, perhaps, with film while it is still around because there is something different there. Not better, not worse, simply different. And it is what digital is based upon. And cinematographers like Haskell Wexler and Vilmos Zsigmond built that machine. Let us try not to hire the wrecking ball too soon, eh?
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Deader Than a .357 Magnum: Electra Glide in Blue and the Noir of the Road

When people think of noir and neo-noir, the name Robert Blake does get bandied about periodically. After all, he has either been the star of or a rather central figure of two very interesting films in the genre: In Cold Blood (1967) and Lost Highway (1997). However, I would like to posit that there is a third film in his repertoire that would fit the bill: James William Guercio’s Electra Glide in Blue (1973).

On the 15th of January, I originally had other plans. I waited around for a while, but when those appeared not to be happening, I hopped on my bike and raced down to LACMA for one of the double features that they were having as part of their “True Grit: The Golden Age of Road Movies” series. Although I had missed nearly the whole series, I wasn’t that heartbroken as I had seen many of them on the big screen before. These two films, however, were different. It was Electra Glide in Blue (1973) and Scarecrow (1973).

My ticket for Electra Glide in Blue, the first film in the double feature that night

The first film, Electra Glide in Blue, was a film a friend had told me about ages ago, whilst jamming the cassette into her car stereo and chatting excitedly about how much she loved the film. Ever since then, I had always associated it with her. Looking back now, however, I realize that I had seen images of the film poster and ephemera previous to that, and always imagined it to be a great deal more fetishistic, due to the imagery surrounding it. In truth, I had always associated it with Cruising, and this was due, quite simply, to 2 things: both films being made in the 1970’s and having what seemed to be high leather content in the costumes.

And I am not completely deficient in noting that Electra Glide is a film about fetishes and fetishizing. Looking at the poster one can see the basic authoritarian visuals mixed with a flourish in the font and colors that make it less threatening and more sexually charged:

And the trailer…well, that just speaks for itself.

What I was incorrect about was the subject of the fetish. And how that was to play out. Even upon seeing the trailer the first time, I may not have caught the simple beauty that is this film’s nasty, biting reality. But I think that’s what I love about films in this time period. Biting, nasty things are often the most beautiful. Thus, Electra Glide.

Electra Glide is what I would also call a Weirdo Noir. It’s not Neo Noir, as it doesn’t necessarily play by the rules as set out by all the academics and scholars who have written about that part of the genre. But what I love about film noir is that, from its genesis, it involved politics, nihilism, sexuality, and violence. If Electra Glide in Blue isn’t based on all of those things, I’ll eat my heels.

In the first place, the production and cast is a big part of our Weirdo Noir argument. We have three major figures: Robert Blake, Conrad Hall, and Elisha Cook, Jr. All three of these men were well versed in the film noir world, and are well-known within the noir canon. Who could forget the infamous poisoned glass of water that Elisha Cook Jr drinks in The Big Sleep? Or his other various roles in things like The Maltese Falcon, I Wake Up Screaming, or The Killing? I sure can’t! And Blake’s role as Perry Smith, the cold killer that director Richard Brooks revealed to have at least a somewhat human side in In Cold Blood will forever give me chills.

Then there’s Conrad Hall. Hall and Blake had worked together once before on In Cold Blood, and getting Hall was quite a coup, since the man had just won an academy award for shooting Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Even more interesting than that, Electra Glide was a labor of love. As Joe Valdez states in his brilliant piece,  not only did the film have a small budget, and a first time director, but the shooting plans were non-union and incredibly bare bones . More importantly, even with all of those restrictions, Valdez notes, “Hall was intrigued enough to offer himself for the job. Guercio forfeited his entire director’s salary so he could afford to pay the renowned cinematographer.”

Electra Glide in Blue was a true noir chemical experiment. By adding each element into the “beaker,” the result was an explosion of epic proportions. One would have to assume that there would have been at least some familiarity with each of these characters past works. They hadn’t been that long ago. Therefore, they each brought with them a certain noir sensibility to a film which defies categorization. According to William “Bill” Blick, writing for Senses of Cinema, Electra Glide is not the conventional 70’s Easy Rider-type film, nor is it a simple cop drama. It almost seems to occupy an ambiguous area in-between. He writes, “Using the structure of a murder mystery, the film reveals more than just conventional mystery plot twists. Blue unpeels layer after layer of its complex characters. While primarily a character study, the film also deals with the struggle for understanding between the tune-in, turn-on, drop-out generation and the older established order represented by the police.”

One of the best things about noir is its elasticity and tendency towards the ambiguous, whether that is in morals, sexuality, or otherwise. People will argue until the cows come home about putting hard dates on when actual film noir starts and stops (“It ends with Touch of Evil, dammit!”), and when neo-noir begins, but what I enjoy is that these arguments exist. What this means is that there is room to discuss. Therefore, a film like Electra Glide, which has been projected in a road movies film fest, shelved in the “cult movies” section of a DVD shop, and otherwise discussed in 70’s film terminologies, can also be seen within the noir lens.

JOHNNY: Did you know that me and Alan Ladd were exactly the same height? Right down to the quarter-inch? Did you know that?…Did you know that he was so short that they used to have to dig a ditch for the girl to stand in to kiss him? You didn’t know that, huh?

Johnny Wintergreen (Robert Blake) is more than slightly obsessed with Alan Ladd. He sees things in him that are the same and things that he would like to be. When we meet him, he is simply a Vietnam vet who is not only the shortest cop on his highway patrol team, but seems to be treated as though he is “small.” But Wintergreen does not see himself as small. He has ambition. Thus his interest in Ladd. To Wintergreen, Ladd is still relevant and sexy, therefore making him relevant and sexy. He approaches some girls at a sandwich bar, and uses his “Ladd lines” to flirt with them, only he takes it even further. He not only makes Ladd’s physicality specific to his own, he also references a particular film which, in a way, also mirrors his own life.

JOHNNY: I remember one time I heard somebody say “Do you know what was Alan Ladd and William Bendix’s first movie?” and just like that, I said The Blue Dahlia.

In Blue Dahlia, Alan Ladd plays a character who is an ex-navy man. The story itself is a peculiar one that also lends itself to Electra Glide and potentially Wintergreen’s own relationship with his partner, Zipper, and his relationship to the public. Although Raymond Chandler’s book was much more explicit about the details and the Breen Office essentially forced the film to be quite neutered (to Chandler’s great displeasure), the film focuses on war’s intense ability to turn human beings into killers past the point of being on the battlefield. In a sense, Blue Dahlia, like many other noirs, was about how the war came home. And this is different from Vietnam in what way, pray tell? There are several instances within the film where Wintergreen’s identity as a Vietnam vet exhibit themselves. And while it is not explicitly stated that Zipper was in Vietnam, it is clear that the way that the war has “come home” to their particular community (corruption-wise, economy-wise, politics-wise) makes him analogous to any of the other figures from Dahlia, even if it is only tangentially.

Wintergreen, however, wants more. He wants to be the heroic figure out of it, and not the one who ends up spiraling downwards. Thus his strong desire to align himself with Alan Ladd, the hero of Dahlia and, indeed, the unblemished symbol of tough-guy perfection. As Foster Hirsch noted about Alan Ladd, he looked “like what a mogul’s idea of what American movie stars should look like.” (Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen, 147).

Johnny Wintergreen cannot stand being a highway cop. He wants to be a homicide detective. And he actually makes it…sort of.  But, as in any noir, things go awry. And, like in many noirs, it is actually partially over a woman. Then he is returned to his “small man” status, and must cope with that. However, this is not how it ends. Electra Glide in Blue aligns with the existentialism and nihilism that is so prevalent in film noir as a whole. Just when you think it might be ok, it’s really not. But there are reasons for that which have been meticulously lain out for you within the last few reels. As a kicker, Hall’s cinematography in the last 10 minutes certainly packs a solid one-two punch to the skull.

Robert G. Porfirio wrote,”what keeps the film noir alive for us today is something more than a spurious nostalgia. It is the underlying mood of pessimism which undercuts any attempted happy endings and prevents the films from being the typical Hollywood escapist fare many were intended to be.” (“No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the film noir,” Sight and Sound, Autumn, 1976, vol.45, no.4) While Porfirio was talking about what we generally refer to as “traditional” noir fare, this quote could not be more perfect than for the category of Weirdo Noir, and thus Electra Glide in Blue. beyond all of the connections and the references, the mood of the film is what drives it towards the categorization. You could show this with The Killers, and be set. In fact, that would be a great double.  At the end of the day, when you think about it, you can’t get much more pessimistic than Wintergreen’s line in the middle of the movie, “Did you know that loneliness will kill you deader than a .357 Magnum?” If your mood wasn’t already on its way by then, there was your one-way ticket.