Jan 26, 2016

Vilmos Zsigmond's Last Film


(This is the eulogy offered during a memorial service for Vilmos Zsigmond on January 23rd, 2016 in "Little Chapel by the Sea" in Pacific Grove, California. Vilmos was 85 when he died shortly before midnight on January 1st, 2016)

I
met him 22 years ago through my wife, Barbara, who is one of Susan’s six sisters. (Susan was Vilmos' second wife)  But I did not know him closely until he became ill last July. It was then I began to visit him each day, and you could say, I fell in love.
            Here is something of the man I knew.

 (Vilmos's World; Tata, Hungary; 1955. Copyright@2015)

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e was named after his father, a 6’5” soccer goalie who played with one of the great Hungarian club teams in the late 1930s and later coached a professional Moroccan team. The game that Vilmos never forgot was one his father played against Milan.  Late in the first half his father got kicked in the face.  His nose broken, bleeding badly, the manager suggested he come out. “No, just give me a towel,” Vilmos sr. said, then wiped off the blood and played the second half. 
          “He was so pissed off; he was like a tiger,” Vilmos would remember.
            The Hungarian team won; ‘Villy’, as his father was called, was taken to the hospital where hundreds of fans came to visit him.
            Vilmos, the son, never forgot that moment watching the tiger and desperately wanted to play soccer himself, but his father told him he was too small and weak and suggested he play table tennis instead.  It turned out to be good advice.  Vilmos became an excellent player which lead to a job in a rope factory and then to educational opportunities, apprenticeships, and authority. 
            And then one day while taking pictures in a field on the out-skirts of Szeged, he met a gypsy fortuneteller who told him, “you will sail on a ship across a great ocean to a big city, where you will become an important artist.”  
           
H
is father offered just two bits of advice: whatever you choose as a career be the best at it and always trust your intuition. Incidentally, his father followed a family tradition and created several leather-bound scrapbooks, meticulously filled with family photos, including Vilmos’s sister and every last cousin. But not a single photo of Vilmos’s mother.  Which is its own story.  

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s for his career, Vilmos became a cinematographer by chance, by choice, and by obsessively hard work.  He was a lighter and regarded among his peers as a poet-magician who believed in the power of shadows, who believed that realism should trump the artistic. Yet at the same time Vilmos was most gratified to capture the abstract nature of a scene. Or a moment.
            “I’m not that good at making things up!” He told me several times.
            He was an artist with the gift of cinematic sight, but he was also oddly geeky. His small studio in Big Sur was more like a Radio Shack outlet than a dark room.  He loved devices, apps, updates, and computer shortcuts, and yet in his thrall often became the fisherman caught in his nets.

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e was drawn, so he said, solely to the look of something and had little interest in the plot. Sometimes at the end of watching a movie he had only the barest sense of what went on, but was acutely aware of angles and colors.
            When the shooting had finished for Brian de Palma’s Blow Out, the ending was still a muddle; de Palma asked Vilmos what he thought the ending should be.  The choice was between tragedy and a happy ending.  “I’m a cinematographer,” replied Vilmos. “and it doesn’t make any difference to me who lives and who dies. it’s your choice. I’m merely another spectator in the theater.”
            That was not quite true but he could see both sides: the artistic value of the sad ending and the commercial value of the happy ending.  He could see both sides but could never decide for himself.
            His interest in photography began with an uncle who gave him a book written by Eugene Dulovits, a prominent Hungarian photographer and camera inventor. This he read while spending three months in bed recovering from a kidney infection when he was 17.
             That infection forecast his last illness.
           
T
he man was an academy award winner, but also an escape artist — although his bushy brow would furrow at the idea.  Still, he was always escaping to or from. In 1956, from Hungry to New York. A couple of years later, from New York to Hollywood.  Years after that, from Hollywood to Big Sur and then San Francisco. He was forever just leaving for the next city. The next movie, the next honor, the next class to teach.
            Always loyal to his commitments, no matter how ill he was or ill-conceived the project. 
            A year ago he went to China for a week just so that someone could put his name on their film.  And then back to Los Angeles to teach a class, which cost him more to go to than he made, and back to Budapest for his gallery opening and back to Monterey for another film class. 
            He could never say no, especially to students and apprentices. To nearly anybody. He fed off being wanted, which is perhaps partly a reflection of the lonely childhood he described to me. Without one parent or another.  Serving as a waiter at the age of 10 in his stepmother’s tavern.
            Always between poverty and the bourgeoisie.

I
n the hospital, even to the end, he was always talking about escape.  From the place, from his condition. “How did this happen to me?” he would say and shake his head and roll his eyes, and then he would demand that I push down the bed rails and pull him up. “You have to get me out of here,” he would say, and there was no delirium. But when I got him sitting up he couldn’t stand, and all we could do was shake our heads.
            He was so much tougher than his father imagined.
            And yet through these last months he was forever apologizing or thanking.  “Don’t worry about it,” he said one night in his apartment when he fell out of bed and needed help to get back. “I’m fine. I can stay here on the floor. It’s okay.”

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e could be wickedly stubborn.  A year ago he had an auto accident driving from Big Sur to Los Angeles.  He fell asleep.  The car crossed the road, went down a ravine near San Luis Obispo and was totaled.  He got out, made his way up to the highway, and still found his way to a dinner engagement that night in Los Angeles.
            And when was it, not long before that, when he tried to outrun the highway patrol on the road into Big Sur. Realizing he’d been clocked at 80 miles an hour he ducked on to a side road but the police found him. 
            As the officer leaned in the window, Vilmos, with the utmost charm, responded, “Is there anything wrong officer?”
            Vilmos was ever gracious, always full of compliments.  He was both na├»ve and savvy; simple and sophisticated. He sometimes gave the sense of being distracted even when he wasn’t.  Sometimes, I thought it was a cover.
            In the years I knew him, I don’t think I ever saw him get truly angry.  He could be cutting but he didn’t keep his knifes. 
            He loathed controversy.
            He was endlessly contradictory.
            Once he said, “Hungary is part of my heritage, but I feel more American than Hungarian because I spent the best time of my life in America.”  
            Another time he said, “the best part of my life was coming out of the school in Hungary where I learned the art and craft of cinematography.”
            Incidentally, he was a democrat and loved President Obama — for his eloquence and sense of fairness. One of Vilmos's greatest hopes was that he might convince his friend Prime Minister Orban that Obama was a great president.
          
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is favorite movies included, among so many others, The Cranes Are Flying and Ballad of a Soldier.  As for style he felt Bunuel was too artistic, too impressionistic. At the opposite end, he felt Sven Nykvist was painfully stark, painfully realistic. 
            And what about your own films? I asked. Which is your favorites?
            We began going down the list and after a while it became clear that every movie beginning with Deliverance was his favorite.  But perhaps the Deer Hunter above all.  And Heaven’s Gate, which he always believed was a masterpiece and finally, all these years later, critics are beginning to agree.
            Other cinematographers he revered included G.R. Aldo who shot Vittorio de Sica’s Umberto D, the classic post war black and white film about a man and his dog.  Vilmos was particularly drawn to the ending when the old man decides to commit suicide and lies down on the railroad tracks with his dog.  At the last minute the dog jumps away and the old man follows. 
            “The dog was saying, ‘you can kill yourself but you’re not killing me.’ And so the old man chooses life, they get back to their routines and become friends again.  It is a very life-affirming moment.”
            If Vilmos was ambivalent about ’the happy ending’ he was always looking for the life-affirming moment — in a film or in life.
            
R
everend Erickson, please don’t be offended if I tell you that Vilmos never believed in Lutheranism, much less the Catholicism forced on him by his stepmother. Just a few weeks ago, with death sipping soda in the corner, he told me that he believed in a divine intelligence; how else to explain such a wondrous and unfathomable world. 
            His skepticism for organized religion grew out of his distrust of functionaries, whether from political parties or the church.  What he believed in, and what he trusted, had nothing to do with Man, only Man’s creator. 
            His greatest regret was not spending more time with his children.

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nd what else did he believe in?  He believed in his ability to make the right choice. Looking back on his life he said once, “I always make the right choice to do something useful. That’s why I went to meet my father in Salzburg in 1955.” Vilmos was at a crossroads just then and took an opportunity to ask his father for guidance. 
            “The decision was made by accident. I sought his advice because he was finally available. I had all the choices: to go to Paris, London, or Australia. But then my father said,’ go to America’; so I get a hold of Laszlo (Kovacs), and I said, ‘let’s go to Hollywood.’ “
            Vilmos added, “I don’t believe you can make your own luck. You’re either lucky or not.”

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n a book written in French and published in 1955,  Vilmos’ father gathered together 100 anecdotes from his career.  In one he wrote, “At the end of the first half, In the locker room, feeling very discouraged, I told myself that it was over, that I was too old of a soccer player and I had nothing to offer. Even that acclaimed intuition that had served me so faithfully throughout my career had abandoned me. But no – during the second half, our luck turned and soon the score was 2-2 and that lead to a third goal giving us the victory. My intuition was still good; I was not yet ‘finished.’ “

I
n a conversation not long ago, Vilmos commented that when you look at a Rembrandt there’s always a story, and your eye, in the hands of a master,  knows just where to find it.  Of course, the same is true of photography. 
            “If you take a picture of a storm,” he told me one night and then paused, his face tilted up to the light, eyes closed, for a very long time laying out his words. “If you take a picture of a storm, it would not make any sense unless there is a boat, just the sea is not enough. And so you use the boat to explain the ocean. You must always have a human element.”

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week before he died, Vilmos and I sat in the empty lounge of the dialysis unit in a San Francisco hospital.  We were watching a basketball game and the nurse was trying to persuade Vilmos to take his medicine; he was in and out of his delirium.          
            It was at times like these that sometimes we made movies, often with just one scene.  Short subjects as it were. One movie was about a wall-sized armoire, each drawer jammed with exotic liqueurs and secrets from his life. Another movie was about the nurses handling an emergency: his own. This time it was about Kobe Bryant, the great Laker’s star, now playing his last season.
            "Can't you see I'm working!" Vilmos said to the nurse, whose patient Filipina smile could not be undone.  She apologized, slipped her spoon with applesauce and pills into his mouth, and fled to her station.
            He spent several minutes assembling his imaginary crew and then asked, “Who’s missing?”.
            “The starlets,” I said on the fly, thinking of Susan (his wife), and Julia (his daughter from a previous marriage). They’d gone down to the cafeteria.
            “Yes, we need the starlets,” he said. “Ok, then we will wait for them.”
            “Set your F stops at 248,” he went on, and then thinking of the cameras behind him he added, “How many meters do they have left?”
             “They have enough,” I said. 
             “Both cameras?”
             “Both cameras,” I said.
             “There must be 50 meters in each camera. Tell everyone to take their spots.”
             “Take your spots,” I said, feeling like the first officer in an old submarine movie.
             “Where’s Kobe?” he said, then turned to me, suddenly playful, clear-eyed and sure. “We’re recording this, right?” he said, with the wink of a man who had suddenly escaped his delirium.
            Just then the starlets walked off the elevator.  As they came into his view he looked at me with mock exasperation, as though to say ‘starlets never respect the clock.’ 
            But there was another look as well, a look of such fondness and relief at their presence you could hardly imagine.
            Vilmos waved his hands and clapped. Everyone, real and imagined, found their marks.  He was following his intuition just as he always did.

            “Action, action, action,” he shouted, and off we went.

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