Movie theaters have been trying for years, even decades, to entice audiences away from their increasingly sophisticated home viewing environments and into the cozy confines of a cinema. They’ve tried just about everything. 3-D, IMAX, THX, and DTS. Giant exploding robots. Smell-o-vision, for God’s sake. More 3-D. Dinner service. And, of course, alcohol.
One thing theater chains seem to overlook is a tactic employed by, among others, Portland’s Hollywood Theatre: showing great films, on film, that deserve to be appreciated on a big screen. Not just the latest, greatest, and biggest, but those that demonstrate the art of filmmaking. That’s the thrust of their latest series, “Light and Shadows: Masters of Cinematography.” Pulling focus on some of the great lensers of the 1960s and 70s, it kicks off Monday, March 7 with a screening of Robert Altman’s 1971 revisionist Western “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” which was shot by Hungarian-born Vilmos Zsigmond. (It’s interesting to note how many of American cinema’s greatest cinematographers were foreign-born.)
Zsigmond, who died on January 1 of the year, emigrated to the U.S. in his thirties and got his start working on low-budget horror films in the 1960s before Altman gave him his first big break with “McCabe.” He also shot “The Long Goodbye” for Altman and went on to work with directors like Steven Speilberg (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”), Michael Cimino (“The Deer Hunter” and “Heaven’s Gate”), and Brian DePalma (“Obsession” and “Blow Out”). In “McCabe” and other films, he used a technique known as ‘flashing,’ exposing the negative to a small amount of light before shooting, in order to create a low-contrast color palette.
If “McCabe” made expressive use of shadow, “The Godfather,” which was released the following year and screens on March 14, took things to a whole other level. Cinematographer Gordon Willis earned the nickname “Prince of Darkness” for his low-light, sepia-toned approach to Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster epic. Willis became a frequent collaborator on Woody Allen’s films later in the decade, including his most beautifully shot, “Manhattan.” Despite those highlights (as well as “All the President’s Men”), he was only nominated for two Academy Awards: for 1983’s “Zelig” and 1990’s “The Godfather Part III.”
Spanish-born Nestor Almendros did win an Oscar for the awe-inspiring imagery of Terrence Malick’s 1978 second feature, “Days of Heaven,” screening March 19. The movie took three years to edit, and had to be stitched together narratively with voiceover (a habit Malick still hasn’t broken), but it ended up looking so fabulous that the director didn’t make another film for twenty years because he was afraid he couldn’t top it. (At least, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was one of the reasons.) Almendros was aided by American Haskell Wexler, another groundbreaking cinematographer, who died five days before Zsigmond, because everyone cool has been dying these last few months.
Chinese-born James Wong Howe received his first Academy Award nomination in 1938 and his last in 1975. Few lens masters witnessed as much technological evolution as Howe, who started in silent films, prospered in the assembly-line studio era, and took full advantage of both technical and artistic advances in the 1960s. He pioneered deep focus cinematography (ten years before Gregg Toland made it famous with “Citizen Kane”) and never shied away from dramatic, self-conscious imagery, which is especially evident in his work on John Frankenheimer’s 1966 cult classic “Seconds,” which screens March 23. An ennui-ridden middle-aged man abandons his family and undergoes a procedure that gives him a new life and a new face (Rock Hudson, in a retrospectively revelatory performance). If you’ve ever seen it, you’ll never forget the terrifying wide-angle shots. If you haven’t, here’s your chance.
The final film in the series, on March 29, is the first notable effort from director Peter Bogdanovich, 1968’s “Targets.” Its cinematographer was another Hungarian, Laszlo Kovacs, who came to the U.S. about the same time as Zsigmond. (An endearing documentary made in 2008, “No Subtitles Necessary,” profiles their fifty-year friendship.) It’s the least visually showy of the movies in “Light and Shadows,” but displays the naturalistic color style that Kovacs would use on “Easy Rider” the following year. The story was inspired by the 1966 mass murders committed by Charles Whitman: a clean-cut American young man goes on an apparently unmotivated shooting spree, culminating at a drive-in movie theater where an iconic horror-film star (Boris Karloff, in his last major role) is doing a personal appearance.
With all but one (“Seconds”) being screened on 35mm film, this is a remarkable opportunity to experience some of the bold and beautiful moviemaking that transformed the American film industry over the course of the dozen years covered here.
(“Light and Shadows: Masters of Cinematography” runs from Monday, March 7 to March 29 at the Hollywood Theatre. Film all start at 7:30 p.m. For more info or to purchase tickets, visit www.hollywoodtheatre.org)