Recently I rediscovered a trio of films I hadn’t thought about for quite some time. Each one – Scarecrow (shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC), Slither (photographed by Laszlo Kovacs, ASC), and The Last Detail (cinematography by Michael Chapman, ASC) was released in 1973 and reminds us of what a fantastic period that was for feature films.
Not having seen them since their first release, the experience was like hearing songs from a distant part of my life. I was transported back to my early teenage years; old thoughts and emotions came flooding in and the effect was incredibly moving. Movies like these were popular across all demographics during that time, a period when going to the single-plex was the thing to do. Though a lot has drifted under the bridge since, I reveled in the reminiscence. Instead of seeing them as the simple entertainment they once represented, I realized that these somewhat forgotten films were still an important part of my life. I’m thankful for that and can’t recommend them highly enough.
It must’ve been exciting to have been a part of that New Wave of cinematographers! That so much of what they brought to the screen was quickly absorbed as convention is the ultimate validation of their vision. That their work still seems fresh and energizing in 2021 is an even greater testimony to the long-term value of conviction and good taste.
While I was busy playing ball and avoiding homework assignments, this generation – lead by such ASC giants as John Alonzo, Bill Butler, William A. Fraker, Conrad Hall, Adam Holender, Victor Kemper, Richard Kline, Richard Moore, Owen Roizman, Haskell Wexler and Gordon Willis – as well as the aforementioned Chapman, Kovacs and Zsigmond – rewrote the rules of what was acceptable in mainstream features. And what a job they did!
Imagine what had dominated the screen up to their arrival… Interior sets were commonly nuked with carbon arcs regardless of the hour. Night exteriors – even in wilderness locations – were often lit to laughably high-key levels. But these great artists portrayed life as people saw it, in natural and unobtrusive ways. And their genius was most evident when they used their disruptive aesthetic to support dramatic context. This once again proves that it’s not the tools but the human touch that matters most in our work.
If that’s not enough, topping it off for me was another unexpected remembrance of times past, appearing as it did every twenty minutes in the upper right frame of the letterboxed presentation of Scarecrow. Also known as cigarette burns, these changeover marks told me I was watching a scan of a fourth generation copy of a forty eight year-old story that had been originated on film.
And you know what? It looked – and felt – fantastic!