Home | Archive | Itineraries | Events | FAQ | Columns/Links
Advertise | Newsletter | About/Subscribe | Submissions | Art Walk | Books | THE2NDHAND Writers Fund

**PRINT: FRIENDS FROM CINCINNATI: Installment 24 features this part coming-of-age short by Chicago's Patrick Somerville, author of the Trouble collection of shorts out in 2006. | PAST BROADSHEETS |

Back to Archive Index

James Hughes

Vilmos Zsigmond, the internationally acclaimed, Hungarian-born cinematographer, stood alone next to his Panavision camera long after the rest of the crew had cleared the set.

Tears welled up in his eyes and threatened to spill.

"Good lord," he cried. "My Zeiss!"

The sudden outburst caught the ear of Ross Faraday, the medic on set that afternoon, as he made his way towards the ravaged craft service table, hoping to sift through the remaining Krispy crumbs.

"Heavens, Vilmin," Ross gasped. "Did you say something about your eyes? I have a kit for that if you need it. You can just flush whatever it is right outta there, no sweat. A man in your position, he needs his eyes. Why, they're your most important body part!"

"No, no," Zsigmond growled. "Not my eyes! My Zeiss! My Zeiss, it is even more important than my eyes! The Zeiss is the eyes of the world! And look what they've done, they've destroyed it!"

Zsigmond splashed his arms towards the camera, pointing out the Zeiss Ultra Prime lens that stuck out triumphantly from the body of the camera like a bloodied bayonet. In fact, the lens itself actually was bloodied. A mysterious coating, pale pink in color, was the source of Zsigmond's heartache. The gunk was smeared across the orb of glass and had collected inside the divots of the aperture drive rings. The lens now looked like a chocolate-dipped ice cream cone. Only this chocolate was made of sticky salmon guts.

Zsigmond had seen a lot throughout his storied career, but nothing that could prepare him for this moment. Even his traumatic days of surviving and capturing on film the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 -- that was a walk in the park compared to this shoot. Zsigmond, then a student at the Academy of Film and Theater Arts in Budapest, had filmed a politically-charged documentary about the Hungarian revolution and thus became a target of the encroaching Soviets. Along with his collaborator, the equally-gifted Hungarian cinematographer, Laszlo Kovacs, Zsigmond fled the country, only to be snatched and detained by Russian border guards. Fortunately, the two fugitive filmmakers had buried their canister of 35mm film in a cornfield before encountering the guards. After being released by the authorities in the middle of the night, Zsigmond and Kovacs searched through hundreds of cornstalks to find the precious film, which they later sold to a German documentary crew already knee-deep in a film about the Hungarian revolution. Zsigmond and Kovacs's footage was exactly the spark they needed.

From there, Zsigmond settled in America, where he supported himself as a lab technician while improving his English skills at night. Later, having grasped control of the language, Zsigmond volunteered to shoot low-budget feature films directed by aspiring filmmakers, including an embarrassing medley of amateur slasher flicks. It wasn't until he filmed Robert Altman's 1971 masterpiece McCabe & Mrs. Miller that Zsigmond finally received the creative autonomy he so rightfully deserved. It was, in fact, his Big Break.

Now, after 30 years in the business, Zsigmond had finally decided to slow his pace. The physical demands of shooting an entire feature film, of which he'd already photographed over 60, were more than his aging body could handle. Instead, Zsigmond became involved in more and more television commercials. Granted, commercial shoots were both stressful and technically demanding, but he found that they were oftentimes over before he knew it.

That's how Zsigmond ended up agreeing, although somewhat reluctantly, to shoot this particular McDonalds advertisement. Initially, he'd objected to the project on moral grounds -- the focus of the spot was to promote a week-long sale of Big Macs to the African-American "urban demographic" -- but he simply couldn't turn down the pay. Besides, that new addition on his house had to be paid for somehow.

The commercial was centered around a group of B-list commercial actors who were dressed up to resemble the hip-hop artist Nelly's crew of St. Louis cronies (down to the superfluous cheekbone Band-Aids and Halloween hockey masks). According to the one-page script, the posse felt so empowered by the 99-cent sale that they were compelled to jump up and down in a tight circle, flashing Big Mac sets through jewel-encrusted fists.

When it came time to shoot, Zsigmond decided to hollow out the floorboards of the set as a tribute to cinematographer Gregg Toland's audacious compositions in Citizen Kane. Zsigmond's director on the shoot, McG, agreed wholeheartedly. McG, known as the man who put Sugar Ray and Smash Mouth on the map with his visually-arresting music videos, took Zsigmond's floorboard-shot idea and ran with it. He instructed the group of actors to aim their burgers down at the camera and slam them towards the lens in a chopping motion reminiscent of the way MC Treach of Naughty By Nature slashed his machete in syncopation to the beat of "Hip Hop Hurray" in the seminal, Spike Lee-directed video.

And that's where Zsigmond's problems began.

During a particularly raucous take, one of the actors became so caught up in the beat pumping through the loudspeakers that he dropped to his knees and dunked the Big Mac burger straight into Zsigmond's lens. He then wagged his out-of-focus tongue at the lettuce bits streaked across the surface of the Zeiss and crinkle-cut his fingers into an imaginary set.

Fortunately, this occurred on the last take, and was a shot that captured precisely the type of energy that McG was looking for, so the shoot was wrapped and Zsigmond's equipment was spared further abuse.

"Outrageous!" Zsigmond suddenly shouted, nearly tipping over from a spell of dizziness.

Like that he was thrust back into reality, no longer able to daydream about his arduous career and the moments that led up to the horrific mistreatment he experienced that afternoon.

Ross Faraday practically jumped out of his skin when he heard Zsigmond's roar. For the past five minutes, he'd been unable to snap the crazed cameraman out of his self-induced trance. Zsigmond just stood there, compulsively tucking and untucking his shirt, fighting his knee-jerk reaction to wipe down the lens with his cotton shirttails. At first, Ross considered rushing to his trailer to retrieve some smelling salts, but was relieved that it was no longer necessary.

"What am I to do?" Zsigmond shouted at the top of his lungs. "Thousands! Thousands of dollars this equipment costs! It is the best! The best equipment in the world!"

"Well, Valmont," Ross offered. "I could go get some gauze for you. I mean, they're pretty soft. Maybe they could get off some of that goo? Or there's rubbing alcohol in the--"

"Silence!" Zsigmond demanded. "All of these dimwitted suggestions you throw out are useless! They will do nothing! For what can combat this problem other than a trip to the city dump? Don't you understand, you imbecile? There is Special Sauce on my Zeiss!"

James Hughes is the editor of Broken Wrist Project. He lives in Chicago, where he often contemplates a coup against Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz.