The American Society of Cinematographers

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Iron Man 2
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
The African Queen
House of the Devil
John A. Alonzo
ASC Close-Up
The Man Who Shot Chinatown: The Life and Work of John A. Alonzo (2007)
Montagnola Productions, $29.95

Despite the indispensable role cinematographers have played in creating the rich history of cinema, only a few films have been made that credibly examine the significance of certain cinematographers and their bodies of work. In 1992, we were given Todd McCarthy, Arnold Glassman and Stuart Samuels’ Visions of Light, an excellent introduction to the art and craft of photographing motion pictures and an abbreviated nod to some of the most gifted people ever to have taken their places behind cameras. After that came Carl-Gustav Nykvist’s Light Keeps Me Company (2000), about his father, Sven Nykvist, ASC, which plays out the arc of Sven’s career against his performance as a parent. And in 2004, Mark Wexler's Tell Them Who You Are plowed ground similar to that of Nykvist, with its familial dissection of the life and work of the great Haskell Wexler, ASC.

The most recent effort in this vein is Axel Schill’s documentary The Man Who Shot Chinatown: The Life and Work of John A. Alonzo [ASC]. In the interest of full disclosure, I must mention I maintain a deep affection for John; he was a good friend, and it was his benevolent guidance that secured my invitation to ASC membership in 1999. I have also long been a fan of his work. His approach to Chinatown and such titles as Harold and Maude; Sounder; Conrack; The Fortune; Farewell, My Lovely; and Norma Rae helped define the look of what many of us are fond of referring to as “the last golden age of American filmmaking,” the 1970s. (John’s credits also include Brian De Palma’s Scarface, John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday, John Badham’s Blue Thunder, Mike Figgis’ Internal Affairs and Stephen Frears’ 2000 live-television production of Fail Safe.)

It is disappointing to report, then, this documentary falls short of delivering the sort of depth I would like to have seen. It works on a certain level by presenting details of John’s early life in Dallas, Texas, where he was born to two Mexican migrant workers; his struggles to break into the film industry (first as an actor!) as a young Mexican-American; and his development and eventual success as a cinematographer. But the film achieves little of the intimacy that defines the Nykvist and Wexler efforts. (This might be due, in part, to the fact this production was mounted shortly after John died, whereas both Nykvist and Wexler fully participated in their sons’ films.) Also missing is any attempt to do more than merely praise and catalogue some of John’s films and working methods. Welcome information and anecdotes are provided by collaborators and friends such as Wexler and fellow ASC members John Toll and George Spiro Dibie; directors Figgis, William Friedkin and John McNaughton; producer Fred Caruso; actors Sally Field and Richard Dreyfuss, and film critic Roger Ebert. I suspect, however, the aesthetics that informed Alonzo’s major efforts deserve an appreciably more detailed examination — after all, he was a prime mover of the “American New Wave.”

The film becomes weaker when it takes a sudden and unexpected turn at the halfway point, crossing the line separating the public from the personal when Georgiana Alonzo, one of John’s three daughters, describes the more than 25-year estrangement from him that she and her sisters experienced after he divorced their mother and remarried. This revelation comes totally without context and feels completely out of place in what had been, up to that point, a reasonably enjoyable narrative. Worse yet, the reasons for this estrangement remain vague for the remainder of the film. Viewers who know little or nothing about John are likely to find this confusing; for those of us who actually knew him, it is weird and unsettling.  

Nonetheless, there are enjoyable moments throughout the 77-minute film, including interviews with John’s many collaborators. In addition to the aforementioned people, included are young filmmakers Taz Goldstein and Robert Moniot, who were surprised and delighted to land John for their short film The Dancing Cow, one of his last projects (AC Jan. ’02).

The supplemental material on this DVD includes longer excerpts of the interviews used in the film; an audio commentary shared by Schill, producer Stephanie Bahr and cinematographer Volker Gläser; a 24-page booklet containing an interview with John (provided by his estate) and an essay by daughter Georgiana; a stills gallery, photos of John’s sculptures and a short cartoon John created with Martin Ritt.

Given the dearth of available material concerning cinematographers and the nature of what we do, The Man Who Shot Chinatown is most definitely worth a look. There is no doubt it represents a sincere effort meant to pay tribute to a great cinematographer, someone I knew as a wonderful man.

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