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No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos (DVD Review)

12 Mar, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Cinema Libre
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.

Laszlo Kovacs went from shooting the only movie Jack Nicholson ever made with The Strawberry Alarm Clock (and even this seemed like something out of Louis B. Mayer’s MGM compared to earlier assignments) to the outdoor black-and-white landscapes of Oscar royalty Paper Moon and the ‘40s color bandstand look of New York, New York.

For his part, Vilmos Zsigmond went from working with slickum-haired Arch Hall Jr. in The Sadist (which, from a clip here, we can see was not anyone’s photographic throwaway) to Deliverance and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This duo bio is on a subject whose time long ago came, and I’m irked at myself for never having gotten around to seeing this documentary by James Chressanthis after recording it off PBS a way’s back. Thanks for goosing me, Cinema Libre, because there was a lot of libre in the era that’s relived here.

We get slightly, but only slightly, less about professional technique and the wealth of screen history involved than you see in most documentaries about cinematography — but that’s because there’s a special and very specific tale to tell here that would be foolhardy to shortchange. It is not only one of friendship — though Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs remained inseparable soulmates until the latter’s 2007 death — but of the events that formed it. Endangering your life by photographing the short-lived Hungarian Revolution against the Soviets in 1956 could serve as the climax of a lot of stories, but for the two young students at Budapest’s Academy of Drama and Film, it was just the beginning.

Between the two of them, it seems as if Kovacs and Zsigmond eventually (after a long hard-knocks apprenticeship) shot about half of the interesting films to come out of the almost incomparably rich pre-Star Wars era of the late 1960s and early ’70s. But their careers began not just by sneaking over the Hungarian border — but by sneaking the negative of their Revolution footage as well. The rude awakening was that no one in the U.S. was particularly interested in employing footage of yesterday’s news, and by the time Kovacs ended up in the upper Northeast making maple syrup, he almost began to think his decision to emigrate was almost a wash.

So it was off to Hollywood for both — and more menial jobs, for which being assistant cameraman on The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (this was Kovacs, back when he was billed as “Leslie”) seemed like career advancement. Eventually, Kovacs got hired as cinematographer on some biker movie Dennis Hopper was directing, and when Easy Rider became a smash, its surprise success swept a lot of talents along with it (including Jack Nicholson, who, up to that time, had wallowed in the industry almost as long as pre-stardom Humphrey Bogart had in the 1930s). Kovacs got so hot that he couldn’t take every project, but there was always his buddy from film school.

About the time you convince yourself that Easy Rider and Paper Moon featured the utmost in landscape work, we get a clip here from Zsigmond’s work in McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Scarecrow. Colleagues from Hopper to Bob Rafelson to Jon Voight to Karen Black weigh in — and you have to be amused hearing Rafelson talk about how he told Kovacs he wanted no moving camera in Five Easy Pieces’ exteriors (interiors were OK) and then later hearing that Robert Altman wanted Zsigmond’s camera moving all the time in The Long Goodbye. These guys had to adapt.

Both men were quite handsome in their youths but had stable relationships with specific women — or as stable as these could be when the women were back in Hungary. Smack in the middle this documentary is an incredible story of how Kovacks (post-success) sneaked back into the mother country and got the women across the border, resulting in two permanent marriages halted only by Kovacs’ death. You can see in a couple shots here that Kovacs (who eventually died in his sleep) is wearing an oxygen tube. One can’t help but note that his last Hollywood credit was in 2002, five years before his death, though when I spent an extremely pleasant evening with him in 1999, he seemed robust. I told him that my favorite work of his was on Rafelson’s 1972 The King of Marvin Gardens, and he said he agreed, though maybe he was just being polite.

Marvin Gardens barely gets mentioned here, but six hours likely wouldn’t do justice to the run both men had in the ’70s. What’s sadly interesting is the fall-off in the overall quality of the movies (though not their work) in subsequent decades. But maybe this is only reflecting the degree to which major studio Hollywood, which is where the two plied their trades in their primes, eventually went to hell itself.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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