(*homocinematically inclined)

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: Two Men and a Camera

Award-winning cinematographers Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond spent most of their adult lives joined at the hip. From their native, war-torn Hungary to Hollywood during its renaissance period in the 1960's and 70's, the men "left one revolution behind only to create another." Kovacs lensed the radical Easy Rider, Targets and Five Easy Pieces, while Zsigmond brought a stunning naturalism to such blockbusters as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Deliverance, The Deer Hunter and Close Encounters of the Third Kind as well as the underrated box-office bomb Heaven's Gate.

An Emmy Award-nominated documentary about the pair, No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos, has just been made available on DVDand Digital Download by Cinema Libre Studio. James Chressanthis' excellent expose features a diverse assortment of commentators who have worked with one or both of the men, including Sandra Bullock, Sharon Stone, the late Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Karen Black, directors Peter Bogdanovich and Bob Rafelson, composer John Williams and critics Leonard Maltin and Todd McCarthy.

As Stone says of Vilmos and Laszlo (the former shot her 1993 thriller Sliver): "They learned how to light in a war zone." The men fled Budapest while film students when the Russian army suppressed an uprising against Hungary's Communist regime. Along their way to the Austrian border, they shot dramatic first-hand footage of the brutal crackdown against their fellow citizens so the rest of the world would be able to see what was going on. The eventual master cinematographers succeeded so well because they came, according to Stone, "from the training of life and truth."

First, though, Zsigmond and Kovacs had to work their way up the film industry ladder over a ten-year period following their arrival in California. They started out shooting baby pictures, then porn and cheap horror films, including 1964's notoriously bad The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies. Fearful that they wouldn't be hired because their names sounded too European, the men billed themselves as "William Zsigmond" and "Leslie Kovacs" on their early US films.

It was Kovacs' acclaimed, breakthrough work on Easy Rider that catapulted both him and Zsigmond into the big time. When the newly in-demand Kovacs was unable to take on Peter Fonda's follow-up, The Hired Hand, he recommended his best friend to Fonda as well as to director Robert Altman. Soon after, Zsigmond found himself in demand as well.

No Subtitles Necessary boasts generous helpings of personal anecdotes and clips from the men's films. Kovacs passed away in 2007 (he is seen on oxygen during an interview shot toward the end of his life), but his wife and daughters are on hand to provide more intimate insights. What ultimately, touchingly emerges in the documentary is the mutual admiration and affection Kovacs and Zsigmond held for each other. Director Mark Rydell states, "Like brothers... they matter to one another" and Kovacs' widow, Audrey, shares "They were as close as two men could ever be."

The documentary is itself well-shot by Anka Malatynska and edited to a brisk pace by Elisa Bonora. A fascinating tribute to two courageous visionaries, No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos also serves as a great companion piece to the wide variety of American movie classics for which they were largely responsible.

Reverend's Review: A

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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