Monday, November 16, 2009

No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos

Their cinematography marks some of Hollywood’s most (and least) celebrated motion pictures, yet their first collaboration as film students might be even more historically significant. Before Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond filmed watershed movies of the 1970’s, like Easy Rider, Deliverance, Paper Moon, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the master Hungarian cinematographers captured on film a historical record of the Soviet Army brutally repressing the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Now their dramatic lives and work are profiled in fellow cinematographer James Chressanthis’s feature directorial debut, No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos (trailer here), an official selection of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival which airs tomorrow night in most markets on PBS’s Independent Lens.

Following the Soviet invasion, Kovacs and Zsigmond miraculously smuggled their footage out of the country in an unlikely escape that became the stuff of Hollywood legend. Amazingly, Kovacs actually clandestinely returned to Hungary later to sneak out loved ones, leaving an increasingly anxious Zsigmond waiting near the border.

Though different in temperament, the two men are constantly referred to as brothers in spirit throughout Subtitles. While Kovacs was described as a ladies’ man, Zsigmond emerges as a bit shier and slightly more neurotic. Yet, both would do anything for the shot on the early exploitation films they cut their teeth on. Then one day, Kovacs landed yet another biker movie: Easy Rider. From that point forward, Kovacs and Zsigmond became the d.p.’s of choice for the generation of filmmakers sometimes labeled “the American New Wave,” including Dennis Hopper, Peter Bogdanovich, Hal Ashby, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, and Bob Rafelson.

Throughout the film, both men come across as highly regarded and genuinely well liked in an industry not known for fostering camaraderie. Many of the directors and actors they worked with, notably including Jon Voigt and Dennis Hopper, offer some engaging reminiscences. Bogdanovich, both a film historian and a director (who worked with Kovacs on Targets, Paper Moon and the ill-fated At Long Last Love), offers some particularly insightful commentary.

As one would hope for a documentary about cinematographers, directed by one of their peers, Subtitles has a very vital, cinematic look. Give credit to cinematographer Anka Malatynska just for accepting such a daunting assignment. Chressanthis also nicely explains his subjects’ distinctive mastery of light, as well as their tireless work to promote recognition of cinematography as a creative discipline in its own right.

Clearly, Kovacs and Zsigmond were comfortable opening up to a colleague, speaking frankly about their personal and professional challenges. Though Kovacs passed away in 2007, there are still ample interview segments with him, while seeing Zsigmond without his lifelong friend adds poignancy to what could have easily been a Hollywood-style celebration of triumph over adversity.

Indeed, Subtitles is truly a cinematographer’s film. It looks great and will foster an increased appreciation of the director of photography in general with its many clips of the classic films shot by Kovacs and Zsigmond. It airs on Independent Lens tomorrow night (11/17) at 10:00 on New York’s Thirteen.