The art of cinematography has been well served by the movies in recent years, with last year’s documentary Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff adding to the small genre of films about cinematography. Cinema Libre answers with a DVD release of the 2008 documentary No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos, about the cinematographers Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond.
Film students in their native Hungary, the two cameramen found themselves witnesses to history as they filmed the Russian invasion of Budapest in 1956. They escaped their homeland, Kovacs carrying a handful of mother dirt in his raincoat pocket, and smuggled their 16mm footage to America. Having lived through that turmoil, every thing else was gravy. But their early years in Hollywood were inauspicious, as they lent their visual flair to a series of no-budget pictures: Wild Guitar and Psycho-a-go-go (credited to William Zsigmond) and nudies like The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill (shot by Kovacs under the name Art Radford). By the late 1960s the pair graduated to what served as a kind of college for independent American Film makers: the Roger Corman machine. It was Kovacs’ work on biker films that led to his landmark work on Easy Rider, and Kovacs’ recommendation of his school chum that Zsigmond got to work his magic on Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller .
Both cinematographers broke rules. For Easy Rider, Kovacs shot directly into the sun to get lens flares that most DPs avoid, but these flares served as a visual benediction upon the outlaw heroes Captain America and Billy as they cycled across a nation in crisis. Zsigmond, at the protest of many on set, “flashed” certain reels of film, briefly exposing the negatives to light to get the remarkable softly-aged look that distinguishes McCabe and Mrs. Miller. With a filmography like that, the two Hungarians were responsible for much of the look of the American independent cinema of the 70s, and if Kovacs hit the early high marks like Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, Zsigmond’s star rose with his work on Close Encounters and The Deer Hunter.
Talking heads from behind and in front of the camera sing the pair’s praises, from Dennis Hopper and Bob Rafelson (director of Five Easy Pieces) to, less auspiciously, Sharon Stone, whose star turn in the terrible Silver was shot by Zsigmond.
One would hope that a film about cinematographers would be well photographed, but certain interviews are peppered with the kind of out of focus, hand-held shots you see in music videos and horror movies, but this is a minor quibble. Cinematographers will be intrigued by brief glimpses at camera setups and technical chatter, while the casual movie buff may will gain a better appreciation of the art of cinematography with the gorgeous compositions and lighting. For further reference, see the essential 1992 documentary Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography.
Generous DVD extras include a tribute to the late Dennis Hopper, who was interviewed for the film, as well as “master classes” in acting and directing which are really just outtakes of interviews with Karen Black and director Bob Rafelson, who talks at greater length about Head and Five Easy Pieces.