The latest installment of the vaunted PBS series Independent Lens is No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos. The documentary about the legendary Hungarian cinematographers debuts this week around the country. Check your local listings for time and channel.
Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond met at film school in Budapest in the 1950s. When Soviet tanks rumbled into the city to crush the reform movement in 1956, the two friends took to the streets to document the horrors of the crackdown. They understood the importance of the footage they had, and volunteered to smuggle it out of their repressed country.
The two filmmakers eventually settled in Hollywood, where they did all sorts of odd jobs before getting opportunities to work on low-budget horror and biker films. Over the next 40 years, they created some of the most indelible images in the history of film. Kovacs got his break when he was tapped to be the Director of Photography for the seminal film Easy Rider in 1969. He went on to be the cinematographer on some of the greatest films of the 1970s, including Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon, Hal Ashby’s Shampoo, and Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York. In the 1980s, he worked on films like Ghostbusters and Say Anything.
At the same time, Zsigmond was creating his own masterpieces, the first of which was his work on Robert Altman’s classic McCabe & Mrs. Miller. He went on work with Steven Spielberg on Sugarland Express, and most notably Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for which he won the Academy Award. His credits also include Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, and Heaven’s Gate. He received his fourth Academy Award nomination for his work on The Black Dahlia in 2006, and he is currently at work on his third film with Woody Allen.
The work of Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond practically defined the American New Wave of film in the 1970s. They remained lifelong friends until Kovacs died in 2007. No Subtitles Necessary does a terrific job of telling their story through commentary by cinematographer peers like Owen Roizman, and Vittorio Storaro, directors including Dennis Hopper, Peter Bogdanovich, John Boorman, William Richert, and Bob Rafelson, and actors Karen Black, Jon Voight, Peter Fonda, Sharon Stone, and Tatum O’Neal, among others. The film also features an abundance of clips from their most well-known — and some lesser-known — films, and reminiscences from Kovacs and Zsigmond themselves. The film does jump around in time a little bit, but director James Chressanthis, himself a cinematographer, does a nice job of holding together what is clearly a labor of love by all involved.
The golden age of American film that began in the late 1960s and continued well into the 1970s marked the end of the studio system, and the rise of independent filmmaking. It’s my favorite era, and the contributions of Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond to the most memorable films of the era were unparalleled. No Subtitles Necessary looks at the work of two great artists, but more importantly, it tells the story of two great friends. Don’t miss it.