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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
As a participating filmmaker in the 2009 Salem Film Festival, I had the
opportunity to watch this film, which was created 22 years ago in the
mind of Cinematographer and Director Jim Chrissanthis and the last 2
years in the making.
First, a word on the men responsible for this film.
I had the privilege of meeting Vilmos and Director Jim Chrissanthis the day before they screened this film. Both men were wonderful and they talked to me, a stranger, for lengths of time about film and were happy to answer each and every single one of my questions with complete passion and years of experience behind their answers. They are men who truly love their craft and are happy to share their knowledge with those who are less experienced.
I was excited to learn that after the screening, there would be a Q&A session with Mr. Zsigmond and Mr. Chrissanthis.
I was blessed to see this film being projected from a glorious 35mm print. The print had seen better days, but besides a few scratches here and there, the actual footage was just beautiful. Those scratches quickly disappeared from my mind as the film flew by at blinding speed. Including footage from interviews with the industry's top people (including Dennis Hopper, Sharon Stone, John Williams and Richard Donner), Chrissanthis molds a beautiful narrative of two men passionate about film and how they became like brothers through their struggles while going from "nobody's" to two of the industry's best assets.
Unfortunately, the second subject of this film, László Kovács, passed away in his sleep in the middle of production of this film. That didn't matter though, because in the hour and a half running time, Chrissanthis shows Mr. Kovács in candid interviews and told his and Vilmos' story so well, that by the end, I nearly cried because of the fact that this film made me care about Mr. Kovács and recognize him for the warm and talented human being he was, despite not knowing him.
The film opens up on Vilmos holding his cellphone to his ear. A few other men are next to him waiting. After a moment they all start singing "Happy Birthday" - to László. What a perfect way to start off this film. Jim Chrissanthis then takes us back to 1956 Hungary at the start of the Hungarian Revolution. Kovács, Zsigmond, as well as about 27 other film school cinematography students, shot roughly 30,000 feet of film of the invasion. How will the outside world see this footage? László Kovács and Vilmos Zsigmond agree to smuggle it out of the country being that they're in danger and need to flee their homeland anyway.
They come to Hollywood and go straight to the Cinematographer's office at which they're told to "Come back when you speak English!" Neither men spoke a word of English. They only had each other to rely on for inspiration as they take on every possible cinematography job they can find (Including one called "The Woman in the Invisible Bikini".... I'll have to Netflix that one).
The film continues on as they go from picking up garbage on the ground at parks to filming no-budget movies all they way to filming classics such as Easy Rider and Deliverance to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Say Anything.
All the while we witness the growing friendship between two men who became brothers and colleagues as they are praised in interviews from their previous colleagues.
This film is educational, inspirational, heartwarming and heartbreaking.
When the screening and Q&A were over, I approached Mr. Zsigmond and asked him, "Was it weird, being that your job is to film fictional subjects, was it weird to have him (Chrissanthis) follow you around with you being the real subject?"
"Absolutely, I didn't feel good, actually in front of the camera... Regularly I would not do this, but because of László, he passed away 2 years ago, we had to do something (in memory of him)."
Great story. Great film.
"No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos" is a film about two of
Hollywood's most accomplished cinematographers, Laszlo Kovacs and
Vilmos Zsigmond. The film is a nice tribute though it doesn't give a
lot of information as to exactly WHY the two are so gifted and how they
have brought new techniques to the movies. Because of this, it might
not be a film that young cinematographers have to see, though it is
nice to see a wide variety of Hollywood filmmakers, actors and camera
people talking about what it was like to work with these men.
The film begins around the time of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Both Laszlo and Vilmos had attended film school in their country and they used their photographic skills to document the revolution and the counter-revolution led by the Russians. But, this also made their lives pretty worthless unless they could escape with their film. Fortunately, they were able to escape and soon landed in Hollywood. But, given that they were outsiders and not members of the union, their road was slow and filled with crap movies made on shoestring budgets (such as films they did with Ray Dennis Steckler). Slowly, they moved up to more prestige films and made a name for themselves with film like "Easy Rider", "Close Encounters", "Heaven's Gate" (where the film work was by far the best thing about this financial disaster), "Deliverance", "Targets" and "Paper Moon". Much of the film is spent discussing these films as well as giving just a bit of biographical information about the two. Mildly interesting and mostly the film is of interest to film students and the like.
By the way, although it thankfully did not continue as the film progressed, the movie had an annoying free-form jazz score that played during the early portion of the film. It was distracting and didn't fit the film.
'No Subtitles Necessary - Laszlo & Vilmos" opens with various
television and movie stars talking about special effects and how those
FX affected them. Sadly, they don't show us the names of the stars, for
the first few minutes. I'm pretty well educated, and I didn't know who
the ##$$ some of them are. I know the name of this thing is "No
subtitles necessary".. but they actually WERE necessary, or at least
captions telling us who those people were. Later on, they do show
captions under the speakers, but they should have been there right from
the beginning. Comments by Sharon Stone, Peter Bogdanovich, Peter
Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Karen Black, so many more. All folks they had
worked with in films.
The brothers tell the story of how they escaped the Hungarian invasion, bringing footage with them across the border. Ending up in Hollywood, we hear how they got started making their own films, being their own crew, and just making films. They went on to help make BIG, BIG films... Easy Rider, Close Encounters, Paper Moon, working with the biggies along the way. Pretty entertaining stuff. And we get to hear some fun stories about working on location, what worked and what did not. I was also introduced to some really cool films that I had not seen before; I will try to catch these on Turner Classics... Winter Kills, Scarecrow. Definitely worth watching, if you can catch it.
As I write this in February of 2014, Vilmos Zsigmond is still with us, but László Kovács died in July of 2007.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I have been watching the fifteen hour Mark Cousins documentary series,
"The Story of Film: An Odyssey". It has reinforced my view that I just
do not like that "golden years of Hollywood" stuff the big studios used
to pump out. Could that be down to the values and ideals of the tycoons
who ran the joint? You can hold Neal Gabler (book), Simcha Jacobovici
and their 1998 documentary, "Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the
American Dream" responsible for that speculation. Maybe I am just
getting old and grumpy. Even the French New Wave movies that awakened
my love of cinema seem to have lost some of their lustre for me of
But film making underwent a revolution around 1969 when Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper created "Easy Rider". That film proved to the industrialists who had wrested control of Hollywood from the old studio bosses that scruffy, unkempt, drug taking hippy types could actually make money for them, and at the same time garner critical respectability for their tarnished product.
The change was dramatic. Suddenly American films (or at least the independent ones) started holding up a mirror to a very corrupt society. Think about it. Political dissent had been all but stifled. The Hollywood moguls joined the rush to appear before the House UnAmerican Activities hearings of the 1950's. Young Americans were being forced (drafted) to fight a series of immoral and crazy South East Asian wars while Hollywood was still promulgating the idea that married couples did not sleep in the same bed.
If you have seen the documentary about the making of "Easy Rider" that details how the start up seed money was used to finance the drug crazed, mainly out of focus New Orleans Mardi Gras footage you will realize what a disaster it all might have been.
So what went right?
Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond.
That's what went right.
They had not been allowed to enter the mainstream film making industry so they had been involved in porn and (even worse) those Roger Corman "Bikies From Hell v Space Aliens" trash flicks. Those activities brought them to the attention of the likes of Jack Nicholson, Bob Rafelson, Dennis Hopper, etc. So when Hopper and Fonda wanted cinematographers who were good, and more importantly, cheap, Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond were the obvious candidates.
Just as the French New Wave directors and cinematographers brought new sensibilities to the ART (not just the business) of film making, so too did Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond. These Hungarian film school refugees gave the young American independent film makers a dignitas, an authority, the lack of which might have killed off their aspirations before they had been able to realize their dreams. It was they way they saw, and used, LIGHT in their films. It was they way they could improvise camera dollies from tree branches they picked up by the side of the road ("Five Easy Pieces"), or jumped into the rapids ("Deliverance") to get the shots they deemed necessary. It was their realization of the beauty of America's natural scenery and the contribution it could make to their cinematography.
And so was born what one critic refers to as the American New Wave.
It took about thirty years for it to crest and break, washing up truly great cinematic masterpieces. Think Quinton Tarantino's 1994 "Pulp Fiction". That was to fin-de-vingtieme- siecle cinema what Orson Welles 1941 "Citizen Kane" was to pre Word War II cinema. Think David Fincher's "Se7en" (1995) and "Fight Club" (1999). Think Spike Jonez's "Being John Malkovitch" (1999). By the start of the twenty first century that disrespectful, unblinking eye of the outsider, independent film maker had become main stream
The revelation of the contribution Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond made to this metamorphosis of American film would have made an engrossing documentary all by itself. But there is so much more to this film than just cinema history.
The film depicts the great bond of friendship and fellowship these two enjoyed. The story about the return to Hungary to bring out their old sweet hearts (and future wives) would alone make the film worth watching. There is a warmth, a celebration of humanity and the values of human talent and friendship that make this documentary compulsive viewing. I was so high after watching it, I brought out my old Crosby, Stills and Nash record and played the "Judy Blue Eyes Suite", just to bring myself down.
Think seventeenth century Elizabethan England. Think 1960's America. They were both cultural revolutions that will be remembered centuries from now. And "No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos" is a birds eye, up close and personal recollection of the mechanics of that period of foment.
I'm afraid this left me unmoved and it was, at times, tedious. The
trouble is that it's not one thing or another - or the thing that it is
not interesting. It's a film made by an acolyte who was given his first
chance by Vilmos and there's not much digging beneath the surface at
any time. The thing it most reminded me of was one of those tributes to
a person winning a lifetime award at BAFTA or the Oscars - but extended
for a rather lengthy 1hour 45minutes.
The film is a rather bland mix of the outline story of their lives, extracts from the films they shot (a reminder of how many interesting American films were made in the 70's and 80's compared with today), some war stories and interviews with actors and directors who say what good cinematographers they were/are. Also, a little about their seminars in Budapest.
I didn't really come away any wiser about their personal relationship except that they used to get jobs for each other in the early days and they expressed great personal affection. Ultimately, they were good mates. This is a relationship which exists between many people in many jobs and is not necessarily inherently interesting unless you go beneath the superficial. I got no emotional charge from the film, unlike the other writer on this page, and I'm as ready as anyone to be moved by a film.
There must be some interesting stuff there. We were told that after they'd escaped from Hungary they got their girlfriends out and, I think, married them. That was that on that subject and different wives seemed to get interviewed for the film. Apparently, the existing Hungarians in Hollywood gave them no support when they arrived and the way they shot films was, no doubt, found rather threatening by the unions in those days. Nothing about all that.
I'm not saying don't see it if you get the chance - just don't expect too much.
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