Generally speaking, stories about Hollywood personalities tend to focus on players with larger than life egos, who used their bravado to make things happen, or the stars whose luminous quailty made them legends. There is nothing that makes for a more page-turning read or a compelling documentary than juicy behind the scenes stories, and the outsized rumors that linger around them. But you won’t find anything salacious in “No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos,” which makes it all the more refreshing and endearing. This is the kind of Hollywood story we don’t hear often enough, one of true friendship and collaboration, of two likeminded souls whose dedication to each other and respect for the craft made them true legends in the field.
If you don’t know much about the personal lives of celebrated and revered cinematographers Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond, your appreciation of ‘No Subtitles Necessary’ will be even greater. Before either man made a mark in Hollywood, they crossed paths as students in Budapest, and made their first noticeable stamp when they filmed the clash between Russian soldiers and the uprising against the communist regime in Hungary. The footage, featured in the documentary, is remarkable stuff, with the pair throwing themselves in harm’s way in order to make sure there was a record of what was going on. Eventually forced to flee their homeland, the duo made their way to America and after a brief stab at working ordinary jobs, they realized at this point they had nothing to lose and made a beeline to Hollywood.
The story goes that in the first year of the film school they attended, students weren’t allowed to operate a cameras and instead studied paintings (The Impressionists being a favorite) and watched movies with no sound (both Laszlo and Vilmos became obsessed with Gregg Toland, and his phenomenal work on Orson Welles‘ “Citizen Kane“). But it would be a while before they could put truly put their influences into practice. Adopting more American sounding names, the pair paid their dues on a number of cheapie skin flicks and horror movies, trading off duties as cinematographer, while the other would take on the rest of technical work (electrician, gaffer, you name it). They were essentially a two-man, DIY crew and it was only a matter of time before they each got a break.
For Kovacs, it was hooking up with Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson to make the seminal “Easy Rider.” The documentary thankfully takes its time here to talk about the production and it’s rather remarkable, with Kovacs boasting of how he could hone in on a single ray of sunlight and use it to help evoke so much about the characters and themes running through the film. He also talks about the dramatic final shot of the film, and how it was completed with use of a dodgy helicopter that could only hold two people. It’s a minor miracle that he not only got it in the can, but that the tiny aircraft held on long enough to let him get the shot.
For Zsigmond, it would be Robert Altman‘s anti-western “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” that would bring him fame. For anyone who has seen the film, the entire mood is set by the cinematographer’s gauzy lensing of the interiors, and his uncomprosing camerwork with the exteriors. Robert McLachlan (“Final Destination 3,” “Cursed“) recalls being on the set, and being amazed that what he saw with his own eyes and on the big screen couldn’t be more different, inspiring him to follow his own path to becoming a cinematographer. For both Laszlo and Vilmos, it was their ability to set a fire in whoever they worked with, combined with an unparalled skill and enthusiasm, that made them both beloved and in demand.
For director Bob Rafelson, this came through during the shooting of “Five Easy Pieces.” The production essentially traveled around as a caravan, driving from location to location, and any time Laszlo would spot an interesting background or landmark, they would immediately stop and start filming. The guerilla nature sometimes meant some unorthodox approaches, with a particularly fun photograph revealing Laszlo constructing a makeshift tripod of sorts out of a tree branch and some shoelaces. He also wowed Peter Bogdanovich on “Targets” by essentially breaking a handful of rules, and shooting whereever the story demanded they go (they would work together again on the glorious “Paper Moon“).
But as much as we enjoyed ‘No Subtitles Necessary,’ it’s not without its shortcomings. While director James Chressanthis lines up some great people to talk about Laszlo and Vilmos, he also bizarrely chats up Sharon Stone and Rachel Miner to talk about them as well for some reason. But most glaring are the lack of interviews with any contemporary filmmakers who have worked with them — Brian De Palma, Woody Allen, Cameron Crowe, Martin Scorses, Kevin Smith (when does that guy turn down a chance to talk?) — nor or any probing questions asked about troubled productions (nothing about the infamous “Heaven’s Gate“?). Running a slim 86 minutes, you really do wish Chressanthis had gone slightly more academic at times, with more about how they worked with certain directors to achieve the look of certain films, or complete particular sequences.
But ‘No Subtitles Asked’ never sets out to be that film, and can’t really be faulted too much for that. The personal journey these two friends and filmmakers took together in their career, inseperable throughout it all, is the kind of rare and wonderful Hollywood story we don’t hear of enough. For anyone growing bitter and cynical of the business of making movies, ‘No Subtitles Necessary’ will make you in fall in love with medium all over again. [B]
“No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos” arrives on DVD on Tuesday, February 28th.