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'70s behind-the-camera greats: How Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond put the cinema in cinematography

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Last night on PBS, I caught the reverent and fascinating documentary No Subtitles Necessary: László & Vilmos, a look at the art, influence, and longtime brotherly friendship of the two most fabled Hollywood cinematographers of the 1970s, László Kovács and Vilmos Zsigmond. Like anyone else immersed in the classic American movies of that time (and, really, who isn’t?), I knew who these two men were, understood a few things about their art, and had a dim awareness of the fact (coincidence — or something more?) that they were both Hungarian émigrés.

I was amazed, though, at how much I didn’t know, starting with the nearly poetic fact that their baptism in cinematography occurred when the Soviet tanks came rolling through Budapest in 1956. The two, who were then film students, grabbed their cameras, shot the protests and the violent crackdown, and then smuggled the footage out of the country under the noses of Soviet guards. What I love about this story is that it captures how, for Kovács and Zsigmond, photographing movies was, from the start, something raw and essential and existential and real. It was those qualities that they imprinted upon the visual atmosphere of American movies, changing the face of an art form in the process.

The two started out on the grimy indie-exploitation fringes of Hollywood, shooting schlock horror and nudie-cutie films, where they were often billed as “Leslie Kovacs” and “William Zsigmond.” Easy Rider, which really kicked off the revolution in cinematography, was conceived, at least by its backers, as just one more outlaw biker flick. But the people who created it had different ideas, and László Kovács’ cinematography — those rangy and swirling documentary-like shots, the camera just about plummeting down the highway — all but defined the film. He shot the two hippie cyclists by planting his camera in a car with the back seat removed, and also by letting the glare of the sun bead into the shots, innovations that amounted to a kind of genius primitivism. Yet they’re still so vivid that, watching Easy Rider today, you feel like you’re right there in those landscapes.

If Kovács, a startlingly handsome ladies’ man, was cinematography’s first great dynamic wide-angle naturalist, the more obsessive (and volcanically tempered) Zsigmond was the smoky poetic realist. He set the benchmark for what authenticity in a movie could mean — what it could look like, and how it could make an audience feel — with the saturated fine-grain rustic dream images of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, still the most realistic portrait of the West ever created. The two men went on to shoot dozens of classics between them, from Paper Moon and Shampoo and New York, New York (Kovács) to Deliverance and The Long Goodbye and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Zsigmond). What they invented was imitated all over the world, and still is.

I wish today’s filmmakers imitated it more, though. One of the most fascinating comments in No Subtitles Necessary comes from director Bob Rafelson, who used Kovács on Five Easy Pieces. He says: “I’ve seen a thousand pictures shot in Los Angeles and a thousand pictures shot in Chicago, and they all look the same to me. When László shoots, they look like Los Angeles and Chicago.”

That, more than anything, is what these two artists of the camera brought to movies in the ’70s: not just abstract grit or beauty or grandeur, but a sense of the individuality of things. They made every person, every place, every interior, every landscape look like itself. And that was, in hindsight, a blessed act of art.

If you had to choose, what are your all-time favorite examples of cinematography? And what movies can you think of in which the look of the film really is the film?