Sunday, February 26, 2012

Cinematographer/phy heaven: James Chressanthis' NO SUBTITLES NECESSARY

A must for Hungarians, movie buffs and cinemaphiles who especially prize terrific cinematography, NO SUBTITLES NECESSARY: Lazslo & Vilmos tracks the life and careers -- here in Hollywood and back home in their native Hungary -- of two of the great motion picture cinematographers, Vilmos Zsigmond and László Kovács. Written/directed by James Chressanthis, himself a good cinematographer, the movie is full of the usual idolatry we've come to expect from movies about movie people. But -- let's be clear here -- these guys and their work are worth a little worship.

The filmmaker, shown at right,  hops and skips all over the place, from present to past and back, Hollywood to Hungary, and while one occasionally pines for a more standard timeline continuity, one also admits how interesting are his two subjects and their lives and work. If we might want more, what's here in the film's 84-minute running time is plenty fascinating. Chressanthis' movie is made up basically of three things: movie people -- actors, directors, producers and other cinematographers -- talking about the work of the two men; the men themselves, speaking of their past and present life and work; and the work itself, which we see plenty of and which speaks quite beautifully for itself.

Though László (1933-2007), shown at left, was born three years after Vilmos (shown below) and considered the latter, beginning with their days at the Hungarian film school, to be his mentor, it was László who died first -- nearly a year before this film had its premier at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Vilmos is still with us and still going strong with two films in pre-production this year, one shot last year and two in 2010. If TrustMovies prefers the work of Vilmos over that of László, he admits that this movie made him reconsider certain films. After viewing what Chressanthis shows and tells us about László's work on the Jessica Lange vehicle Frances, for instance, I'm going to have to see that movie once again.

Although Vilmos has worked on some real turkeys over the years (what in-demand cinematographer hasn't -- Sliver, anyone?), when I consider some of those non-flying birds, it's generally the look of the film that has stayed in my mind longer and more positively than anything else. When I think of Scarecrow, for instance, it's that amazing shot of the sunlit golden foothills in the foreground with the ominous angry sky in the background that comes to mind first (we get to see that shot in this documentary). And as far as shooting films that are now standard-bearers, this guy has to his credit the likes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (a film, he tells us, that he was fired from and then rehired multiple times before winning the "Oscar" for Best Cinematography!), McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Deer Hunter and Deliverance.  There is great beauty to be found in so many of Vilmos' movies and yet it is rarely of the clichéd variety (and when it is, it's so damn gorgeous you don't give a shit).

We hear from everyone from the late Dennis Hopper (at right) to Sharon Stone, Karen Black to Sandra Bullock,  Mark Rydell to Bob Rafelson, Owen Roizman to Steven Poster -- and what they say is of course complementary but also often intelligent and pointed. We learn how the two men smuggled themselves out of Hungary, as well as film of the Hungarian uprising that was ruthlessly put down by the Russian overlords during the 1950s (that film was later shown on national television, introduced by Walter Cronkite). Coming to Hollywood, at first they had to work on some pretty sleazy and funny exploitation movies (using slightly assumed names) before cracking the big time -- László with Easy Rider, Vilmos with Red Sky at Morning. Overall, this is rich, enjoyable movie that never got a theatrical release, although I believe it was shown on American television. There is so much that's interesting and fun here, I can't imagine that film buffs won't welcome the opportunity to enjoy every succulent minute.  (And now that we've covered these two fine cinematographers, I hope someone is currently working on a documentary about another Hungarian who shoots fabulous films -- and has directed a couple, too -- Lajos Koltai.)

The DVD, from Cinema Libre Studio, hits the streets this coming Tuesday, February 28, for rental or purchase and comes with over 45 minutes of extras, including
  • The birth of EASY RIDER – A tribute to Dennis Hopper, featuring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Karen Black.
  • Actor Master Class with Karen Black on EASY RIDER and FIVE EASY PIECES
  • Drugs on EASY RIDER with Peter Sorel
  • Director of Master Class with Bob Rafelson on HEAD, EASY RIDER and FIVE EASY PIECES
  • Peter Bogdanovich on László

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