Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Was that SZ or ZS? No Subtitles Required: Laszlo & Vilmos

No Subtitles Required: Laszlo and Vilmos - This documentary on famed cinematographers Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovaks gets off to a running start with footage of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, the Russian invasion of Budapest and Hungarians fleeing across the border into Austria. Two of those fleeing Hungarians were film students Laszlo and Vilmos, who risked death to shoot the film and then smuggle it across the border. This was only the beginning of two extraordinary lives that should have made for a more exciting biography.

No Subtitles captures the bio basics by mixing spectacular clips from their films with interviews of Laszlo and Vilmos themselves and a host of celebrity colleagues - directors and actors who worked with them. After a perilous return to Hungary by Laszlo to pick up their girl friends, the pair moves to America - but hard labor on an upstate NY maple syrup farm is worse than a Hungarian labor camp. They head to Hollywood, where the cinematography establishment rejects the foreigners like a heart transplant from the wrong donor. Instead of joining the union they work fast and cheap on "no budget" B minus pictures for a few years, then start to catch some breaks. Peter Bogdanovich (Targets) and Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider) hire Laszlo for serious films that are shot on the cheap, requiring some creativity and daring from the cinematographer. Robert Altman, John Boorman and Steven Spielberg find Vilmos for McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Deliverance and Sugarland Express. Each goes on to receive many, many, many nominations and awards, including Vilmos's Oscar for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The many celebrity interviewees, Peter Bogdanovich and Sharon Stone come to mind as two with much screen time, add a little flavor. Laszlo was a handsome daredevil who loved to shoot woman and could improvise a rigging on a shoe string. Vilmos would build trust with an entire crew. The problem is that every interviewee is working hard to find new ways to say the same nice things about the title duo (by the way, isn't "Laszlo & Vilmos" actually a necessary subtitle?). The subjects themselves are cooperative, but they only really loosen up when talking about the escape from Hungary. Neither says much about their personal lives. Neither says anything about their working relationships with directors like Bogdanovich and Spielberg.

No Subtitles works well when its showing clips from the work of these two masters, and best of all when the clips mesh with a little talk about how they found the right lighting or rigging or filter (including an in-person tip from Orson Welles). Fortunately, there are a lot of great Laszlo and Vilmos movies from which to pull scenes, and this alone makes No Subtitles worth a rental. Unfortunately, the celebrity interviews don't capture the humanity of the subjects. No Subtitles would have been better off either cutting much of the interview footage and leaving the focus on the cinematography itself or going for more with the interviews. Maybe find some non-celebrities who are willing to dish a little not too embarrasing dirt (the forgotten location scout from The Deer Hunter tells all) and push Laszlo and Vilmos to talk a little more candidly about what it was like to work with, oh maybe, Spielberg compared to Altman. Sadly, Laszlo died suddenly of a heart attack while this film was being made and the chance of really capturing these two extraordinary lives on film is fading.

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