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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

DVD Review: No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos

Hitting the streets this week, for those out there who are serious film buffs, is No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo and Vilmos, a warm, compelling look at the long friendship between famed Hungarian cinematographers Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond. If you love movies you’re already an admirer of their work. Kovacs shot Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Paper Moon and Ghostbusters; Zsigmond shot McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Deliverance, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (for which he won the Oscar) and The Deer Hunter. What No Subtitles Necessary gives you is a closer, more personal look at the two friends, along with a great deal of conversation about their work from some of the famous people who’ve worked with them.

The pair met as film students in Budapest, and together they risked their lives to film the uprising against the Communist regime in Hungary in 1956 before fleeing across the border with their footage. They headed to Hollywood, where both paid their dues shooting whatever movies they could get work on – horror movies and the like – until each of them got the breaks that allowed them to elevate their work to the level we’ve come to know and respect them for. And what work it has been; both Kovacs and Zsigmond have set new bars for the understanding of how to work with, shape, and change light, and for how to be creative in guerrila-style filmmaking. Anyone aspiring to work in this field cannot help but have been influenced by their work.

You won’t find any mean stories or Hollywood dirt here; No Subtitles Necessary is a good-hearted film, with interviews with the men’s families and quite a few people they worked with augmenting conversations with the men themselves. Unfortunately, for whatever reason – lack of access, maybe, or lack of interest on the parts of the potential subjects? – there are also some huge, glaring holes that would have filled in a lot of interesting gaps in this portrait of the piece of cinematic history these legends inhabit. And so we have Sharon Stone pontificating way more than we need to hear her talk, and Karen Black (admittedly entertaining) getting a little catty and also talking a lot. We get a little of Peter Bogdanovich (Paper Moon) and Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces, uncredited producer on Easy Rider), but no Woody Allen, no Steven Spielberg. We do get Leonard Maltin, who’s obviously very knowledgeable about film generally, lending his expertise to the proceedings, but even that bit feels more broadly lecture-ish than deeply analytical (how I wished for David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson to turn up to really get into things).

Myself, I wanted a lot more of the “how,” as in “how the hell did he make it look like that,” and “tell me more about how each of them works with light.” But this isn’t intended to be the instructional film about how to shoot and light movies like Kovacs and Zsigmond, it’s a film about Laszlo and Vilmos, two friends who went through revolution in their own country, and then went on to revolutionize the way Hollywood shoots movies, and how they maintained their brotherly friendship through the years. There are some gaps in those stories, as well; earlier in the film it talks about both men finding their Hungarian sweethearts and bringing them back to America to marry them, but the wives we meet later in the film don’t seem to be the same sweethearts. Which is fine, but it was a little confusing. There is a lovely bit in there about Vilmos reconnecting with a daughter from a previous relationship (his missing sweetheart? someone else?), and both his daughters get to talk about their father a bit, but again, it doesn’t delve too deep.

Which seems to be kind of a theme for this film generally – it does a very nice job of skimming the surface of who Laszlo and Vilmos are, but it’s frustratingly short on the details of either professional or personal lives that would make it as compelling as it could be. What we do have is a nice homage to two heroes of cinematography, and a peek at a decades long friendship between two men who helped shaped the American New Wave, which makes this film worth checking out if you’re a film buff, and especially if you’re into cinematography and lighting. If nothing else, you’ll gain even more appreciation for Kovacs’s and Zsigmond’s respective contributions to their field simply by seeing so many shots from films they each worked on right next to each other like this. Those gauzy interiors of McCabe and Mrs. Miller! The lighting in Close Encounters! The stunning, simple beauty of Paper Moon. Those last five minutes of Five Easy Pieces. Simply sublime.

Here’s a peek at the film’s trailer from Cannes.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon