Death of a Lens man: R.I.P. Laszlo Kovacs

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 8, 2007)

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You know what “they” say- it always comes in threes. We recently lost two masters of world cinema, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. Then, on July 21, we lost someone with a bit less name recognition but no less importance. I am referring to one of American cinema’s most respected and influential cinematographers, Laszlo Kovacs. This week, we’ll take a look at some “must see” films from this craftsman’s prolific 50-year career.

Kovacs’ journey to the United States from his native Hungary plays like a nail-biting Cold War thriller. When the Hungarian Revolution exploded on the streets of Budapest in 1956, the young Kovacs, together with fellow student Vilmos Zsigmond, boldly documented the ensuing events with a hidden camera (on loan from their school). The budding film makers then risked life and limb to smuggle the resulting 30,000 feet of footage across the Austrian border. Both men subsequently sought and won political asylum in the U.S. in 1957. (BTW, there is a forthcoming documentary entitled Laszlo & Vilmos: The Story of Two Refugees Who Changed the Look of American Cinema). The cinematography style of Kovacs and Zsigmond was quite literally borne from revolution; and it certainly revolutionized American cinema in the 1970’s with a signature “look”.

Hands down, the film that put Kovacs on the map was Easy Rider (1969). The dialog (along with the mutton chops, fringe vests and love beads) may not have dated so well, but thanks to his exemplary DP work, those now iconic images of expansive American landscapes and the endless gray ribbons that traverse them remain the quintessential touchstone for all subsequent American “road” movies, from Vanishing Point, Two Lane Blacktop and Badlands, through Lost in America, Thelma and Louise and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, all the way up to the recent Little Miss Sunshine.

I’m not sure what his feelings were about this (or if he even cared), but in the course of his long and illustrious career, it’s interesting that Kovacs never once snagged an Oscar (although he was nominated a few times). His friend Zsigmond fared better with the Academy; likely because to tended to work on higher profile films, whilst Kovacs gravitated more toward artistic and/or independent projects (at least through the period leading up to Ghostbusters, the biggest box office hit he ever collaborated on).

Ironically, the final film that Kovacs is credited on prior to his death was a 2006 project with his old friend Zsigmond, a documentary that was produced to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution called Torn from the Flag. In an artistic sense, you could say that he came full circle.

Here’s a Whitman’s sampler (if you will) of more cinematic gems from Kovacs’ resume:

Hell’s Angels on Wheels (1967) – Easy Rider wasn’t the first foray into the 60’s biker scene for Kovacs and Jack Nicholson; this cult film/guilty pleasure from director Richard Rush (The Stuntman) may have been the warm-up. Separated from the rest of the era’s grind house grist by Nicholson’s charisma and the skillful work from director Rush and DP Kovacs. Adam Roarke lives!

Targets (1968)-Director Peter Bogdanovich’s impressive debut and the first of many collaborations with DP Kovacs. Bogdanovich created a minor classic with this low-budget wonder about an aging horror movie star (Boris Karloff, not such a stretch) who is destined to cross paths with a seemingly “normal” young man who is about to go totally Charles Whitman on his sleepy community. This film presaged the likes of Taxi Driver, The Stepfather and Falling Down in its implementation of the “disenfranchised white male who snaps and goes on a killing spree” theme. A real sleeper.

Five Easy Pieces (1970)-“You see this sign?!” Easy Rider collaborators Kovacs, director Bob Rafelson and star Jack Nicholson were reunited for what is arguably the defining road movie of the 70’s. Nicholson fully realized what we now think of as the iconic “Jack” persona in this character study about a disillusioned, classically-trained piano player from a moneyed family, working a soulless blue-collar job and teetering on the verge of an existential meltdown. Karen Black (Oh! The voluptuous horror!) contributes outstanding support as his long-suffering waitress girlfriend. Kovacs makes excellent use of the verdant, rain-soaked milieu of the Pacific Northwest. No substitutions!

What’s Up, Doc? (1972)- Another Bogdanovich-Kovacs collaboration, this hysterically funny homage to Hollywood’s golden age of screwball comedies (think Bringing Up Baby) features wonderful tongue-in-cheek performances from Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Streisand. Kovacs works his usual DP magic with the luminous San Francisco locale.

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)-The Rafelson-Nicholson-Kovacs triumvirate hits yet another one out of the park in this intense neo-noir character study about a cynical radio talk show host (Nicholson) who attempts to save his low-life con artist brother (Bruce Dern) from himself, only to become embroiled in one of his sleazy schemes. Ellen Burstyn gives one of the best performances by an actress ever, period. Kovacs expertly wrings every possible drop of noir atmosphere from the grim, gray Atlantic City locale. A brilliant work of art, any way you slice it. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

Paper Moon (1973)-The true test of a cinematographer’s mettle is how well he or she can work in black and white; and Kovacs passes the “shadows and light” test with flying colors in this Bogdanovich film about a Depression-era bible salesman/con artist (Ryan O’Neal) and his precocious young sidekick (40 year-old midget Tatum O’Neal).

Shampoo (1975)-Sex and politics (and more sex) are mercilessly skewered, along with the shallow SoCal lifestyle in Hal Ashby’s classic satire. Warren Beatty (who co-scripted with Robert Towne) plays a restless, over-sexed hairdresser with commitment “issues” (Oy, having to choose one “favorite” between Lee Grant, Goldie Hawn and Julie Christie would give anyone such tsuris!) Beatty allegedly based his character on his close friend (and hairdresser to the stars) Jay Sebring, one of the victims of the grisly Tate-LaBianca slayings in 1969. This was one of the earliest films to step back and satirize the 60’s counterculture zeitgeist with the hindsight of historical detachment. Kovacs gives the L.A. backdrop an appropriately soft, gauzy look that perfectly matched the protagonist’s fuzzy approach to dealing with adult responsibilities.

Heart Beat (1980)-John Byrum’s slightly flawed but fascinating take on the relationship between beat writer Jack Kerouac (John Heard), Carolyn Cassady (Sissy Spacek) and Neal Cassady (Nick Nolte) over a 20-year period. Hmm, a character study about restless people, non-conformity and going On The Road-who ya gonna call? Why, Laszlo Kovacs, natch! (Byrum wasn’t dumb). A low-budget sleeper.

Frances (1982)-Speaking of non-conformists. The sad story of how the bright, headstrong and politically outspoken actress Frances Farmer transitioned from a promising young Hollywood starlet in the 1940’s to a lobotomized mental patient, dying in near-obscurity is dramatized in this absorbing biopic from director Graeme Clifford. Jessica Lange throws herself into the role with complete abandonment and fearless passion, providing a compelling impetus for staying with this otherwise overlong film. Kovac’s sharp DP work drenches the dark, tragic tale in haunting, gothic atmosphere.

Shattered (1991)-Kovacs teams up with action director Wolfgang Petersen. Tom Berenger and Greta Scacchi steam up the screen in this Hitchcockian tale of a man attempting to piece his life back together after suffering amnesia following a serious auto accident (or was it an accident?). Sure, this plot has been done to death, but the attractive leads, taut direction and the dynamic lens work by Kovacs make it a worthwhile watch.

Also-for additional back story of the American film renaissance of the 1970’s, I highly recommend the documentary Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (Kovacs is a featured interviewee.)

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