Thursday, July 26, 2007

RIP--Laszlo Kovacs

It’s a little late but, earlier this week, the master cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs passed away at 74 years old. Hungarian born, though he never shot an official picture there, he and his friend Vilmos Zsigmond, who would also become a noted American cinematographer in his own right, secretly documented the Budapest revolt on the Communist regime and escaped to America with 30,000 feet of unedited film in 1957 (apparently, some of this footage was used in a CBS documentary with Cronkite but, as of this writing, it’s availability is unknown).

Kovacs’ Hungarian film school training paid off in the smallest way at the beginning as he took jobs with some of the most dubious producers and directors in the history of film. Luminaries like Ray Dennis Steckler (The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies), Harry Novak (Kitten in a Cage) and Al Adamson (The Naughty Stewardesses) paid him whatever they could out of their Z-level budgets to give a surprisingly innovative look to their ridiculous films. In short order, it became clear that he was the perfect photographer for biker films (for some reason) and he was hired by B-Movie maven Roger Corman at American International to shoot a series of these pictures, including the infamous Hell’s Angels on Wheels. Most often, a second (or third) tier crew member will remain there, but at this particular time in the ‘60s, Corman had the innate ability to truly “make” casts and crews into superstars; Jack Nicholson, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, Kovacs, and many, many more were discovered by the mainstream in by way of the drive-in cesspool. It was through this association that Dennis Hopper hired Kovacs to shoot Easy Rider. Though he initially balked at having to work on another biker film, it was the best choice of his career and, from this point, ushered in a new look for American film in the ‘70s, a gritty and soft-focus style that permeated his work and that of his peers throughout the decade. His body of work was broadly varied. At best, he filmed such impressive worlds as Paper Moon, The Last Waltz, Five Easy Pieces and Ghostbusters. At worst, such atrocities as Sliver, Free Willy 2, Miss Congeniality and, one of my all time least favorite films, Harry and Walter Go to New York. I will blame factors other than Kovacs for these horrible films and, to boot, most of these were at the end of a prolific and lustrous career. That he made good money shooting bad films is blameless. Better him than some hack and the movies are a little better for his efforts.

Thinking about Kovacs and his peers’ work through the ‘70s makes me long for the days when mainstream cinema was willing to take risks and at least attempt to change the status quo of what flies in the multiplex. It’s only remakes, vintage television adaptation and shoddy music video action films that make it any more, and it’s almost sickening to think back to the time when challenging, artistic films like Five Easy Pieces and Paper Moon could also be commercial successes.