Jul 30, 2007

Musings on Cinema While Thinking of Laszlo Kovacs

In the past little while, I've been assembling things for my new website, "See You At the Drive-In", a project long on the backburner which will hopefully go live in late 2007. One section for this site, which romanticizes about drive-in culture, as well as reviews films best suited to the "ozoner", features obituaries of people before and behind the camera who have passed on in the past calendar year. While on the surface it may appear to be ghoulish, it is also somehow fitting, as this site is essentially about a culture that is somewhat extinct... or at the very least, it acts as an epitaph of sorts for its glory days from 50s to the 70s. As such, it only seems appropriate to include mention of these recently departed, celebrating the legacies they left for a drive-in cinema culture which is itself near-extinct. But I prefer not to think of these obituaries as morbid, but as "Celebrations of life", as the politically correct now call funerals.

Included in the list of the recently departed are not just obscure players or filmmakers known only to the most fervent geek. One will also find big names like Robert Altman, Jack Palance and Yvonne DeCarlo, who enjoyed mainstream success, but also made a living in low-budget genre fare suited to the drive-in, either on the way up or on the way down. And now we must add Laszlo Kovacs, the celebrated cinematographer, whose resume is a Christmas Wish List of 1970's American cinema.

We would be mentioning his name on this blog anyway, just because he shot The Third Greatest Film of All Time. Of course, I speak of none other than Five Easy Pieces. Bob Rafelson's masterpiece is indicative of Kovacs' style-- classical, yet giving the illusion of being naturally lit, thereby allowing one to forget they are watching a movie.

The Hungarian-born Laszlo Kovacs and his friend, fellow cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, shot film of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and made their way west to sell the black and white 35mm footage, yet found no takers for it (save for a bit with Walter Cronkite) as the event was no longer considered newsworthy. However, Kovacs and Zsigmond found employment lending their talents to low-budget drive-in pictures throughout the 1960's, and it is usually said that their work transcended the tawdry B-movie production values. Kovacs in particular worked on Ray Dennis Steckler's The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, Richard Rush's Hell's Angels on Wheels (and others), and even Blood of Dracula's Castle for Al Adamson. (And if there is one movie of Al Adamson's that faintly resembles a Hollywood movie, it is the one Laszlo shot.)

When a lot of fledgling B-movie peoples of the 1960's came on the Hollywood A list, Kovacs followed, lending his talents to Robert Altman's dreamy That Cold Day in the Park; Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider and The Last Movie; more work with Richard Rush (Getting Straight, Freebie and the Bean), Martin Scorsese (New York New York, The Last Waltz)and also many films of Peter Bogdanovich, especially when the director was doing his valentines to Hollywood of yore (What's Up Doc and Nickelodeon among those with Kovacs).

And when the Hollywood Brats wheezed out, Kovacs still found work on such films as Ghostbusters and Miss Congeniality. Despite his long career, and lifetime achievement awards, it is astonishing that Laszlo Kovacs has never been nominated for an Oscar! This weekend, I had a look at Slither (1973), a hilarious, under-remembered comedy caper with James Caan, Sally Kellerman and Peter Boyle, shot by Kovacs. Seeing this film reminds me of how many of his works have scenes which often play as single takes. Perhaps this is borne out of his B-movie years, when they had to shoot quickly and save film by avoiding numerous set-ups. Yet in the 1970's that necessity turned into an art form, allowing his subtle camera to flawlessly follow around the actors, letting the stars take precedence. And yet, in Rafelson's disappointing but haunting The King of Marvin Gardens, one remembers the economical, European shooting style that perfectly enchances this low-key character study. (This film particularly haunts me because I had seen it just after getting caught in a rainstorm and receiving an ear infection-- watching it gave me a similar fish-out-of-water feeling.)

But collecting all of this material for "See You At the Drive-In" has not been a morbid task. I for one do not consider these films to be "old". The fact that we continue to watch and write about them shows their perseverance, and in that regard this work continues to be "alive", and will be long after their creators have passed on. Last week, when I re-watched Slither and also saw Breezy for the first time at the Third Floor Drive-In (more on this one soon), I was reminded of how modern such films are. Cinema of the 1970's will continue to delight future generations with its vigour and surprise, as those before and behind the camera told their stories and took risks without listening to the accountants. And while we lay Laszlo Kovacs to rest, it is truly a celebration of a life when we look back at his illustrious career, contributing to works which will continue to matter long after our physical entities have passed.

Below: Laszlo Kovacs at work on Five Easy Pieces, which is after all, The Third Greatest Film Ever Made.

1 comment:

BARRY SMIGHT said...

Kovacs photographed two of my favourtie films, Easy Rider, and Five Easy Pieces. Someone once said -- it might have been Pauline Kael -- that Kovacs had the ability to photograph air.

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