Still inadequately renowned for having literally supplied the pictures, gritty and pretty, of the 1970s New Hollywood, Hungary-born lensers Vilmos Zsigmond and the late Laszlo Kovacs are warmly illuminated in “No Subtitles Necessary.” Spanning the pair’s half-century-long friendship and individual work on strikingly shot films of the past four decades, pic deftly combines personal, political and cinematic histories through anecdote-laden interviews and eye-popping clips. Docu would naturally light up any serious fest worldwide, while its humanistic ode to the lensers’ love of their families, their collaborators and each other gives it a shot at even wider exposure.
“Willie and Leslie,” as they were first known in Los Angeles, met in a postwar Hungarian film class before shooting eyewitness footage of the 1956 Soviet invasion and heroically smuggling it to Austria on foot. Interspersing comments from admiring collaborators and the charismatic duo themselves, “No Subtitles Necessary” recalls the long-haired duo’s early ESL-powered bids to join the American Society of Cinematographers “clubhouse,” which led initially to temp work taking baby pictures and picking up garbage.
Worthier trash came to Kovacs in 1964 in the form of assistant camerawork on “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?” — the first of a string of increasingly arty exploitation pics that took the pair’s younger half to Roger Corman and then Peter Bogdanovich, whose debut “Targets” afforded Kovacs the chance to use his birth name onscreen.
Docu establishes that Kovacs’ innovative lensing of 1969 landmark “Easy Rider” helped buddy Zsigmond land a gig on “The Hired Hand” by Peter Fonda, whose oft-told tale of surprise at discovering “Ziggy” hadn’t before directed photography still earns solid laughs here.
Aided by other sharp talking heads such as d.p. Ellen Kuras and Variety chief critic Todd McCarthy (whose own docu “Visions of Light” helped inspire this one), pic asserts that the repression of two successive regimes in Hungary turned the crank on expats’ moving pictures of escape, freedom, and capture. The point is driven vividly home by Kovacs’ images in “Easy Rider,” “Five Easy Pieces” and “Paper Moon,” and by Zsigmond’s in “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” “Deliverance” and the vastly underrated “Scarecrow,” whose story of male bonding reflects the subjects’ own.
Use of clips includes a powerhouse montage set to the jazzy second half of the Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” and extends to the lensers’ later, still dynamic work on less loved pics such as “Frances,” “Winter Kills” and “The Black Dahlia.” A d.p. himself (and Zsigmond’s intern on “The Witches of Eastwick”), helmer James Chressanthis makes his own shots click through judicious digital processing. Yet arguably the strongest moments of the docu, dedicated to lady-killer-turned-family man Kovacs, are those wherein interviewees simply salute the shooters’ generous, jovial personalities.