Monday, July 23, 2007
RIP Laszlo Kovacs
The Hungarian-born cinematographer was 74. He and his classmate, fellow emigre Vilmos Zsigmond, revolutionized the look of American cinema in the late 1960s and 1970s. 1969's Easy Rider, which Kovacs shot, was a landmark achievement, not just for its counter-cultural attitude but its ragged, "dirty," against-the-grain imagery, the polar opposite of the whistle-clean shiny surfaces favored by Hollywood majors at that time.
Lighting Dimensions, a magazine I edited, interviewed Kovacs in 1996. He had finished shooting the Harold Ramis comedy Multiplicity, the kind of assignment that seemed naturally to come his way following the huge success of 1984's Ghostbusters. Multiplicity, with its multiple Michael Keatons, was not without its complications, even in the era of digital effects. Kovacs knew how to light studio comedies, and if that doesn't sound like much of an accomplishment consider how flat, harsh, and ugly so many of them are. He set a certain standard that few others could match, let alone top, in this regard.
The era-defining work had come earlier. He learned his trade in indies and cult movies, like 1967's Psych-Out and Hells Angels on Wheels. The next year's Targets, for director Peter Bogdanovich, was a step up, and his work with Dennis Hopper on Easy Rider and the unclassifiable The Last Movie (1971), and Bob Rafelson on Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, secured his credentials as a member of the young Hollywood vanguard. When they went retro--Bogdanovich on the austere black-and-white Paper Moon (1973), Martin Scorsese on the dreamily old-Hollywood color New York, New York (1977)--Kovacs followed suit, and distinguished himself anew. Nothing "dirty" about those pictures. 1989's Say Anything..., for Cameron Crowe, hearkened back to that type of individualistic filmmaking, which he did so much to take from the script to the screen.
I was surprised to learn that in a career of many contours--other key credits include 1975's Shampoo and 1985's Mask, his final film with Bogdanovich--Kovacs was not once nominated for an Academy Award. But I'm sure his American Society of Cinematographers lifetime honor, in 2002, meant far more to this master craftsman. A documentary about Kovacs and Zsigmond and their distinctive achievements in the medium is in the works, which will help assure his posterity.