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Laszlo Kovacs and the Cinema of the Seventies

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Those who were there agree that the early ’70s were a pivotal time for the American cinema. The time represented a peak for serious American films, with the artistic and commercial success of “The French Connection,” “Paper Moon,” “The Godfather,” “American Graffiti,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “The Exorcist” and the like. And with the introduction of such iconoclastic works as “Easy Rider” (actually released in 1969), “Mean Streets,” “Midnight Cowboy” and “The Last Picture Show,” the ’70s ushered in the modern American independent filmmaking era.

What was behind these years of artistic, high-minded, independent films? Laszlo Kovacs, the Hungarian-born cinematographer who was at the center of the movement, points to two unlikely sources: the drive-in, and B-movie king Roger Corman, who churned out low-budget flicks about vampires, bikers and hot, young nurses.

Kovacs, who will be part of the Aspen Filmfest panel Discussion of a Decade (Saturday, 4:45 p.m., Wheeler Opera House), said the drive-in explosion of the mid-’60s was the precursor to the ’70s creative bubble.



“Something happened” in the mid-’60s, said Kovacs, who will be joined on the panel by actor Richard Dreyfuss (whose early ’70s output included “American Graffiti,” The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz”), director Sydney Pollack (“Jeremiah Johnson,” “Three Days of the Condor”), and production designer Polly Platt (“Paper Moon,” “The Last Picture Show”), and moderator William Friedkin (director of “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist”). “The independent film production started up because there were three-, four-, five-thousand drive-in theaters, and all these drive-ins needed a second feature for the double bill. So all these action and thriller films drew these fly-by-night producers to town.

“And it gave us filmmakers a great opportunity to work on these films. A bunch of new directors emerged. Most of them never made it, but there were also Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich.”




Guiding the nascent scene was Corman, who offered the eager young filmmakers nothing more important than the chance to get behind a camera and work. “Our father was Roger Corman, who was a great supporter of us younger filmmakers,” said Kovacs. “Little by little we were able to get better and better films, but still in a low-budget sense. They were 10-day shoots or so.”

Kovacs moved from such films as “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies” to Bogdanovich’s relatively big-budget “Targets” to films like “Paper Moon” and “Shampoo” (the latter two both screened as part of Filmfest’s Salute to the ’70s). And as his comrades also made more serious, accomplished movies, that independent wing of filmmaking was taken most seriously by Hollywood studios, critics and audiences.

“You arrive at a time which was very exciting,” said the amiable Kovacs. “It looked like something was happening – all these independent, low-budget films knocked the major studios’ doors. It didn’t happen ’til `Easy Rider’ [on which Kovacs served as cinematographer] came along. It’s film history, how much that changed the Hollywood system.”

For Kovacs, the proof that he had arrived came with 1975’s “Shampoo.” While directed by Hal Ashby, who had made his name with the quirky cult fave “Harold and Maude,” “Shampoo” was produced by its star Warren Beatty, and had a cast that included Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn and Lee Grant.

“I had a lot to prove, that I could do a big, major film,” he said. “What was so exciting about the project was they entrusted me, still very young, on a major film with three of the most beautiful women of the time, and great actors. And they said, `Let’s get the Easy Rider Kid to shoot this film.

“`Shampoo’ was a great challenge – not just the visuals, but the nature of the project, with all the big stars and Warren Beatty producing. It had to gel into something. Hal [Ashby] was the only one who had a real idea of the movie, and he had to get that across. Hal let me find out on my own what the film was about, the tones and textures and composition. We got to a place of such close thinking, we didn’t have to talk too much. We became close collaborators. This really assured me that a cinematographer is the most important collaborator with the director. His vision is coming through the cinematographer’s eyes. It needs to be such a sensitive communication to make the film the director had in mind.”

While the ’70s are commonly marked by director-driven projects, and the rise of anti-heroes like Popeye Doyle in “The French Connection” and Robert Dupea in “Five Easy Pieces,” Kovacs thinks the look of the films also represented a major shift. Most significant was the move from studio sound stages to on-location filming.

The films, said Kovacs, “required a more realistic approach. It was shooting on location to get a realism, which doesn’t smell or look like a studio environment. It created a new look, a new visual language to film in the ’70s.”

The physical move away from the studios helped to alter the nature of filmmaking. “It was a complete change from the Hollywood system,” said Kovacs. “Everything broke down, the control the studios had. Films could be made anywhere, not only in Hollywood.”

*****

The ’70s were a magical time for Kovacs. But Kovacs has found magic in the movies ever since he first set eyes on a flickering image.

Kovacs was born in 1933 in Cece, a small town outside of Budapest. His parents were farmers, but his mother’s good friend ran the weekend movie theater. Sure, the theater was a small classroom with a white screen on the wall and a 16mm projector. But it gave Kovacs his hook into the film world.

“My job was putting fliers on the telephone poles, in the stores, and they’d let me see the movies for free,” he said. “I was fascinated by the films. I felt, watching this rectangular shape, like I was watching the world through this window. It was a visual overload for a very young mind, and a powerful experience for me. And I’ve never forgotten it.”

Kovacs went to high school in Budapest and says “it was heaven because there were so many movie theaters.” He saw films from Russia, Italian neorealism, and the French underground. Of the few English-language films he saw, the ones to make a lasting impression, were “Stairway to Heaven” and “Citizen Kane.”

Kovacs went to the Budapest Academy of Theater and Film Art, a top European film school, and applied as a cinematographer. “Through all my experiences watching film and theater, it was all the visuals that fascinated me,” he explained. “When I discovered that all those visuals – the color and composition and tones – there’s a person responsible for that, I became very specific in my plan.”

Not in those plans was the 1956 Russian invasion of Hungary, just as Kovacs was graduating. Seeing the tanks roll through Budapest, Kovacs and a film school acquaintance – Vilmos Szigmond, who would also become a noted cinematographer, with credits including “Deliverance,” “The Deer Hunter” and “The Last Waltz” – grabbed an Araflex 35mm camera and film. Hiding the equipment in a shopping bag, the two filmed the historic Soviet invasion.

With some 30,000 feet of film, Kovacs and Szigmond fled. First stop was Vienna, where they gave the film to a Hungarian documentary filmmaker. Next stop was America.

“It was so ridiculous – two Hungarian cinematographers who wanted to go to Hollywood to make movies,” said Kovacs. “But we didn’t know this was a ridiculous idea, not knowing the language, the size of the country, the culture. Or even what really Hollywood was.”

It took a few years to actually make it to Hollywood. While Szigmond settled in New York, Kovacs went to Seattle, where he took work processing 16mm film for a TV station. In 1958, the two decided to crash Hollywood.

“We didn’t want to accept the fact that we would knock on doors and doors wouldn’t open,” he said. “But little by little we discovered it was such a closed business. Like a fort – lots of walls and no doors.”

*****

But with the mid-’60s came the drive-in era and Roger Corman; Kovacs, like many others, found his way into Hollywood’s inner chamber.

Nothing since the ’70s has matched that era for Kovacs. “This era changed very quickly, unfortunately, in the ’80s” he said. “Suddenly there were teenage-reality problems, science fiction, digitally created special effects, action movies. It deterred from that wonderful line that dealt with human problems, human drama, human conflict and human situations. Suddenly we did all these unreal characters in unreal situations.”

To a good extent, Kovacs embraced the changes. He worked on big productions like “Nickelodeon” and “New York, New York” and the visually ambitious films “Ghost Busters” and “Multiplicity.” Lately he has settled into romantic comedies – “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “Miss Congeniality,” “Two Weeks Notice” – where he finds some connection to the human scale he loved in the ’70s.

“I wanted to be staying in the smaller films,” he said. “I wanted to stay with human elements, even if it was romantic comedies.”

Kovacs hasn’t turned to independent films as a way of staying connected to the grittier side of filmmaking. Instead, he has become a mentor, spending much of his time teaching workshops to aspiring filmmakers in Europe and the States. He has also headed the American Society of Cinematographers’ education committee for the last five years. The experience keeps him attached to the past. And it assures him that Hollywood will welcome new faces and ideas, unlike when he arrived there more than 40 years ago.

“It’s not like when I came to town and there were no openings, and it was just rejection, rejection,” he said. “Now there’s an open relationship between film students and the professional cinematographers.

“I encourage them that Hollywood is like a big candy store. You can find whatever kind of film you want.”

Aspen Filmfest’s Discussion of a Decade, with Laszlo Kovacs, Richard Dreyfuss, Sydney Pollack and Polly Platt, moderated by William Friedkin.

Saturday, Oct. 4, 4:45 p.m., Wheeler Opera House

$12.50

For further information and a full Aspen Filmfest schedule, go to http://www.aspenfilm.org.


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