Laslo Kovacs Dies: seminal seventies cinematographer succumbs

It was an eye that had seen a lot.

Convoys of obtrusive Russian tanks, ordinary citizens converted to madness and fear, the suspicious stares of two-faced bureaucrats.

What a sight for that sore eye it must have been to take in America, with its vast, open landscapes, its endless highways and byways, its solitary sub-cultures where a life could be carved by home-made rules.

Small wonder that he, Hungarian born cinematographer Laslo Kovacs, made a second life-act of cultivating its poetry.

Kovacs, who passed away this month at 74, was the acclaimed cinematographer behind Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Paper Moon and New York, New York – to name but a few of the 1970's gems to which he brought his signature style. Yes, the glory of that era is attributed to the auteurs – Bogdonavich, Rafelson, Scorsese, et al – but just as formative a force was the work of Kovacs and fellow Hungarian expatriate Vilmos Zsigmond, both of whom brought literal meaning to the work of filmmakers who viewed their home soil as a strange, directionless land.

Kovacs' America was painted in connotative wides and energetic traveling shots, representing both a cosmic indifference to man's petty struggles and the driving human desperation to find spiritual solace.

He was drawn to properties about the restless – outsiders trying to cope in a challenging world, a mission made even tougher by a do-or-die instinct to preserve their own identities: Fonda and Hopper in Rider, Nicholson in Pieces, DeNiro in New York, New York.

He made them look small against those big American skies, and larger than life, through memorable close-ups, whenever they writhed within the straight jackets of convention.

Even his '80s output, less complicated films like Ghostbusters and Mask, dealt with fringe characters. Unlike their seventies counterparts, however, each found what it was that they so needed: Bill Murray and company become the toast of NYC, and Cher finds spiritual comfort after the death of her troubled son. One can only hope it was a sign that by that time, Kovacs, then in middle age, had discovered an inner reconciliation with what had been instilled in him back in Hungary.

Soon to be released, his final work, a documentary he and brother-in-arms Szigmond were working on about those formative days during the Russian invasion, choc a Soviet block with footage the two of them smuggled out of the country.

Call it the nerve that once powered a remarkable eye.

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