14-23 November 2008
This year saw the addition of an “Experimental Forum” to the Thessaloniki International Film Festival. The Forum’s six screenings, programmed by Vassilis Bourikas, offered a rare and valuable overview of the diverse alternative cinema created by Hungary’s Béla Balázs Studio over four decades, as well as a retrospective of the film work of revered Croatian artist Ivan Ladislav Galeta.
I first became aware of the extraordinary phenomenon of the Béla Balázs Studio (BBS) at the 2007 Lucca Film Festival where Bourikas programmed a “surprise screening”. The audience there was as intrigued and excited by his impromptu talks on the BBS and its all but unknown wealth of avant garde creativity as by the example of this that he chose to screen, Miklós Erdély’s feature-length Alommasolatok (Dream Reconstruction, 1976). Although representing only a small fraction of the roughly 500 films produced under the auspices of the BBS, the Thessaloniki programs resoundingly confirmed the exalted claims Bourikas made on behalf of this crucial but apparently undervalued aspect of Hungarian film history, one which cinephile audiences the world over would do well to discover and explore.
Named after renowned screenwriter and film theorist Béla Balázs (1884-1949), the BBS came into being in 1959, initially set up as a film club. By 1961 it had assumed its eventual official purpose: essentially to act as a state owned “workshop” that functioned as a stepping-stone between film school and the industry. Graduates from Budapest’s Academy of Film and Theatrical Arts would become members of the BBS to automatically join the union, and to complete their first films. However, some filmmakers chose to stay at or return to the studio. Funding for BBS films came from the government but was allotted to projects by the studio management in accordance with the members’ democratically expressed desires. Members also had the power to approve the production of films by people operating outside the studio, including those working in disciplines other than cinema. This led to a creative environment nourished by the interaction and collaboration of an exceptional diversity of interests and talent. As a self-regulating entity, the BBS was also unusually, if not uniquely, unencumbered by communist government censorship. Films that incurred official displeasure might receive cripplingly limited distribution or be banned outright on completion. But this didn’t prevent them from getting made, and made with a remarkable degree of creative freedom.
The Thessaloniki programs were selected to highlight the politically subversive and formally audacious strands of BBS production from the ‘60s to the ‘90s, with László Moholy Nagy’s Lichtspiel: Schwarz-Weiss-Grau (Lightplay: Black-White-Grey, 1930) and the Buharovs’ Hotel Tubu (Ivan & Igor Buharov, 2001) providing a sort of prologue and epilogue to the BBS saga.
The earliest BBS film screened was Márk Novák’s Kedd (Tuesday, 1963). This melancholic and surreal absurdist comedy, steeped in ennui and nuclear war angst, might bring to mind some of Roman Polanksi’s early shorts such as Dwaj ludzie z szafa (Two Men and a Wardrobe, 1958) or Le Gros et le maigre (The Fat and the Lean, 1961). Indeed, its central conceit is a running battle between a thin protagonist and an obese man whose constant eating has driven the hero to distraction. Although very much a product of its time, its deadpan visual humour and the razor sharp editing of a spatially fragmented, stream-of-consciousness narrative ensure that its hangdog slapstick remains as grimly entertaining as ever. It stands up to the years better than many similar films of the time, including Polanski’s shorts. It also benefits from the engaging presence of lead actor László Hável, to western eyes a sort of blasé Hungarian incarnation of Peter Sellers.
Pro Patria (Sándor Sára, 1970) is a bombastic, only occasionally effective montage denouncing the horror and waste of war. Two other more straightforwardly documentary films from the early ‘70s are of much greater interest. The astounding and beautifully titled Archaikus Torzo (Archaic Torso, 1971) is a portrait by future screenwriter Péter Dobai of a singular and disturbing character. The film’s subject is a man attempting to live up to a Goethian ideal of human perfection to the letter. Living in isolation, he divides his time between obsessive bodybuilding and reading. Dobai follows this muscle-bound recluse’s daily routine in relatively long takes shot from an unfussily observational distance. The first part of the film concentrates on his compulsive exercising and the second features him reading philosophical texts to camera at length. This self-tormented eccentric is revealed to exist physically and emotionally at an uninterrupted peak of harrowing, self-induced anxiety. The moment when he finally bursts into tears while reading aloud from his notebook is no less stunning or heart-piercingly grotesque for its inevitability. Archaic Torso ultimately becomes a forceful critique of the unquestioning application of outmoded ideas and the dangers of embracing a system with no place for interaction with a broader community.
If Archaic Torso offers a painful example of an exceptionally highly-strung individual, Szilveszter (New Year’s Eve, Elemér Ragályi, 1974) reveals society at large engaged in a serious letting off of steam. This impressionistic, dialogue-free montage of New Year’s revelry across various equally hedonistic social strata is an ebullient, if sometimes unsettling, variant on the “city symphony” form. Ragályi’s observations are both joyous and satirical, his freewheeling vision shaped by a carefully conceived structure that leads the viewer from the kitsch-elegance of bourgeois nightclubs to burnt-out cars at dawn.
János Tóth was the filmmaker best represented in Thessaloniki’s BBS screenings. On the evidence the four films shown at the festival, this honour was not undeserved, even if it might be somewhat qualified by the fact that three of these films form a closely related triptych.
Poezis (Poetry, Tóth, 1972) is a documentary celebrating the work of a peasant wood-carver. Comprised of a series of imaginatively composed tableaux featuring the rustic sculptor, his creations, and their natural environment, this wordless film uses montage to create a dynamic sense of the extent to which these three elements mirror each other. The program notes suggest Poetry itself is a reflection of and, perhaps, comment on then-current documentary trends in the USSR. Although I’m not familiar enough with this strand of Soviet cinema to even attempt to unpack the implications of that relationship, Poetry’s intense lyricism did seem, whether by design or coincidence, to breathe a distant echo of Sergei Paradjanov.
Tóth’s Study 1 (1974) and Study 2 (1975) were subsequently condensed into a single, significantly different film, Mozikep (Motion Pictures, 1976). Taken separately or together, this masterful achievement is the most exciting discovery in the BBS program. A dissection of cinema, this triptych’s ideas, as condensed in Motion Pictures, pass through a materialist approach, with opening images of candlelight and celluloid, to use found footage to explore the thematic and iconographic terrain of film. Tóth associates this with sinful pleasure, Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and Marlene Dietrich, sex and death. Finally, he moves to a film crew shooting in a wood to depict the work of cinema, in this case filming “angels” that are no less enchanting for being ersatz. Tóth launches three “attacks” on film history and practice – a materialist reduction, a moralistic sermon, a revelation of artifice – only to demonstrate how the poetic fascination of cinema remains undiminished, resiliently beautiful in its inherent fakeness and sinfulness. An astonishing link between materialist film and the Histoire(s) du cinéma Godard would start to recount more than a decade later, Tóth’s Study 1 & 2 and Motion Pictures cry out for rediscovery.
Gábor Bódy, a crucial figure in Hungarian film and video art, was represented by Negy Bagatelle (Four Bagatelles, 1975), an intriguing anthology of four short films that reflect structuralist preoccupations. Special effects expert Péter Tímár’s Visus (1976) is an ambitious, technically accomplished exploration of the photoreceptive functions of the eye that only occasionally manages to rise above vapid flashiness. When it does so, its trippy intensity is impressive. András Szirtes’ Hajnal (Andante) (Dawn (Andante), 1973-80) also seems rather too fond of its own technical processes. Yet its closing image, coming after many long minutes fixated on jittering microscopic particles, is profoundly haunting: an incredibly slow circular track around a deserted industrial courtyard as dawn breaks, moving from and returning to the same place which is at first in darkness and then translucent with the first glimmer of daylight. This study of low natural light gently emerging through the heavy grain of the black and white 16mm image is simultaneously as striking a cinematographic impression of a natural phenomenon as could be wished for and a moving acknowledgement of the gorgeousness of celluloid materiality.
Artist Dóra Maurer’s Triolak (18 Veracio) (Tercets, 1981) is a highly effective structuralist work consisting chiefly of shots of an artist’s studio. The image is split into three horizontal segments, each of which pan in opposite directions. An increasingly complex and elaborate pattern of panning movements ensues, creating a gripping sense of perceptual disorientation as the image appears pulled in different directions at once. György Pintér’s Astrokarneval (Astrocarnival, 1981) is not, strictly speaking, a BBS production. It’s a “letter” from a fugitive member’s exile in the USA, the first of his Nomad Newsreels. It combines footage of a San Francisco dance parade with occasional TV news images sketching the wider historical context of American Cold War politics. The colour, energy and immediacy of the thronging dancers in action are accentuated to an almost overwhelming pitch by stop motion filming, rapid in-camera editing and a relentlessly driving samba soundtrack. The juxtaposition of this joyfully primitive spectacle with the chilly reminders of imperialist violence is surprisingly powerful. A drop in tempo during the news footage interludes heightens the contrast. Within this dialectical arrangement, it is perhaps possible to discern an impassioned comment on flight from a filmmaker in exile. The energy of the present moment in all its desperate joy sinks into the horror of historical reality as soon as it lets up. The dance is a flight from history into a fragile, ecstatic present.
The only full-length feature in the BBS program, András Wahorn’s Jegkrembalett (Ice Cream Ballet, 1984), showcases the subversive punk band Albert Einstein Committee (A. E. Bizottsag). Anarchic, surreal, grungy, often daft and always great fun, this Ballet begins as a series of sketches built around the band’s adventures which unfold like a sleazier, more paranoid spin on the wackier aspects of the Richard Lester/Beatles collaborations. Subsequently, the film kicks into a concert movie that melts impressive live footage into gloriously glitchy video clips.
Miklós Erdély, widely considered one of the greatest Hungarian artists of the past fifty years, had two works screened. The minute-long video Pihenés (Relaxation, 1984) is a witty Zen-inflected gag. In a single take, a man’s hands are shown driving two nails into a bare wall. He then hangs his hammer on the nails and walks away. Tavaszi Kivégzés (Vernal Execution, 1985) is a medium-length feature of interest less for its Kafkaesque storyline than for its intriguing formal strategies. A civil servant has been condemned to death thanks to a bureaucratic mistake. The film follows his ultimately successful efforts to repeal this sentence, whilst hinting at the residual anxiety that will continue to haunt him. Visually, Vernal Execution has a slightly rough-hewn aesthetic, at times almost verité. Numerous scenes follow the lead character at unusual length as he moves through corridors and streets or travels by bus. Yet instead of setting up a naturalistic narrativity, Erdély frequently disrupts the film’s flow with expressionistic devices such as extreme slow motion, repeated action and colour filters. A particularly unnerving technique employed throughout much of the film is to have every line of dialogue spoken immediately repeated on the soundtrack in a dispassionate, official sounding voiceover.
At first glance, the purpose of these baroque flourishes is to convey the lead character’s sense of dread and insecurity. Yet the balance Erdély strikes between a near documentary approach and highly subjectified stylisation is quite unique. Generally, it emphasises less narrative peaks than an ongoing, problematic experience of reality. The lead character remains somewhat opaque, more a vehicle through which the viewer can share a certain sense of the world than a person we can fully identify with. What emerges, and is most clearly articulated by the voiceover-echo, is a sense of simultaneously existing versions of reality, objective, subjective and official, constantly shifting, uneasily invading and undermining each other with potentially lethal results.
Sebestyén Kodolányi’s dizzying impression of perceptual overload, Anatomia (Anatomy, 1996), brought the BBS retrospective more or less up to date. Kodolányi now heads the BBS, which has ceased production and exists as an archive for its back catalogue. An ongoing BBS legacy was hinted at with the inclusion of the Buharov Brothers’ oneiric and disconcerting little parable Hotel Tubu (2001). This truly weird film’s spaced out, faux naif style has lingered in my mind with an uncommon persistence for several weeks. The Buharovs have also made three features, of which Lassú tükör (Slow Mirror, 2007) stands as one of the most original and fascinating films of recent years. This gifted duo is without doubt an emerging force to look out for.
The Experimental Forum’s retrospective of Ivan Ladislav Galeta’s films intersects with the BBS program in that he worked on two of them at the Hungarian studio. The six films shown at Thessaloniki represent the entirety of Galeta’s single-screen celluloid output, but only a fraction of his entire oeuvre which spans four decades and includes video and sound art, photography, performance, installation, expanded cinema, and written word work. Metanoia (1969) was presented as an early work, shot on 8mm while Galeta was still in university. He neatly distinguishes it from his subsequent cinema by pointing out that it “was a reversed system of my later films: a narrative film with its concepts hidden instead of a conceptual one with hidden narratives”. (1) Each of the remaining five films is a limpid gem of mathematically precise elegance concealing a multitude of secrets, of ideas and references that sometimes only begin to appear with several viewings. During a public question and answer session, Galeta tellingly explained that he believed a viewer who sees his films more than once should get more from them than one who is satisfied with one viewing – and that someone who sees them forty times deserves to still be making discoveries!
However, an immediately evident common factor between these films is a preoccupation with film’s – or, as Galeta might prefer to say, media’s – capacity for reconfiguring time. Two Times in One Space (1976-84) superimposes the whole of a one-take short film by Nikola Stojanovic over itself with a 216-frame delay. The result is that characters in the domestic scene created by Stojanovic trail behind themselves, spectrally repeating the actions they have just performed. WAL(L)ZEN (1977-89) and the magnificent PiRaMidas (1972-84) explore the reversal of time, the former using variations of a pianist playing Chopin backwards being filmed backwards, and the latter the trajectory of a train journey with the camera mounted on the front of the train. As the train advances, the image cuts so that it is first on its side, then upside down, then on its other side, and then right way up again. This progression forms a repeated anti-clockwise rotation that doesn’t interrupt the train’s real-time passage and keeps the tracks’ vanishing point unchanged at the screen’s centre. These four alternating shot positions suggest the four walls of a pyramid looked at from inside, with the track’s vanishing point as its apex. Each shot runs four frames shorter than the previous one. Halfway through the film, the train “collides” with two frames of white leader and then the first half of the film is repeated in reverse, as if the engine had mounted to the top of the “pyramid” and was now slipping back down. This ingenious statement on self-cancelling progressions through time and space is, among other readings, one of the most profound illustrations imaginable of cinema’s ontological capacity for opening virtual digressions in temporal and spatial reality.
The sphere is thematically and literally central to both Sfaira (1971-84) and Water-Pulu 1869-1896 (1973-87). Sfaira is comprised of shots of passers-by in Zagreb filmed with a hidden camera while reacting to a spherical public sculpture entitled Earthbound Sun. This footage is reworked with an optical printer and arranged such that the camera “orbits” the sculpture. Water-Pulu, another truly great film, uses found footage of a water polo match to extraordinary effect. Again using an optical printer, Galeta keeps the ball centre frame at all times, allowing the action to lurch and flow around this fixed point. The abstraction of the surrounding movement is accentuated by the superimposition of the image on top of itself three times, with a very short delay. The range of associations this visually mesmerising work generates is never less than surprising, from the apparent Impressionist sunset that the opening freeze frame suggests to the solar significance the ball again assumes in relation to the dynamically granular universe that surrounds it.
The Thessaloniki International Film Festival is to be commended not only for instituting an “Experimental Forum” as part of its already rich program, but for making it clear from this inaugural edition that it is not simply a cosmetic addition to its cinematic spectrum. The quality of programming demonstrated by the 2008 Forum promises a vital ongoing contribution to the discovery and appreciation of avant-garde cinema at an international level.
Thessaloniki International Film Festival website: http://www.filmfestival.gr/default.aspx?lang=en-US