Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: November 2006

Miklos Jancso: The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest

And then there’s this puzzler. Made in 1999 after a long break, this film sees Jancso and longtime writer Gyula Hernadi abandoning any indicators of their previous, consistent style. Most notably, there are no long takes in this film, making it nearly unrecognizable as a Jancso movie. Instead, we have 105 rather long minutes of sub-Beckett hijinks acted out by two evidently well-known Hungarian comedians (both were in Kontroll), interspersed with cameos from Jancso and Hernadi themselves. The movie doesn’t seem to go anywhere, though there are plenty of odd, deadpan jokes and oblique references to Hungarian history which were lost on me. (Odd that this movie’s slapstick travels less well than the art-house seriousness of Jancso’s earlier work.) Still, the general baseness of the dialogue between the two plays out as a constricted version of Bob and Ray, or perhaps more aptly Bouvard and Pecuchet.

Who knows? Jancso was pushing 80 when he made this, and such a drastic late-career shift is hard to figure. The cold hand of death? Senility? Boredom? Maybe I’ll have a better idea when I’m 80. But for now, I’m not rushing out to see the four sequels.

Andrew Horton has two articles, one on The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest and one on the fourth sequel, The Battle of Mohacs, which just happens to be about time travel.

Miklos Jancso: God Walks Backwards

A later film from Jancso, dating from 1991 and very topical at
that. It deals very specifically with the fall of Communism as
embodied by the Soviet coup against Gorbachev of that same
year. Jancso was nothing if not au courant; God Walks Backwards
is dizzying in its simultaneous immediacy and depthless irony.

Most of the film takes place in and around a mostly empty mansion
staked with television screens and cameras, as the old Communist
guard, newly-minted democrats, and hedonistic, cynical youth play out
the end of Communism as a farce. The democrats are hypocrites, denying
their past complicity to buy into the latest set of rhetoric that will
keep them in power. The hard-liners are clueless and pathetic; they
tremble just as the leaders of the coup did. And the youth walk around
with a video camera and a silent, naked woman in tow (sexist, yes, but
too true), shooting the action as though it were for nothing but their
own entertainment. Jancso’s long shots pass over the television
screens that present both the action in the mansion and the concurrent
broadcasts of the Soviet coup. A tank rolls into the yards with a rock
star on top (and that naked woman again), and these “democrats” kill
everyone, including the youth.

It is the most effective presentation of Debordian spectacle
in film that I have ever seen, revealing Michael Haneke as the amateur shock artiste that he is, and more remarkable given that Jancso
abandoned his more classicist leanings to adopt an uglier, harsher
contemporary style, all electricity and hum. (Though shot on film, it
often looks amazingly video-like.) There are the obvious points about
the inevitable hypocrisy of the transition from Communism to something
else and of the emptying of the assorted rhetoric. The fragmentation
brought by perestroika is there too, in more comprehensible form (to
me, at least) than in Kira Muratova’s The
Asthenic Syndrome
. For such a blatantly political and allegorical
film, Jancso never does bring a polemic to the table, and the final
self-reflexive scene, in which the actors and crew themselves are
subsumed first by decadence and then by machine gun fire, is Jancso’s
acknowledgement that such sincerity could never be: they too are an
instrumental part of the joke.

Miklos Jancso: Winter Wind (Sirokko)

Jancso is already in my pantheon of genius directors, all the more
from coming out of the backwaters of Eastern Europe under Communism; I
can’t think of another of his contemporaries that even approaches
him. The Round-Up is a brilliant, taut exercise in Kafka-esque
consequentiality, and The Red and the White is simply one of my
favorite films of all time.

Winter Wind is not as narrative as The Round-Up, nor
does it have the formalized brutality of The Red and the White,
but it is from the same period as them and qualifies as a minor
masterpiece. The historical background, only given at the very start
of the film, is that between the two world wars, Hungary is providing
assistance to Croatian nationalist separatists who wish for an
independent Croatia separate from Yugoslavia, which in 1929 was made a
dictatorship under Serbian King
Alexander
. The film takes place on the Yugoslavian-Croatian
border, where Hungarian-supported Croatian terrorists are making raids
into Yugoslavia and conducting assassinations and such. Our hero,
Marko, returns from a raid and spends the entire movie in a Hungarian
safehouse with compatriots and Hungarian officials. He distrusts them
all intensely and interrogates (or kills) them, until…well, his
fears are well-founded, that’s all I’ll say.

Marko is defined by two characteristics alone: his nationalism and
his paranoia. Any other trait has been completely subsumed into the
service of these two aspects, and he is monomaniacal in his
obsessions. (The one funny moment involves his hatred for his
compatriot’s pet dog, which has been irritating him all the time in
the safehouse. A new terrorist trainee shows up and Marko, to test his
marksmanship, tells him to shoot the dog.) He separates himself from
all the other political figures on the grounds that no one is as pure
in their fervor as he is. Everyone else is using him and his cause.

He’s right. There is never a moment where he is taken aback or
surprised; his comprehension of the situation is total, as is his
paranoia. The only people to whom he shows a degree of trust are the
wholly powerless: a handful of Croatian children whom he trains to
kill and an abused prostitute sent by the Hungarian government to
service him. (He’s not interested.)

The movie is not about development; like The Red and the
White
, it’s a visceral portrayal of a situation. The brilliance of
it lies in how Jancso communicates the abstract conflict between the
idealists and the realpolitik sorts with pretty much no explicit
political speech. It is conveyed through their mannerisms, their
stances, their confidences and their paranoias.

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