Driven through the day by sound – On Krešimir Golik’s Od 3 do 22

Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 follows a woman in real-time, showing her psychological transformation as she faces the possibility of having cancer. One and a half hours of Cléo’s shifting ideas about herself, reflections on her past life, flowing self-interpretations, relentless outbursts of monologues, heated dialogues, and highly expressive images accompany the process. 

Od 3 do 22 also follows a woman, but unlike Varda’s iconic work, it is not the fictionalization of a life-changing moment, but a documentation of a day in the life of Smilja Glavaš, a young mother with a determined face and a worker at the Pobjeda textile factory in Zagreb.

Unlike in Varda’s work, Od 3 do 22 does not show the protagonist’s day in real-time, but condenses 19 hours into a little more than 10 minutes. Yet similarly to Varda, Golik shows time as it is perceived by the female figure. In this case, time is not filled with self-interpretation and self-reflection, it is measured by work, leaving no space for a personality to evolve. Time passes by in the repetitive nature of the worker’s actions.

She is awakened by the alarm clock and from that moment, noises dictate her rhythm. At home, it is her child’s murmur that calls Smilja to work, outside it is the buzz of the city, while the clatter and whistle of factory machinery chase her through her hours of labour. Back home the work continues, the child’s sounds are only in the background of chopping, peeling and cooking, washing, flushing, and drying. As the day ends, the ticking of the clock returns and becomes another sound in the incessant chain of noises. 

A whole day goes by without hearing Smilja talk, and the lack of speech is not a stylized exaggeration. There is no place for talking in her day, it consists exclusively of work. The monotony of her routine is set to the tempo of a metronome; in order to keep up with it, her movements need to become automatic and discussion or self-expression would merely be a distraction. 

Each of her steps has its place in the day and her gestures never last longer than possible. She is not simply in a hurry, but every movement has to fit in a tight schedule and therefore she has to be constantly conscious of time. Each movement of her body is tightly calibrated, she can never allow herself to ponder life; she always has to be alert. When she sits on the bus, she doesn’t seem to observe the city or to contemplate, but rather looks forward to the following moment. Each second is about the next one, each thought of hers is about the next station of the day. 

Motherhood is often associated with a similar kind of awareness, but what we see in Smilja’s case is rather the enforced alertness of the worker. Her role as a mother is completely subordinated to that of a working woman, her relationship to the child is about taking care of his needs, rather than giving him attention. She wakes him up, gets him dressed, feeds him, and locks him in the dark house alone while she goes to work. From a middle-class perspective in the age of parenting books and baby-monitors, such a practice appears like an act of shocking negligence.

It was probably even more extreme to see, one day after watching Pedro Almodóvar’s Madres paralelas, a film that shows motherhood and, above all, womanhood as a role that bears the responsibility not only for the child but for the whole of society as well. In Almodóvar’s film, Penélope Cruz is closely watching her baby on a baby monitor. Smilja’s situation encompasses an entirely different culture and society, in which her solution, or the lack thereof, was neither uncommon nor avoidable. It’s integral to this way of life, which is the experience of separation: separation from spare time, separation from relaxed concentration and, most importantly, separation from the child.

Three Slips in the Bad Lieutenant

Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant begins with a static shot showing a middle-aged man walking out of a semi-detached, brick house. He seems to have a headache; he hardly looks up and holds his head in his hands. Soon two boys break out of the house, running a foot race to the car. One of them targets the passenger seat, while the other goes for the backseat. Other adults appear in the door watching the scene; the woman, who is supposed to be the mother, holding a baby. One of the boys slips while running.

 

Unconcerned, he sits in the backseat and the engine starts. In the next shot, it becomes clear from the conversation, that a father is taking his twins to school. The father immediately appears as a tough guy, but there’s hardly any sign of his profession, addiction or that he uses his police rank to get drugs more easily. It’s even less predictable that in the end of the film, the lieutenant will drive two teenagers, who brutally raped a nun, in the same car to a bus station, giving them the chance of a new life in fatherly fashion, a quality as uncharacteristic as possible. Linked by a handcuff, one of the criminals sits in the passenger seat, while the other takes the backseat.

Abel Ferrara builds up a seemingly simple universe, where the lieutenant, the ultimate evil measures himself against the holiness of the raped nun, a selfless and humble figure, the encyclopaedic definition of angelic purity and beauty. Whereas they are elaborate and unique personalities, the fact that they have no names also renders them representational. Compared to the timeless dimension of their dichotomy, the lieutenant’s compulsive sports betting, his only passion apart from drugs, seems banal, yet it eventually leads to his death. Then there are these unnoticed and unimportant mistakes, slips and stumbles, as described above.

The next slip takes place in a rather chaotic scene. A bunch of dealers are standing in the street, the lieutenant appears, all the dealers run away, except a Hispanic man who only pretends to flee. He gets in a house, runs up the stairs. He slips, just for a moment, then keeps running to the landing, followed by the lieutenant. The landing seems to be their usual meeting point for exchanging drugs. The dealer notes: Shit’s gonna kill you man.

A sentence that stands alone in the film, as none of the family members or colleagues ever asks about, reacts to or observes any sign of his addiction, even when he commits a huge blunder: the third slip. As established in earlier scenes, he tries to make use of every situation where he assumes the role of a lieutenant. In this case, he has to investigate a car, a crime scene. He finds some cocaine, puts it into his jacket, but it falls out.

The situation should be obvious for the other cops but, as always, no one reacts to it. From time to time, he appears in the company of his colleagues in a heavily drugged state, yet nobody notices or cares. No one overrules or assesses him, nor does he receive orders. Whenever he appears in different places to work, it’s always out of his free will or accident, not because of duty or responsibility. He is an invisible man.

Albeit minor, these three slips enrich this extreme and stylized film with a root in realism, giving it a distinct register.

Go ahead, brigade of one heart and thousand languages – On Jancsó Miklós‘ Fényes szelek

A car is coming from the other side of the reservoir. Young people are watching it, a loud whistle calls a gathering for a partisan action. This artificial lake together with a dilapidated building; the whole lakeside resembles an old factory district. The car arrives, another whistle, and the partisans appear in front of the car, embracing each other in a line stopping the cars. A plain-clothes officer gets out of the car, another one of the partisans in a red shirt appears. In the background, we can see policemen in uniform pointing at the partisans with their machine guns. The man in the civil clothes asks the youngsters if they have gone mad, then orders the policemen to put off their guns. He must be the head of these policemen and surely knows the partisans from before. While he collects the guns, the youngsters arrange in a big circle closing in on the officer. He faces the red-shirted man, and in a friendly way asks him to let the police pass. The partisans lay on the ground and start singing: “On Madrid’s borders, we stand on guards…”. The man in civil clothes lays down with them and sings for a second. He stands up, as if he knew he shouldn’t and couldn’t stay. He signals the policemen to interrupt this performance. At first, the police seems completely powerless, and the police cannot get the people laying on the ground stand up. All of a sudden, the partisans jump up and start to throw the officers into the reservoir. The man in the civil clothes appears in the foreground of the image, retreating with hands raised up. The man in the red shirt goes through his pockets and confiscates his gun. In the background, partisans and policemen are playing together in the water. Finally, it turns out that the gun wasn’t even loaded. This was the first shot of the film.

To comprehend the density of this first shot requires disambiguation, and this can be achieved through the thorough examination of the choreography. The film starts with the youngsters waiting; they know already that the policemen are coming as they have prepared an action to stop them. When they arrive, we believe that their power has a threatening effect on the partisans, which sense is supported by the fact that the stoppage and protest are against them. Their power is represented in the uniforms, in the guns, in their cars. On the other hand, the youngsters’ power is presented in their songs and their collective movement.

Kozma’s figure (the officer in civil clothes) seems to be some kind of mediator in this tense situation and his role raises our uncertainty concerning what is at stake. When he gets out of the car to ask the youngsters what they are doing, his tone is casual, almost kindly, while the guns appear in the background. Then, how is it possible to lay down with the partisans and in the next moment, give orders to stop their protest? Pushing the officers in the water undermines the seriousness of the scene, it seems more like a party than a confrontation, but then in the foreground we see Kozma with hands up, even if he has a gun.

The liminal atmosphere between game and terror, playing and humiliating, joy and defiance crystalizes through Kozma, and sets the stage for the whole film.

Later, it turns out that the youngsters organizing the partisan actions are actually NÉKOSZ (National Association of Popular Colleges/People’s College) members, which was an institution under the Rákosi regime – the Stalinist period after WWII – to educate the children of the lower classes, in order to give them the opportunity to become intellectuals. So, in theory, the NÉKOSZ members and the policemen are representing the same revolution on different levels. These youngsters are not really revolting against state authority, as they support the ideology of the regime. When the self-organizing group later gains power they prove themselves more radical than the police itself.

This first shot is the presentation of NÉKOSZ in these unstable power-relations. From here, the film is about their aim to convince the students of a Catholic seminar of the strength and singular validity of their communist ideas.

Sparkling Motion

The year 1968 was quite significant in both Western and Eastern Europe. Paris and Prague became the two symbolic cities of the revolution, facing fundamentally different issues and problems. Paris became the centre of a social revolution motivated by ideological convictions and a disgust at bourgeois hierarchies and imperialist conduct, while the people of Czechoslovakia were oppressed under the Soviet regime, which necessitated a response, a revolution for liberation and self-government.

In Hungary, 1968 was not so relevant, as only a minority were aware of the revolutionary intentions. Being a part of the Soviet bloc, most of the intellectuals felt attracted to the example of Prague, where the aim was to democratize the regime from the dictatorial state forms. The most visible consequence Hungarian intellectuals had to suffer was a long series of discharges from workplaces (publishing houses, universities and the academia), as well as an infamous prosecution of philosophers for their various expressions of solidarity with the people of Prague. From this perspective the revolution against capitalism, consumerism, and American imperialism seemed distant, like an artificial problem made by and for the West.

In the context of Hungary, Jancsó’s internationally well-known figure was an exceptional one. Fényes szelek was the director’s first colour film, made after the international success of Szegénylegények and Így jöttem. This movie can be seen as part of a trilogy with Jancsó’s later films Sirokkó and La pacifista.

Jancsó was among the few favoured intellectuals who were free to go abroad – he spent months in China and often travelled between European cities. In the May of 1968 at the Cannes film festival, he actually witnessed the French revolution up close, and it made a deep impression on him. Returning to Hungary later in the summer, he started to shoot Fényes szelek. Despite being embedded in Hungarian culture, the story and the motifs of the film carry the signs of the director’s viewpoint on 1968, influenced by both the Eastern and the Western-European situation. Jancsó’s engaged populist–socialist attitude and his critical approach towards any kind of authority meet in a complex ideological field, resulting in a movie full of enthusiasm for and fear of a given historical situation, analyzing the nature of power and reflecting upon different political contexts at the same time.

“Remaining, of course, always an outsider.” [1] This quotation of his reminiscences of his visit in Paris in 1968 describes exactly his liminal situation.

Before moving on to some reflections on the contemporary atmosphere, it is necessary to take a look at Jancsó’s statement about the narrative’s period; the late forties in Hungary. Socialism was conceived in sin. He exemplifies how easily goodwill and pure faith turn into radicalism by looking at a harmless organization, NÉKOSZ (National Association of Popular Colleges). Jancsó himself had an experience of this institution together with the film’s screenwriter, Hernádi Gyula, as they were both members of the Popular College, participating in collective events and agitative actions. The organization was only active from 1946 to 1949, and before Jancsó’s film, the organization was hardly remembered, while it proved to be an exceptionally effective educational tool, according to reports of the former members.

Fényes szelek was promoted as a commemorative movie to NÉKOSZ – the Hungarian title is Sparkling Winds, recalling the first lines of its march song; “Sparkling winds blowing our flags and subverting the whole world.” After its premier, partly due to heightened and false expectations, it really divided the critics and the Hungarian audience. Indeed, it was very unexpected, as it was the first film by Jancsó that the state-party understood as a critique of their regime.

The experience of 1968 resonates with the behaviour of the Popular College people, especially in the second part, when under Jutka’s leadership, the group radicalizes. The banners and the fliers recall the images that live in the public consciousness about the revolutionary streets of Paris. Moreover, their appearance; the farmer skirts, striped shirts and hairstyles definitely evoke the sixty’s trends.

Another notion that strengthens the relevance of the French connection is the comparison with Jean-Luc Godard’s La chinoise. Both films reflect the climate of the late sixties in France, and both keep distance from the juveniles’ actions, showing borderline attraction and repulsion towards them. However, their tone and criticism touches upon different aspects of their revolutionary way of thinking and radicalization. Godard portrays students with superficial ideas and pretentious theories exaggerated to the point of ridiculousness. By contrast, in Fényes szelek, even if it’s assumed that these people do not have any complex thoughts on their debate topics, like the role of the individual in history or the cognizability of the world, their devotion and ideas are taken seriously. For instance, the contrast between the people of the Popular College and the Catholic seminar is shown in the opposition of their sharply differing convictions, that all seem relevant as they are based on actual personal and historical experiences. Radicalization in both cases comes from a childlike attitude; in La chinoise the students don’t seem to have a relation with the graveness of the actual political and social situation, while in Fényes szelek, the juveniles’ seriousness creates the situation in the narrative, interfering with the actual political situation of the country.

The established parabolic form of Jancsó’s previous films becomes more complicated, as the dramaturgic structure follows two main characters of the same group, embedded into the context of three different ideologies. Jancsó builds up the story by concentrating on the members of the Popular College, whose intention is to make the students of the Catholic seminar share their communist ideology. While there is purity in their thoughts and spirit in their unquenchable thirst for debate, all their actions seem naïve and childish in their brutality, and each of their gestures become unexpectedly aggressive. The first attempt to debate fails because of this attitude, followed by Laci’s disillusionment and later renouncement, and the second time Jutka’s abuses make an end to this process. The storyline is clearly divided in two parts, primarily focusing on the two main characters and their relation to the Popular College and to the Catholic seminar, but it can only be discussed within the context given by the state authority embodied by the policemen.

The two protagonists essentialize the idols of communist youth; their faces tell everything. Balázsovits Lajos as Laci represents an everyday guy, a person who is devoted and enthusiastic in spreading communist ideas, yet resists any kind of aggression and has faith in debate, so he remains harmless. His leadership seems sincerely and naively democratic at the first scene on the riverside, when all the members of the college follow his way of acting, but in the end, they form a dancing circle together. Laci takes off his red shirt, the sign of his distinctiveness and he joins them naked as if he was renouncing authority in favour of the college.

Contrary to all this, in the second part of the film we see Drahota Andrea as Jutka, the close-up shots show her dramatic face and desperate look. Her attitude is much more determined and aggressive than Laci’s. As a leader she feels necessary to rise above the others, so after filling Laci’s former position as main secretary, she literally rises by sitting on the shoulder of two boys while demanding accountability for the assumed perpetrators. Clarifying the consensus and the ideology is essential for her, and to prove to the Others she is ready to make radical decisions.

Offering two possible roles as a leader of a communist group, Jancsó articulates his viewpoint on the dynamics of the oppressors and the oppressed in the Stalinist times of Hungary, slightly referring to the contemporary events, the revolutionary atmosphere of 1968. The detailed structure of the film is based on 31 long takes adjusted to the dynamics of different types of movement. Their inspirational source might be that the director’s first encounter with art was participating in a dancing theatre led by Muharay Elemér, who was a prominent choreographer and researcher. Jancsó shot documentaries about this theatre and, as we can see in films like Fényes szelek, it deeply influenced his later works.

The actors’ motion can be read as the expression of their ideologies, as Szekfű András[2] argues. As described above, the first type of collective movement is well-prepared; it’s an offensive action, when the members of the College flock together in a skirmish-line, phalanx, circle, or they simply cruise around the others. In the first scene they already appear moving as if it was a partisan action against the policemen. Complicating the situation, one of the policemen, Kozma, joins the youth, expressing the close connection between the police and the College, and his personal attachment to it. After dropping the policemen into the water all the members themselves jump in. These collective movements have an ambiguous sense: despite their playfulness, they also invoke the atmosphere of a military action. Stressing this military connotation, their movements are also accompanied by strong whistles, shouts, or ideologically offensive songs. This military atmosphere reaches its highpoint later, during Jutka’s leadership, when the skirmish-line formed by the College members drives the seminar students into a corner. After that, Jutka comes up with the idea of shaving the hair of the guilty, which unmistakably resembles Nazi methods.

Additionally, loose and aimless walking also evokes military-like movements, and these actions are usually followed by different kinds of motion. Walking around always suggests the intention of assessing and weakening the other’s ideological position and, above all, representing the dominance of the group. The first encounter with the students of the seminar happens this way – they are standing side by side in uniforms, and the College members try to break their unity shouting questions to debate. Approaching the students as liberators, their way of moving can be summarized by a symbolic sentence Laci shouted: “We came to introduce ourselves.” Asking questions without expecting answers, only for the sake of persuading people, this is how the attitude of the College people is shown. Regardless of Laci’s honest belief in debate, this scene appears to be more of an invasion than a fruitful dispute.

Another fundamental movement is dance, either organized or spontaneous, always performing an ideological affiliation. Organized dances are demonstrative ones, while a spontaneous dance might express a temporal unity. In the case of the College the dances are usually connected to revolutionary songs or folk songs. However, the most important dancing scene is when Laci invites Hungarian folk dancers and an orchestra to perform, testifying that he understands that the total lack of interest in the seminar students makes the debate impossible, and changes the technique of his approach. As these movements root back to the Hungarian folk tradition, they form a common base for the Popular College and the Catholic seminar.

The last type of movement, appearing in some scenes, concentrate on only one or two characters presenting a certain ideology or standpoint. Without the strong background provided by the group, these people become uncertain and exposed to the others. Despite their uniforms, the students of the Catholic seminar mostly move in an individual way, or react together to the offensive movements of the communist youth. This individual movement dominates in a particularly important situation, in the conversation between András and Laci – this is the first scene when Laci’s ideological confidence gets destabilized.

In addition to the analysis of the movements, the spatial structure of the scenes is something that might be related to the military-like atmosphere. The whole spatial arrangement resembles a fortress assault, as the story begins and ends in the riverside below the Catholic seminar on a hill, as if the attackers were waiting to conquer the fortress. The assemblies of the College are held on an opposite hill so they have to retreat to elaborate new strategies. In a nutshell, the Popular College and the Catholic seminar can be identified easily, while the third group, the state authority cannot be localized. It seems like they were everywhere. They do not need a specific place, so it is difficult to confront them. They appear in unexpected situations without any kind of hardship, they enter and leave whenever they want. Their modus vivendi expresses their omnipotence and degrades the fight of the College to a fairy tale, an unimportant game of the youth. The tool symbolizing their status is the car, which grants them flexibility, and gives symbolic meaning to the scene when the students overturn the car. This case is a turning point for Laci, as he finally understands the real power relations which becomes the ultimate reason for his renouncement.

The last part, the last scene in particular, with the members of the party clearly shows Jutka as a symbolic figure of the Popular College youngsters. Returning to the starting point, the battle plan seems childish and unserious, but the policeman, Kozma calms the disappointed Jutka down: “You can still be college secretary, even Minister.” However simple this last sentence is, it expresses the officer’s perception about the political regime – no matter how radical you had been, you could still be promoted. Or even worse, the more aggressive you were, the more probable you become a leader.

Even if there are some unmistakable similarities outlined between the 1968 and the NÉKOSZ students, at this point it turns out that there is no total correspondence. Jancsó, when describing Paris in the abovementioned text, uses the term atmosphere several times with a slightly critical overtone. I would suggest this is the key for understanding his viewpoint on 1968 based on this film. He already saw what had happened to the hopes of Popular College youngsters, how certain people got integrated in the regime. The sense of 1968 remains more of an atmosphere, revealing the essence of being young and revolutionary, something which Jancsó lived through being a NÉKOSZ member, in which he became disillusioned. This complexity is articulated through the presentation of the plot in dances, songs and speeches; while to a certain extent he, as a director, remains an outsider, he treats all the groups and individuals with a lot of empathy, even sympathy.

The director’s distant position gets more sentimental, when it comes to folk culture. Laci invites folk musicians and dancers to unify different people, and it really works, even if only for a certain period of time. The potential of pure folk culture is presented as equally accessible for everyone, something that everyone knows and enjoys. However, the emphasis is on its temporary nature, as, after all, folk culture can also be ideologized to a harmful extent, so it can only be a pure and unharmful solution to a certain degree.

In Fényes szelek, a complex universe of experiences and ideas appears; fruitful in its controversies, nuanced in its argument. This film outlines Jancsó’s viewpoint on the general dynamics of power, on particular political situations, reflecting upon the individual driven by the mass and in reverse.

[1] Jancsó Miklós: Párizs ’68. Zsebünkben a bölcsek köve. Filmvilág (2008) pp. 12-13. http://filmvilag.hu/xereses_aktcikk_c.php?&cikk_id=9374&gyors_szo=%7C%7CJancs%F3%7CMikl%F3s%7CJancs%F3+Mikl%F3s&start=0 (date of actual download: 2021. 05. 03.) (translation by Babos Anna)

[2] Szekfű András: Fényes szelek, fújjátok! Jancsó Miklós filmjeiről. Budapest: Magvető Könyvkiadó, 1974. p. 92.

Notes on waiting: Háy Ágnes‘ Várakozás

A film consists of frames. The continuity of movement is fragmented to phase images. This set of images can be treated as an assortment of  elements, which can be used in as many orders as many times as we please.” (Háy Ágnes: A filmidő grafikus ábrázolása)

A bus stop is a place for waiting, offering a chance to rest amidst the accelerating pace of life, a chance to observe details, other passengers, or it might be used as an excuse to do nothing for a while. The nature of the situation makes one completely conscious of time. One might be standing, sitting or walking around, or in some cases paying an exclusive attention to time. When arriving at the bus stop, the passenger might already know the exact time of departure, or speculate the duration of the wait. Whether carrying shopping bags, talking to an acquaintance, reading the newspaper or checking the phone at the bus stop, our thoughts are constantly revolving around the passage of time.

Várakozás, a short film by the Hungarian artist, Háy Ágnes, analyses filmic time through the notion of waiting in a bus stop. The film starts with a quick sequence of still close-ups of the place, which, by following the flight line of a bird, seems to indicate the phases of movement. At the same time, the images gradually shape our sense of space. One figure appears in several stills, almost at the same position but with different backgrounds. A bird flies by and other passengers and cars cross the picture. Then, more people appear, as if the stills created a catalogue of the people in the bus stop.

I don’t remember every time I’ve spent in bus stops. But I can recall several stations, where I was a regular visitor. I remember some tufts on the ground, touching the leaves I tore off a certain bush, the break on the concrete in which the rain stopped. And I also remember some people I travelled with, striking fellows, problematic ones, some I found familiar and another who stared at me.

After the titles, everything changes in the film. Instead of close-ups we finally see the whole bus stop, and from this perspective, life can be seen in quickened images in motion. Noticing a sharp difference might strike one as funny, I certainly smiled seeing this abrupt change. After that, the game begins; I tried to find everyone from the stills in the moving image. While watching the several layers of the image, a swing appears in the background, people walking on the other side of the road, the motion is slowing down gradually and I feel a vague confusion. It takes me a while to realize that the image has started to narrow down, to match the size of the bus. I smile again. Music, composed by Vidovszky László, also contributes to this effect on me, as the metronome-like sound pace accelerates with the bus, which slowly comes into view, and the music becomes a solemn anthem of its arrival. The bus rolls in slow motion, finally stops, and before opening its doors, the image freezes again. The last still, almost one minute long, clearly separates the experience of waiting from the experience of watching people waiting for the bus.

Basic idea: At the beginning of waiting the perception of time is quick, then it starts to slow down, eventually until it becomes unbearable.” (Háy Ágnes: A filmidő grafikus ábrázolása)

Háy Ágnes: Graph for Várakozás.

http://catalog.c3.hu/index.php?page=work&id=783&lang=HU 

Háy Ágnes: A filmidő grafikus ábrázolása. (Graphic Illustration of Time in Film) In: Mozgó Képek. Mozgó Film. No. 1. BBS, 1984. (translation of the excerpts by Babos Anna)

Shared Experience

Cruel sometimes, but only out of tenderness.”[1]

André Bazin

“Just as in the theatre the lightning, the set, faithfulness to nature and other incidentals must play a subordinate role to the word, so in films the words, the technology and the technique and the logic of the visible must be secondary to the image, subordinate to the vision containing untold wonders within it, which, in cinema, can be the bearer of artistic truth.”[2]

Max Ophüls

Ist das vermessen, mein Gott, vergieb.

Aber ich will dir damit nur sagen:

Meine beste Kraft soll sein wie ein Trieb,

so ohne Zürnen und ohne Zagen;

so haben dich ja die Kinder lieb.

Rainer Maria Rilke (Alles noch nie Gesagte, excerpt)

 

In Jean Renoir’s The River the life of an English family peacefully rolls on along the Ganges, until war veteran Captain John arrives in their home. The life of Harriet, the young lady of the house, is turned upside down, and the presence of this charming young man has an impact on her friends Valerie and Melanie, too. The girls’ coming of age story is set in Indian gardens of tender romances and low-key quarrels, but the death of Bogey, Harriet’s brother, a young explorer casts a dark shadow on their worriless days.

Being a student of Elías Querejeta Zine Eskola in the Basque Country, I was glad to be in the extremely privileged position of watching The River in a cinema-screening despite all the restrictions last year. Surrounded by film students, remembering their impressions of other films we have recently watched, having in mind all the movie experiences I had during the Fassbinder and Rohmer programmes of the Basque Film Archive in Donostia, my head was full and I felt rather agitated, but still, the film immediately swept me away.

Many of my film-going-experiences from last year took place as part of university projections. Learning more and more about their taste and what other film students deem important, the presumption of their potential reception of the film started to impact my own anticipation before the screenings. The significance of watching cinema as a shared experience and getting to know the others’ perspective revealed – perhaps with even greater contrast than many other aspects I was already aware of – the immense difference between one film studies program and another. It made me think about the aching, nonsensical situation of many schools – my former, Hungarian university among them – which can’t or don’t even make the effort to organize screenings and subsequent events, to provide a possibility for students to acquire an understanding of one another.

On a big screen, the meandering choreography prevailed along the nuanced settings, the film came alive in its original duality – the plot was streaming to several different directions, nestling the audience in the beauty of everyday life while the details obliged us to keep an eye on every gesture and movement. This quality, the symbolic Technicolor and the unexpectedly changing tone of the film reminded me of another film I first saw for a university class as well. As I recall, the experience was quite confusing. The Trouble with Harry was presented as an atypical Hitchcock film, as a film of minor importance in his oeuvre, which can be best appreciated by searching for the narrative units which structure it. The impossibility to categorize and label a film within a genre or frequently used terms blocks everybody, including teachers, which inevitably results in treating films like a riddle, ignoring their richer aspects. Fortunately, the incapacity of a Hungarian university class didn’t deprive The Trouble with Harry of its complex set of virtues.

While at first glance the two films might seem very different (and maybe they are) the dominance of imagination and the simple principle that death enlists the creation of life tangle them on a deeper level. Imagination is the basic motor of the two films. In The River, India instead of representing itself serves as the visually rich scene of childhood imagination, and in The Trouble with Harry the story is building upon the fantasies and speculations of all the characters. All the nuances, like the carefully painted leaves[3] in The Trouble with Harry or the arranging of the characters in The River, and the decision of making a movie in Technicolor point to a differing intention from the documentary-like exploration of reality. That being said, the on-location photography and the non-professional cast of The River carry the film with palpable urgency, preserving an atmosphere of India – India, whose truth remain undiscovered for the English people, except, as Bazin writes, Bogey.

There is at least one character who incarnates the mystical temptation of the Orient, and this is Bogey. Remember his games with his little native friend, as a mysterious and taciturn as a bronze statue? He is the only witness to Bogey’s death, and he is the only one at the burial who does not grieve, because he alone understands the vanity of the tears and the ignorance which the Westerners’ love conceals: ignorance of the profound secret to which ‘The Unknown’ has initiated Bogey for eternity.”[4]

There is truth in The Trouble with Harry too, the tension that makes the black comedy charming and restlessly intense at once, is the constantly present idea of rebirth which comes from the tragic certainty of death. „From the opening credits, virtually every detail figures forth the renewal of the natural and human world.[5]

The universal thought of renewal and constant change in The River becomes unmistakably clear in the depiction of the Bengal, done with the directness of a documentary. It reminded me of a Hungarian poem, A Dunánál (József Attila), one I have first read in a dusty high school class but nonetheless I memorized with great enthusiasm and joy, as the romantic idea of seeing, understanding and uniting with past generations through the image of the river had a great impression on me, and as I remember, all the other youngsters of my class.

József Attila: By the Danube[6]

I.

I sat there on the quayside by the landing,

a melon rind was drifting on the flow.

I delved into my fate, just understanding:

the surface chatters, while it’s calm below.

As if my heart had been its very source,

troubled, wise was the Danube, mighty force.

 

Like muscles when you work and lift the axe,

or harvest, hammer, excavate a grave,

so did the water tighten, surge, relax

with every current, every breezy wave.

Like Mother dandled, told a tale, caressed,

laundered the dirt of all of Budapest.

 

A drizzle started, moistening the morning

but didn’t care much, so it stopped again.

And yet, like someone who under an awning

watches the rain-I gazed into the plain:

As twilight, that may infinitely last,

so grey was all that used to shine, the past.

 

The Danube flowed, and like a tiny child

plays on his fertile, dreamy mother’s knee,

so cradled and embraced and gently smiled

each playful wave, waving hullo to me.

They shuddered on the flood of past events

like tombstones, tumbling graveyard monuments.

 

II.

For hundred thousand years I have been gazing

and suddenly I see what’s there to see.

A flash, and time is fully-grown, embracing

what generations scan, and show to me.

 

I see what they’ve not seen, for they defended,

embraced, dug, murdered, their living to ply,

and they see now, in cold matter descended,

what I can’t see when I’m to testify.

 

We all relate, like blessed to the damn’d,

Mine is the past and theirs is the today

We write poems-my pencil in their hand,  

I sense them and remember what to say.

 

III.

Mother was Kun, Father was Szekely, partly,

and half, or maybe, pure Romanian.

From Mother’s lips the food was sweet and hearty,

from Father’s lips the truth was radiant.

They embrace again when I am stirring.

This fills my heart with deep melancholy-

we are all mortal. It’s me, re-occurring.

„Just wait, we’ll soon be gone! …“ – they talk to me.

 

They call, I know we are now one: this one-ness

has made me strong, for I remember well

that I am every parent in the boundless

succession to the primal lonely cell.

I am the First, who splits, proliferating

till I become my father and mother,

then father splits and mother, procreating

the multiplying me and none other!

 

I am the world – the ancient, endless story:

clan fighting clan for creed or crazy greed.

I march among the conquerors in glory,

I suffer with the conquered in defeat. Árpád and Zalán, Werbőczi and Dózsa –

Slavs, Mongols, Turks and other variants

in me, we shall redeem the long foreclosure

with gentle future-new Hungarians!

 

…I want to work. It’s hard for human nature

to make a true confession of the past.

The Danube, which is past, present and future

entwines its waves in tender friendly clasps.

Out of the blood our fathers shed in battles

flows peace, through our remembrance and regard,

creating order in our common matters,

this is our task, we know it will be hard.

 

There is only one particular detail in the contemplation of the present moment, the descending melon-rind, then the Danube is evoked by associations and emotions structured in different rhythmical unities displaying the waving and streaming rhythm of the river.

In Renoir’s film Harriet (Patricia Walters) is the poet writing about the river. Her role and the director’s relation to it is quite similar to the young female characters in the universe of Éric Rohmer, which I got close to again during the retrospective dedicated to him in the Basque Archive last year. As for instance in Rohmer’s Le genou de Claire or Pauline à la plage Laura (Béatrice Romand) and Pauline (Amanda Langlet) are presented as morally integrated personalities, in The River Harriet and Melanie (Radha Burnier) are undoubtedly the most mature ones. While the young girls’ uncontaminated morals and innocence prevail in the frustration of the adult world, they possess a lot of qualities that come from their position and age, which seems close to the directors’ own emotional positioning in their stories. Besides, in these films the conversations are depicted in a classical, theatrical way – the actors are positioned comfortably for the spectator, in the middle of the composition and in front of the camera. This technique results in wild openness as it allows us to see through the people’s pretentions.

Another crucial similarity was the current reception of the films that I experienced in the company of a film student audience. Unfortunately, the exclusive will to detect white-male misbehaviour would leave a mark on the post-screening discussions, which in case of Rohmer emerged in the form of unforgiving rigidity. In The River, Captain John’s character was excused because of the actor, Thomas E. Breen’s actual disability. While our personal background naturally defines our elemental stance in the process of reception, to enable a true appreciation of a film’s inner rules and world, we must let go of prejudices and look for experiences beyond what we know, experiences that don’t only mirror a version of ourselves on the screen. All the central characters have to say goodbye to their innocence, including Captain John, who is stripped of his childhood by the war. For Valerie (Adrienne Corri), the kiss with the Captain means the fracture in her world while, for Melanie, it means understanding her position between different cultures means the change. Harriet’s drama gets to be emphasized, as losing Bogey is a trauma for all of the family. As viewers we follow Harriet’s personal path from the idyll of the gardens and her facing the cruelty of everyday life.

The other criticized facet of The River was the depiction of India, even if the film is clear about its own take on the country. What geography adds is more a „religious spirituality”,[7] not a sociological aspect. While Renoir’s amusement and attraction to India is obvious, he remains more interested in morals and in the world of youth. It becomes especially clear when Harriet tells the story of Krishna, her story, which feeds upon the mysterious traditions and land of India, but is entirely liberated from any coercion of telling the truth.

The figure of the young poetess, the overwhelming emotions of youth, the actual colliding into the universal makes me think of the Aurélia Steiner (Melbourne), a figure of a woman narrating the images in Marguerite Duras’ voice. Aurélia Steiner is an 18-year-old Jewish girl, writing letters to someone, who, in the Melbourne letter, seems to be her lover, but later, in the Vancouver letter the addressee reveals the recipient to have been her father, murdered in Auschwitz. In Aurélia Steiner (Melbourne), the reading of the letter is accompanied by the pictures of a river. While at first glance we might think that the drifting tracking shot of the river result in discrepancy, the conflict between the agitated state of mind of the writer in sound and the fluent image, the river gives a shape to the rhythm of the poem and the sweeping sound of Marguerite Duras’ recitation. The river is not an evident symbol of Aurélia’s solitude and her feeling of undefined absence, it rather makes us sense the desire to get to know the invisible. The letter invokes the tragedies of history on a macrocosmic scale – at the same time an intimate dimension is given voice, a devotion to an addressee unknown to the writer and the audience alike. The real conflict lies between the temporal and the permanent, the concrete words and the constantly changing river, the body and the soul. We feel the need of a young girl to identify herself, somehow lost in the middle of the contradictions of all, becoming one with the river, with the world, searching for someone to answer her loneliness.

This film I watched alone, on the screen of my laptop. Aurélia Steiner stayed with me for a while, Marguerite Duras’ voice gave the rhythm of my next few days. I remembered it as a personal experience, I haven’t talked about it with anyone, maybe with the intention of keeping the experience to myself, or because I just didn’t have any articulable thoughts about it. Months passed by, when on a chilly day I had bumped into a friend on the street, and in a short conversation somehow the title came up. We barely touched upon the film, just mentioned that it is a beautiful piece which we both really liked.

I was so glad this encounter recalled this facet of films, poems and art in general, I tend to forget. Artworks give a ground for our discussions, these experiences self-evidently link us with people around us, and even from the past and from the future. Although Aurélia’s questions come from her uncertainty, by watching the film, we reassuringly answer them.

Aurélia Steiner (Melbourne)[8]

I’m writing maybe a thousand letters
you, to give to you
letters of my present life.
And you, you’ll do with them
what I’d like…
you to do with them
which is, whatever you want.
That’s what I desire.
That this be delivered to you.
Where are you?
How to reach you?
How can we come close
in this love,
cancel this apparent fragmentation
of time
which separates us,
one from the other?
Listen.
I’ll never separate you from your body.
Never.
It’s three in the afternoon
The sun is out behind the trees
the air is cool.
(…)
My name is Aurelia Steiner.
I live in Melbourne
where my parents are teachers.
I’m 18 years old.
I write.

 

 

[1] Bazin, André: A Pure Masterpiece: The River. In: François Truffaut (ed.): Jean Renoir. (trans. W. W. Halsey II, William H. Simon) London & New York: Howard & Wyndham Ltd. 1974, p. 108.

[2] Ophüls, Max: The Pleasure of Seeing: Thoughts on the Subject Matter of Film. In: Willemen, Paul (ed.): Ophuls. London: British Film Institute, 1978. pp. 33-34.

[3]Hitchcock had leaves painted different colours and pinned to artificial trees in the studio to create his own version of autumn in Vermont.” Haeffner, Nicholas: Alfred Hitchcock. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2005. p. 37.

[4] Bazin, André: A Pure Masterpiece: The River. In: François Truffaut (ed.): Jean Renoir. (trans. W. W. Halsey II, William H. Simon) London & New York: Howard & Wyndham Ltd. 1974, p. 114.

[5] Brill, Lesley: The Hitchcock Romance. Love and Irony in Hitchcock’s Films. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988. p. 283.

[6] József Attila: By the Danube (trans. Peter Zollman), Reprinted by permission of Corvina Kiadó, 1997

[7] Bazin, André: Jean Renoir. (ed. François Truffaut, trans. W. W. Halsey II, William H. Simon) London & New York: Howard & Wyndham Ltd. 1974, p. 113.

[8] Marguerite Duras, 1979. (unknown translator)