My Twentieth Century (1989)

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Early piece from Ildikó Enyedi, watched as a film night with M.

Hard not to love at the start. Second Run released this recently, which makes connections between Edison’s lightbulb parade and the cover of Pictures of the Old World inevitable. The beauty of the cinematography is very different here, though: every shot could be paused and made into a participant’s documentary snap; we’re made to feel like part of the story in every vignette. This despite some overtly cinematic stylings, as in the early montage of technology and exploration, as well as the dog-eared situations like a train encounter, a boat rendezvous, shopping for necklaces. The conceit of the twin girls split on a Christmas night is lovably Dickensian, while the typographical labelling gives this a weirdly 21st-century ironic edge.

Casting Dorota Segda in both roles eventually feels unnecessarily confusing. Discussion with M revealed how many mistakes I had made, which is a problem when the theme of split-but-connected women’s experience revolves around cases of mistaken identity (usually at the expense of Oleg Yankovskiy’s reticently bewitched suitor. Again with the timelessness: couldn’t work out how the guy from Nostalghia had aged so well).

Then cracks and bumps begin to appear. Early references to the place of Hungary at the turn of the century are swerved around by an intriguing contrast of clandestine and aristocratic peripateticisms (an anarchist ghosting across Europe meets a listlessly aristocratic traveller). A Clockwork Orange montage sequence with an unwilling dog is amusing but forgotten. What was the Trouble In Paradise-style necklace switcheroo about? Most egregiously, and ultimately most disappointingly, the flaunted themes of women’s experience, technological change and providence are revealed to be cardboard set decoration, flat and decorative rather than investigated. M objected to the apparently hesitant imbalance between the misogynistic lecturer’s breathless characterisation of women as entirely sexual beings (a funny setpiece, nevertheless) and Dora’s repetitive seductions.

But because of its glittering, almost chocolate-box beauty, and its cosy silliness, it slips by and down with a warm charm. I did enjoy it the whole way through; it was only after it finished that it became increasingly hard to love.

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Skylark (2010)

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Picked up because of the publisher and the author’s name. Was actually written around 1923.

A surprising little tale: gently comic but with the eerie atmosphere of a faded photograph. First chapter introduces the bustling parents, the thick and blinded reliance on habitual duty which dominates their daily activities. They prepare to see their daughter off on a rare holiday with family, leaving them alone for a week – an almost intolerably irregular prospect. Skylark (apparently the girl, although in fact in her 30s) has the purity of heart but absent passivity of Esther Summerson – derived, however, from her extreme lack of external beauty. At the chapter’s close her father cannot meet her gaze after all the devotion evident in his attentions.

The subject of the novel practically in name only, S casts a shadow over the lives of her parents as they struggle blinking back into the world of the town they had long-since abandoned for the society of their child. She has rendered her father, especially, a ghost: “alive” only “here in the past”, in his private studies of heraldry and national historic continuity (24), looking forward only to “his approaching death” (27). S takes on a Gorey-esque domestic-gothic mythos: she returns to him in his dreams as the subject of disquieting nightmares (35) and later haunts him as an apparition after a drunken spree (165), an accusatory manifestation of conscience like Banquo.

S plays with the tension between the parents’ perception of their child and S’s own self-understanding, which is upsettingly snatched at in an account of her hysterics on the departing train; in the end her ghostly, reluctant appearance in a family photograph – in which “she appeared to be reaching out for protection from something that frightened her” (213) – manifests her outward mysteriousness as a product of this inner turmoil. She exudes human frailty and insecurity, but she’s also small as a character; I think we’re encouraged to read her this way by the faintly ridiculous image of the foppish and failed poet Ijas who “dramatised [his] minor literary disappointment into a more general and deeply rooted fin-de-siècle melancholy” before formulating the image of S and her tottering parents as the subject of a new work.

The beginning section prior to the departure is understated and slips by without much fanfare, but the reintroduction of the couple into the world of the town is intoxicating and quite poignant. Food is a central theme, internalised attitudes to luxury challenged by sights and smells. The mundane world is that of the “warm, sour milk” and grumbled complaints of the local market (37) which nevertheless blooms with colour like a Netherlandish communal scene. The town itself bustles with a teutonic regularity – as in the itinerary of appearances in the square (101) – while each character sings their own tarot identities like the types of Russian fiction (this Hungarian/Serbian world does seem an interesting confluence of western and eastern influences, which is reflected in the tastes and prejudices of the townsfolk). At the centre of the community is the King of Hungary restaurant, whose menu entices the couple into health:

Ákos straightened his back and breathed the air deep into his lungs. A sudden warmth spread through his limbs as his digestive system set to work. The food he had eaten was already filtering its fortifying goodness into his circulation. (51)

It’s as if they’ve been wound into clockwork life, ready to rejoin the rhythmic parade of the town (there are rebirth metaphors too, as in “the old man sucked at his cigar with all the voraciousness of a baby at the breast” 72). Á still interprets his desires as sin, though, as in a brilliantly amusing section of food fantasies (61) like blind Pi on the boat. The most indulgent, sensational residents of the town are like the actress Olga Orosz, drunk on the decay inherent within decadence:

Her flesh was powdery and voluptuously weary, as if tenderised by all the different beds and arms in which it had lain. Her face was as soft as the pulpy flesh of an overripe banana, her breasts like two tiny bunches of grapes. She exuded a certain seedy charm, a poetry of premature corruption and decay. (94)

There’s a generous, falstaffian humour throughout, as in the wry observation of the grace of the drunkard: “A drunkard never walks where he can fly … Nor shall the inebriate come to any harm, for the blessed Virgin carries them in an apron. But opening the gate was another matter.” (154)

The drunkard is also outside of time, time which appears to represent the world of labour: the temporal fixing of the opening description of manual preparations returns as an “inexplicable melancholy” after Á is reminded of his frivolity, late in his wild evening, by a glance at a clock (140). This runs in contrast to a kind of cultural deep time, invoked in the card game Taroc (“its roots reach way back into the past” 136) and traditional music (the landowner crying despite his wealth; “who could tell what ancient memories of wedding feasts and long-abandoned reveries the music stirred within him?” 143) This temporal shifting and sliding increases the sense of S as an expansion of Bloom’s night out in Ulysses: this is 1899 and forever, a modern moment in which life and death are at risk on personal, national and human scales. DK’s overriding preoccupation is, though, with death, and the return of S signals an “insidious” autumn (208) and a reminder of that decay lurking inside every pleasure.

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Autumn Almanac (1984)

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Fourth time with Bela Tarr after Turin HorseWerckmeister Harmonies and Damnation.

Considered the turning point in his career, the transition from his early less well-known social realist pieces to the distinctively stylised and philosophical stuff from the late 80s onwards. Notable in that regard because of the use of colour, which in fact reveals the beauty of his chiaroscuro style; here we have queasy RGB projections, theatrical but also Gilliamian. A neon blue kitchen resembles a morgue; hellish red highlights evoke the confines of a photographic darkroom or engine room. The apartment is hermetic, purgatorial – definitely Sartre’s No Exit and perhaps Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. Its closest relative in the BT canon is definitely D, with the submerged desperation and wordy, crushed idealism.

People trapped and desperate. A mother who insists upon “a distance,” a buffer between herself and experience – “I don’t want to see the realities”. An embittered and spiteful son who quarrels with his mother over money, agency, ownership of the house. A coquettish but reclusive woman with no personal possessions, a leech like Wyndham Lewis’ Pringle. A despondent man with violent tendencies, played by the lead in D, Miklós B. Székely. And a pathetically downtrodden, drink-sodden teacher inflicted with a sense of futility and unpayable debts. They’re a dirty crowd; there’s little attempt to build any bridges of empathy, except perhaps with the tired mother and the pragmatic violent man. It’s hard to settle in to the monologic structure, extremely candid and almost improvisational closeups, and fetid nihilistic air.

But the hypnotic rhythm of BT films does kick in (in a way that reveals the kinship AA shares with the films that followed it), though the slowness exists at a scene rather than shot level. The monologues allow each character to question existence, reveal their personalities, and enact manipulations and machinations like chess pieces. Miklós has a good line: “everyone creates peace and quiet in their own image. … But there is only one kind.” The situation has to find its own level which may bear no resemblance to the desires of individual participants. This collective but also external direction suggests the human futility of BT’s later films, which is introduced here by the epigraph from Pushkin about the devil always calling the shots.

There are some memorable images like a fight shot from below through a glass floor and boots stomping around a cluttered floor; some of the scenes also stand out too, like the drunken teacher’s protracted late-night confrontation with the son, M’s admission of aggression at the piano, and the mother’s fitful and close reconciliation with her son. A lot of the content washed over me probably because I was exhausted – didn’t even finish it in one sitting; part two in the morning felt much crisper and more significant. Would probably merit another viewing but it’s definitely bleak enough to keep me away indefinitely.

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Damnation (1988)

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Third time with Tarr (Turin HorseWerckmeister Harmonies). Weirdly, this is where it all begins (3 July: not quite).

It begins with a window; an image which sticks with T till the end. Externalities lay slow siege to domestic shelter – endless industrial procedure (winches wires creaking carts shuffling chimneys belching) shaking your bones and those of your house like harmonic vibration, (everything on this rhythm now) screws jiggling loose and plaster cracking away. This is a different beast: more post-industrial limbo than the rustic desolation of TH or the credulous provincial desperation of WH. World of Goo, Eraserhead.

A world of war without the war – snooping from block to block, clandestine meetings loneliness, smuggling. The Cold War but also the telos of humanity dehumanising their own world (the ‘inhuman’, here, is not nature – bar the rain and those dogs, the level of which Karrer sinks to in his desperation like Kafka’s Josef K) but environments of human production – buildings, bars, industry – that have come out of the human, perhaps waiting to do so until today. Though the love triangle and the musings on youth and activity put D‘s analysis on a level of anthropic interconnection shared with the political WH and largely spurned (for interiority and essence) by TH, it is also as incisive as WH in demonstrating the fatal extent to which We in the 20th Century have poisoned the well. Agamben (Remnants of Auschwitz): “human beings are human insofar as they bear witness to the inhuman.”

Wouldn’t be Tarr without some knockout monologues: here the mother’s OT recital (she is the Anti-Nietzsche figure) and K’s tale of domestic suicide are career standout. Likewise with single images: the ragged nurse breastfeeding besides football on the tv; mother advancing through the fog and biblical rain with a vampiric umbrella and Stalker dogs circling; the utter waste of the ending; the party that will develop (disintegrate, as “stories are all stories of disintegration”) into the heliocentric drunkards in WH, the wind-up whirl of human animation. (“Perhaps it really is flying”)

Why are old photographs (daguerrotypes etc) so terrifying? Andrew Miller (Poetry, Photography, Ekphrasis): shift from C19th to 20th in terms of recognising the ‘pastness’ of dead subjects, in photos that “threaten us with the past by returning the past to the present in ways that deny us the safety of the present.” I think this extends beyond subjects to spaces: uncanny closeness but also the total experience of a world, since we know it only through such images? D‘s past is adrift and inaccessible (K reciprocates by pinning his hopes for another brighter world on his escapist lover [“One must return to beauty”]), but perhaps Tarr gets the same effect simply through the humming chiaroscuro, the percussive rain sheeting across the lens like grain on film.

Beckettian aporias (Is it worth speaking?), Endgame but, interestingly, Film: watching, snooping, close to the end.

Often reflect while watching my favourite films that they are dreamlike: participation but not revelation; internal logic that I can warily follow but not anticipate future terms; compulsion. Tarr’s beauty is both bleakly mimetic and symbolic and also neither, its own oneiric code.

This stuff has to have come from nightmares because it must be understood in relation to your own.

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