Simon le mage

[Screenshot]Simon le mage (or Simon mágus as it is sometimes called; international collaborations often seem to have two titles in different languages) is a difficult movie, and one that feels a bit like it belongs in a different age. Were it not for the peculiarly modern opening soundtrack (Massive Attack’s “Teardrop”, incongruously enough), I would quite reasonably have presumed this film was contemporary with, say,Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which it rather resembles aesthetically. It plays some of the same tricks of pacing and cinematography as Solaris, with wide grand panoramas with an underlying feeling of staticity, and also an unusually long and dull view from the window of a vehicle. Unfortunately, I didn’t actually care for Solaris that much, and Simon possesses its aesthetic without its feeling of mystery. Enyedi tries to infuse the story with a sense of the mysterious, but somehow it all seems nonsensical instead. The resurrection contest is of course the center of the plot, making the other elements seem entirely irrelevant, and more like loose ends than mysteries. As one example, we learn in one scene that Simon’s interpreter has been in disguise, but the fact that she was, and her reasons for being so, are never again mentioned. Most of the story is like this, leaving me to my impression that the entire film may be at a level that I am simply not getting. It is beautifully composed, as mentioned above: even as a deliberate homage, imitating Tarkovsky’s cinematography is no mean feat. Some of the effect is spoiled by the rather imperfect transfer, but that I expect from Hungarian cinematic releases in the US (even when in collaboration with a more prosperous mation, alas). On the subject of the two participating natons, a point of some dissatisfaction: it’s fairly significant when people are speaking Hungarian and when they’re speaking French (particularly in the absurd café scene, conducted entirely in French despite Simon’s complete ignorance of the language), but the subtitles don’t differentiate. Anyone with an ear for European languages can figure it out, but I’d still have liked to see a typeface or color distinction made.

See also: IMDB.


Several Hungarian blues bands

One of the recent arrivals on our faculty is a Hungarian combinatoricist, who I hang out with a fair bit, since we’re both junior faculty and in closely related fields. It took him a whole 5 months to discover that I was a dangerously obsessive Magyarophile, which says something either about my restraint or his powers of observation (I’d like to think it’s the former). Instead of fleeing from the crazed stalker like a sensible person, he’s been kind enough to give me a chance to listen to his excellent collection of Hungarian blues musicians. So now I have impressions to write up about the albums I’ve been listening to.

The tl;dr version: Blues Fools has one album and it’s an awesome harmonica-driven blues work. Charlie’s a pop-star with a gravelly voice who’s not actually a blues artist. Ferenczi György’s albums are hit-or-miss but occupy a nice funk-blues place on the spectrum. Hobo Blues Band is at their best a Muddy-Waters-esque rhythm-driven classic blues band, but in the late 80s branched into some experimental and progressive work which is unusual if not artistically sterling. Mátyás Pribojszki Band is basically Blues Fools dragged in a jazzy direction. The Takáts Tamás Dirty Blues Band is a creative Chicago-style blues band often wandering out of that mold. Tóth Bagi is competent but missable. Tűzkerék is fundamentally hard rock, not blues.
Individual writeups on Blues Fools, Charlie, Ferenczi György és a Herfli Davidson, Hobo Blues Band, Mátyás Pribojszki Band, Takáts Tamás Dirty Blues Band, Tóth Bagi Band, and Tűzkerék

Édes Anna

[Screenshot]There are a fair number of Hungarian films on my pull list that I haven’t been able to track down: if anyone knows a stateside source for a properly subtitled version of Szegénylegények or the 1969 version of A Pál utcai fiúk I’d appreciate the info. But I finally managed to track down a subtitled version of Édes Anna, a film from 1958 based on Kosztolányi’s classic drama of class warfare on the individual level.

It manages to accurately portray most of the events of the book while skirting around the social context, which somewhat seems to miss the point. I imagine any sort of political themes were a bit toxic in the late 50s, for fear of either resisting or seeming too cozy with the regime, but it very much takes the purpose out of the story. The household dynamic is well-prtrayed though: Mrs. Vizy is just unpleasant enough without being obviously nasty, while Kornél takes an appropriately embarassed tack to her mania. Jancsi is a difficult character to portray well: in the novel he came across as conflicted, awkward, and troubled, but on the screen his inner turmoil can’t be easily portrayed and he comes off as even more of a cad than he did in the original work.

This work mostly succeeds because Mezel and Töröcsik, in their roles as Mrs. Vizy and Anna, have a believably fractious dynamic. Among other things, this movie served to kickstart the career of the talented and aformenetioned Mari Töröcsik, who would then appear in pretty much every significant Hungarian film of the next 4 decades.

The book is better, I’d venture, and certainly a lot easier to find in the US.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Ginsberg: Egy költö a Lower East Side-ról

[Screenshot]I got the impression this was a meeting-of-the-minds film, with a notable poet of the East, or at least the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, getting to mix with one of the luminaries of a new era in American poetry. Unfortunately, the Hungarians in this film don’t actually have a role, and it’s mostly just Ginsberg puttering around New York commenting on things. As a period piece about New York, or as a primary source for plumbing Ginsberg’s character, it’s not bad, but it kind of fails as documentary cinema, because it gives this whole meandering project no thematic focus.

See also: IMDB.


[Screenshot]Oy. I have tried to give Béla Tarr a fair shake, and with the exception of a few beautifully cinematic scenes in Werckmeister Harmóniák, I’ve come up empty. It is possible the problem here is me, but his work feels awfully empty at the core, particularly when he’s trying for a cinéma vérité style, which he seems to interpret as an excuse to never have any sort of plot or character development.

The characters in Szabadgyalog are infuriatingly static and profoundly unlikable. It’s thus awfully hard to get even remotely invested in the story (such as it is). The cinematic style is muddy, and the subs occasionally mysterious in a poorly-translated way.; some of this may be the fault of the localizers, or of the state of Hungarian cinematic technology in the ’80s. Wherever the blame lies, this is a difficult film to become engaged in, and I’d rate it a failure, emotional-investment-wise.

See also: IMDB.

The Book of Fathers, by Miklós Vámos

Damn. This novel is very clearly Hungarian-Jewish, but it’s developed out of at least one other cultural tradition. The most obvious antecedants structurally are, in no particular order, García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Allende’s The House of the Spirits, and perhaps Szabó’s Sunshine (the timing would be kind of tricky for this to actually have inspired it); like the last of these, it’s a historical drama following the fates of a single family, but it has a considerable layer of the mystical and the magical that marks the two aforementioned Latin works. It’s less subtle in its exploration of family cycles than, say, The House of the Spirits; some of the patterns are explicitly spelled out and the recapitulation of the past through memory is implemented through a pretty direct mechanism (which is nicely subverted by the twelfth Csillag).

But in addition to a novel with those familiar thematic elements of mystical heritage through a single family line, this is a Hungarian story, which means it lives in an extremely well-defined timeline. Macondo sleeps in timeless torpor, and even Argentina’s history is a seesaw of internal conflict, while Hungary’s is punctuated by the intrusion of specific external influences: Turkish, Austrian, Nazi, Soviet. The tenor of individual times comes through in The Book of Fathers, but in an intriguingly subdued manner. Major events, like the 1848 revolution and even the World Wars, happen in a peculiarly offstage manner: all three of the Csillags with the misfortune to experience the 40s suffer horribly during the war, but somehow World War II itself never quite comes into focus, although the shroud of the war hangs heavy. The 1956 revolution can nearly be missed, and the 1989 reformulation of the state takes place offstage. And yet the tenors of the times are crucial for understanding the characters’ positions in society. This book was written for those familiar with these events as commonplace history, so it’s not surprising that Vámos doesn’t present a didactic summary of them, but it’s refreshing if perhaps a bit confusing to see a historical novel not take the easy way out stringing from historical event to historical event. This book is more about the moods of the times and the fortunes of individuals than about history itself, and it does a marvelous job of drawing a series of interconnected but individually distinctive stories.

Édes Emma, drága Böbe: vázlatok, aktok

[Screenshot]Not, I’m afraid, Szabó’s best. His German vacation in the 80s did him good, but his return to de-Communized Hungary looks like it took a while to hit its stride, and was rather hampered by the rough shape of the nation itself. Hungary’s own troubles manifested in the low production values of this film; it’s grainy with poor sound quality (the illegible burned-in subtitles, on the other hand, I blame on the inadequacy of the US DVD authoring). On the directorial-weakness side, I’ve noted that Szabó has a gift for focusing on a single characteristic experience of a point in history, and in this occasion chose perhaps a rather too limited perspective. The focus of this film is so narrow that, aside from the focus on a change from Russian-language to English-language teaching, the major societal changes don’t come through at all, which is a pity. There’s also a great deal of gratuitous nudity; so much so that it’s alluded to in the title, even, and it doesn’t contribute anything at all,as far as I can tell, to the main themes of thin film.

For a strong impression about Hungary immediately after liberalization, I get the impression Moszkva tér (which I have yet to actually see) is a better story.

See also: IMDB.