Celebrating the Availability of American Torso on DVD
Bernhard Gaul | May 2013
In the late 1970s / early 1980s Gábor Bódy was a star of the Hungarian avant-garde, yet, a good 20 years later his work seemed to have all but vanished from public perception. However, little by little interest in it seems to have grown again and not too long ago his first feature film American Torso was released on DVD with English subtitles, which may well serve as an entry point for an international audience once again to get acquainted with the ground-breaking work of the Hungarian filmmaker.
A Body of Work (Forgotten?) / Aesthetics
I first thought I should write about Gábor Bódy about 6 years ago, in early 2007. I had been absent from any interest in arts and media for a good 10 years and when I started to pick up the threads again, I did so first of all by re-visiting my favourite films. Most of them were by now conveniently available on DVD. However, while I could easily catch up again, on my lengthy train rides commuting between rural Ireland and Dublin, with Tarkovsky, La Jetée and Sans Soleil by Chris Marker, the films by Robert Bresson or Jean Vigo, Godard and Kurosawa, I had to realise to my consternation, that not only were there no DVDs of Gábor Bódy’s most important films, his work seemed to have disappeared altogether.
The last time I looked, in the late 80s to mid-90s, I was under the impression that the films of the Hungarian filmmaker were set to be of major international importance. I got acquainted with them via dedicated retrospectives as a Theatre, Film and Media student in Vienna and generally I perceived increasing interest in the sort of highly reflective and experimental approach Gábor Bódy’s to filmmaking combined with the ability to produce large scale epic films. Yet in early 2007 I could hardly find a scrap of information in English or German, the languages available to me. Most astonishingly, Bódy’s films were not even featured on websites, blogs or festivals dedicated to East European Cinema, which otherwise had become a much followed genre also in English speaking parts of the world.
I eventually found an English language article by András Bálint Kovács1 in a book called East European Cinemas (note the plural, highlighting the fact that this is not a single coherent genre), which explained some of the mystery of the disappearance of Bódy’s work from international view. Kovács describes Bódy’s aesthetic approach as largely defined by an alternative narrative (likened to Peter Greenaway’s films of the time), which is programmatically eclectic and heterogeneous, mixing media and narrative styles, partially also aimed at providing a young and experimental alternative approach to film in opposition to the “moralism and lyricism” of existing traditions of classicaly narrated (albeit socially engaged) Hungarian filmmaking.2 Kovács describes Bódy’s approach as a forerunner of the digital age, anticipating the huge global databases we have these days, from which we pull information, images, music or films seemingly at random and consume them in an eclectic mix – hardly imaginable at the time, but by now more or less permanently at everybody’s disposal.
However, Kovács also concludes that in particular for Narzissus and Psyche, Bódy’s then most celebrated film, his quasi-manifest most embodying the above mentioned principles, “he did not create a sufficiently consistent aesthetic framework that could hold together a highly eclectic stylistic texture throughout the lengthy running time of the film”3 and cites this as a main reason, amongst others, for the waning interest in Body’s work during the 1990s, a period when international interest generally shifted back towards East European films that in one way or another dealt with a contemporary political issue in the very tradition Bódy contested.
In fact I remember that when seeing Narzissus and Psyche for the last time in the cinema in the early 1990s, I already noted that it started to look dated. When I finally got my hands on the then recently released (Hungarin only) DVD of the film in late 2008, re-watching it came as a shock. What I had perceived as a ground-breaking film at first reception almost 20 years ago now looked, at first glance, like a random collection of visual experiments that have become old-fashioned as clichés of New Romantics music videos (grass and pigeons inside houses, candles, frilly costumes,…), something Gábor Bódy already seemed to have an inkling of. Soon after the completion of the film in 1980 he wrote:
“My fear, if there is to be one, arises out of those NEW elements that emerge from the point of view of understanding and techniques which may become public property (or clichés) of modern filmmaking. A new attitude comes up as worms after rain, so I am afraid that as a consequence of my special geopolitical situation I may seem to be a self-plagiarist if my film does not get to appear before the world in time.”4
But there may also be other reasons that play a role in why Gábor Bódy’s work seemed to have been less championed in later years, although due to lack of actual information, the real circumstances of Gábor Bódy’s career – and early death – remain speculation.
A Career / Speculations
From what is observable, Gábor Bódy’s career followed a not straight forward path, despite starting with a steep incline and early spike:
“Bódy was born in Budapest in 1946. He studied philosophy and linguistics at Etövös University in Budapest with long interruptions from 1964 to 1971, when he was admitted to the Hungarian Film Academy to study filmmaking. While he was still a student at Etövös University, he became highly impressed by the linguistic and semiotic approach in film theory and not only began to write theory but also used the opportunity provided by the state film school to make films; thus he commenced his experimental film career […]
Very soon he became the leader of an experimental film group and, by the mid-1970s, his name became the embodiment of Hungarian avant-garde film of the time. In 1976 he made his first full-length feature film, American Anzix (American Postcard [now released as American Torso, BG]), using many of the experimental formal devices he had developed in his short films. However, to the surprise of many, the film’s structure and story was conventional enough to be appreciated by mainstream filmmakers and film critics alike, which propelled Bódy immediately from his marginal status into the ranks of the most innovative young talents of mainstream Hungarian cinema.”5
Following that Bódy continued to work on film theory and semiology and in 1979-80 produced the 270 minutes long film Nárcisz és Psyché (Narzissus and Psyche), envisaged as a synthesis of his philosophical and media theoretical ideas, which “became a rallying point for all avant-garde artists of contemporary Hungary: painters, theatre artists, and musicians. […] Bódy became not only a leading figure of Hungarian experimental film but one of the Hungarian avant-garde as a whole”.6
Information about what had happened after that is somewhat sketchy: Bódy spent considerable time in West Germany, teaching at the Berlin Film academy where he also started to publish, together with his wife Veruschka, the world’s first video magazine Infermental (that is a magazine consisting of actual video contributions distributed on video cassettes)7 and in line with the rise of video art Bódy’s work seems to get reflected in more gallery based visual art contexts.8 Veruschka and Gábor Bódy also published texts regarding video culture both as art form and in every day use.9 In 1984 Gábor Bódy produced his last feature film Dog’s Night Song, much simpler and shorter than Narzissus and Psyche, using punk themes and Super 8.
I admit that, when I first followed up on this, I couldn’t help reading the general tendency of Bódy’s career as a sign of retreat and maybe loss of opportunity, a falling out of favour of some sorts: There is the fact that the means of production become ever cheaper and simpler, projects are realised on an ever smaller scale and for ever smaller audiences: from the huge scale epic cinema production to videos exchanged as distributed magazine to eventually embracing video to be produced for home consumption in circles of friends (no more than 3 -7) as proclaimed in a short text called “What is Video?” published not only once, but twice in the books about video.10 And there is the fact, that there is no trace at all in Gábor Bódy’s contributions to these video books, that he himself is a master director who had achieved great things and who you would expect to be revered and interviewed, asked for his opinion, rather than working as a facilitator and interviewer to promote opinions and approaches by others. But then the concept of the master director, the grand auteur on a mission to produce master pieces, as unashamedly pursued by e.g. Andrey Tarkovsky11, may indeed not have been on the list of ambitions for Gábor Bódy.
There were general trends at the time, trying to democratise the production of art, in which the master piece, the focus on the opus appeared genuinely questionable (Godard embraced the availability of video as an affordable means of production as a way to break away from economic pressures of film making (opening it up to everybody); the East German playwright Heiner Müller wrote about “the tearing apart of the photography of the author”12…). The move to spread out, use cheaper, independent media, facilitate communication etc. is genuinely interesting and may be seen as a consequent follow-through of an aesthetical and theoretical position. Even the embrace of home video can be seen as a consequent proclamation of embracing it as a democratic means of production, as something everybody can do; or maybe reflecting it as a new relationship to film based media which will forever change how film is perceived by an audience that is able to produce their own videos (and it is by no means claimed as being the only or main way of pursuing film in the future).
However, there are also clear signs that not all can have been well: “On October 24, 1985, at the age of 39, to all of the Hungarian film and cultural community’s greatest consternation, Bódy committed suicide.“13 Many years later it emerged that, like other East European artists, Bódy had acted as informant for Hungarian Secret Police, an activity that may have gone on for as long as 1973-1981 14. It is hard to imagine that this didn’t have a bearing both on his career in general as well as his early death.
What finally enabled me to write this article is the fact that a little while ago American Torso and Dog’s Night Song were released on a double DVD in Hungary, which gave me the opportunity to judge once again for myself, what of my memory of Gábor Bódy’s films really holds up.
Much to my delight American Torso still has all the poetic depth and subtlety combined with ground-breaking cinematic invention that I remembered. It is a true master piece, even in the sense that Tarkovsky demands: every detail of the film has its rightful place, is well balanced and supports the overall shape of the film as a whole, although I will come back to questioning this as criterion for quality.
American Torso follows the fate of a bunch of exiled Hungarian 1848 revolutionaries in the American Civil war, enlisted (after fighting with Garibaldi and at the Crimea) with the Union. The central character is a land surveyor, by now a long term freedom fighter, a war technician charting the terrain for military purposes, whose observation of the landscape through optical instruments resembles the way the film camera observes and registers what it is pointed at. Indeed the film perceives and registers the war from the surveyor’s point of few, often literally through his lens. It’s a technician’s view, methodical, from a slight distance. Every now and again, in moments of emotional density, the frame freezes and dashed lines are drawn out over the landscape which maybe the lines of sight (quick judgement / analysis) of the surveyor, drawn into the frame like a line on a map.
The film is shot / post processed, as if 19th century camera and projection equipment were used. There are projection frames around the actual images, at times the film appears damaged or as if a hair got stuck in the projector.
There is intermittent overexposure, flickering; oval masks with feathered edges are used, popular in 19th century photography, constituting naturalistic experiments with alienation: the film is distanced from us / made look alien / challenges our habitual perception of modern day historic films by the way it is made to look as if shot at the time of the plot, interspersed with more “modern” experiments: distortions of sound, freeze frames, negatives, breaking the otherwise naturalistic form of narration, drawing attention to film as an artefact, produced in its own time with its own language and means of portraying (complex) states and emotions of human existence.
What is most unusual is the extent to which the film manages to combine experimental techniques, reflective of the principle possibilities of film, with a slow moving epic narration. There is not much that happens but abundance of observation, social and other details: The surveyor’s view of the battle field, a complex and long tracking shot showing details of a camp, scenes at an officer’s mess, a fragile (soon destroyed) glimpse of a war time friendship,… nothing resembling what you would know from Hollywood movies about the Civil War, neither in content, pace nor visual narration.
A segment of it (the above mentioned tracking shot) is available on You Tube, but I don’t find it representative in order to get a general idea of the film. Yet, since American Torso is available on DVD (with English subtitles) it could once again become an entry point into Gábor Bódy’s work for a wider international audience.
Tarkovsky’s analysis of why films become dated is compelling: it has to do with inventing forms for their own sake rather than ever only devising new forms where no traditional form will suffice to convey an author’s true (poetic) view of the world.15 Almost by definition an eclectic and fragmented approach which may indulge in the joy and passion of pursuing a detail for its own sake, rather than it being a slave of the master piece, is, as a consequence, prone to become out-dated. There is a lack of discipline in this, which may also be perceived as refreshing.
I keep watching details of Narzissus and Psyche (in a language I don’t understand), and discover, over and again, that there is more under the surface of the superficial experiments, some of which have indeed not stood the test of time as well as others and quite clearly seem to exist more for their own sake than the greater good of the film. Like American Torso the film has many layers.
One of the problems in evaluating the film may be, that there may be an over-emphasis on the experimental both in Gábor Bódy’s theoretical approach and proclaimed aesthetic program (judging, for want of access to first hand material, e.g. from the surprised reaction cited above about the fact that American Torso has such a coherent narrative structure), that makes it difficult to value the narrative depth which both American Torso, but also many segments of Narzissus and Psyche have. Many scenes show incredible, and interesting, socio-historical details, from the observation of 19th century workers lodgings to detailed and graphic portrayal of medical procedures. There are outstanding acting performances by Patricia Adriani and Udo Kier, but there seems to be no real integration of such traditional directorial values as guiding actors in what I find quoted about Gábor Bódy’s theoretical approaches towards film. It may or may not exist, if it does it may just not have been picked up and passed on, however, in any case there seems to be a lack of resolution of directorial extremes reaching from the carefully crafted, traditionally narrated to the radically experimental. And it may be first of all the lack of this resolution which may manifest itself as confusing in perceiving Narzissus and Psyche.
Still, I think there is something brave and important in that attempt of bringing an experimental approach to large scale epic film, in trying to work this into a project of extremely ambitious cinematic proportions, rather than consigning experimental film to the small white or black box encountered in art gallery settings.
I’d admit, though, that watching Narcissus and Psyche as a single entity in a cinema (or even home video setting) in which the audience is immobile, in the cinema context bound to tightly packed rows of chairs, expected to glue their heads towards a frontal projection, is not an appealing prospect and may not be the best way to perceive the film.
I wonder, rather, what it would be like, if an audience would be permitted to perceive the film in a set-up that may be more akin to the eclectic structure of the film: e.g. if the film would be shown in multiple, time-offset projections, e.g. in a large empty factory setting, with an audience free to move, come and go and linger as found necessary to take in pieces and elements as they seem relevant to individual viewers. It might be more about understanding the approach then, about relating what somebody else had tried to do to whatever it is that members of an audience have to do; making it something like a live quarry, from which elements could be taken as needed, to be interwoven into everybody’s own projections and personal narratives… An audience would then become more like a partner in production of an overall film, rather than being tightly bound sole recipients of the outpourings of a filmmaker.
I can’t judge whether Gábor Bódy would have embraced such an idea or not, and regardless of whether anybody would ever attempt such a projection or not, I’m delighted that little by little interest in Bódy’s work seems to be on the rise again.
Not only have his feature films been released on DVD since I first started to pick up the threads again (although Narzissus and Psyche still in Hungarian only), there is also a Hungarian web site dedicated to his work, which makes an effort to also publish English texts as they can be found. It appears that Gábor Bódy’s theoretical texts have been (or are in the process of being) published in Hungarian; in 2011 an exhibition at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin was dedicated to Bódy’s and fellow experimental filmmaker Zbigniew Rybczynski‘s pioneering experimental works, and also in 2011 American Torso was shown at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, guest curated by the Hungarian Filmmaker Béla Tarr.
I still think that there is something in that approach, which may lend itself well to be picked up again by an audience, which is by now very well used to dealing actively and reactively with digital media and the eclectic perception of the world they offer in developing and constructing the narratives of their own lives.
The following DVDs are available from http://www.irokboltja.hu. Please note that the website does not accept credit cards, but staff is very helpful in arranging alternative payment.
Psyché (Narzissus and Psyche). Hungarian only
Amerikai Anzix / Kutya éji dala (American Torso / Dog’s Night Song). Hungarian, English subtitles / Hungarian, English and German subtitles
YouTube – Excerpt from American Torso. (Note that I think that the clip alone does not give a true impression of the overall film. There are also other small clips available, mostly Hungarian, including some from Narzissus and Psyche, which in their brevity I also don’t find overly representative of the Film).
http://www.bodygabor.hu – Partially English web site dedicated to Gábor Bódy
Infermental web archive: http://www.infermental.de
Exhibition Der Stand der Bilder (The State of Images), Berlin 2011:
American Torso: Program page from Edinburgh International Film Festival 2011
Kovács, András Bálint: Gábor Bódy: A precursor of the Digital Age.- In: Imre, Anikó (ed.): East European Cinemas. New York, London: Routledge, 2005, p.151-164 (ISBN 0-415-97268-X)
Tarkovsky, Andrey: Sculpting in Time. Reflections on the Cinema. – Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006 (10) (ISBN 978-0-77624-1)
Weibel, Peter: Beyond Art: A Third Culture. A Comparative Study in Cultures. Art and Science in 20th Century Austria and Hungary. – Vienna, New York: Springer, 2005 (ISBN 3-211-24562-6)
Bódy, Veruschka; Bódy, Gábor (ed): Axis. Auf der elektronischen Bühne Europa. Eine Asuwahl aus den 80er Jahren . [Book accompanying video tape] – Cologne: DuMont, 1986 (ISBN 3-7701-1844-8 (VHS), ISBN 3-7701-1844-6 (BETA), ISBN 3-7701-1844-4 (VCC -Video 2000))
Bódy, Veruschka; Bódy, Gábor (ed): Video in Kunst und Alltag. Vom kommerziellen zum kulturellen Videoklip. – Cologne: DuMont, 1986 (ISBN 3-7701-2027-2)
Bódy, Veruschka; Weibel, Peter (ed): Klipp, Klapp, Bum. Von der visuellen Musik zum Musikvideo. – Cologne: DuMont, 1987 (ISBN 3-7701-2145-7)
1 Kovács, 2005.
2 Kovács, p. 153.
3 Kovács, p. 163.
4 Quoted after Kovács, p. 161.
5 Kovács, p.152.
6 Kovács, p.152.
7 The web archive of the magazine can be found at http://www.infermental.de, there is also a book publication accompanying a selection of videos: Bódy, Bódy: Axis, 1986.
8 See e.g. the reflection of Bódy’s work in Weibel, 2005.
9 Bódy, Bódy: Video in Kunst und Alltag, 1986. Veruschka Bódy also published a book regarding the emerging music video culture together with Peter Weibel: Bódy, Weibel, 1987.
10 Bódy, Bódy: Axis, 1986, p.89-90 and Bódy, Bódy: Video in Kunst und Alltag, 1986, p. 50-51.
11 See e.g. Tarkovsky, 2005.
12 In his seminal dramatic text “Die Hamletmaschine”
13 Kovács, p. 152
14 Kovács, p. 164
15 Example quote:”For the moment I want to say a few words about the rapidity with which films become dated, a phenomenon which is regarded as one of its essential attributes, and in fact has to do with the ethical aim of a picture.It would be absurd to speak, for instance, of the Divine Comedy as being dated. And yet films, which seemed a few years ago to be major events unexpectedly turn out to be feeble, inept, like school-boy attempts. And why? The main reason as I see it is that as a rule the film-maker’s work is not a creative act, not a morally exacting undertaking of vital importance to him personally. A work becomes dated as a result of a conscious effort to be expressive and contemporary; these are not things to be achieved, they have to be in you.[…] The artist [emphasis BG] never looks for methods as such, for the sake of aesthetics; he is forced, painfully, to devise them as a means of imparting faithfully his – author’s – view of reality.”Tarkovsky 2005, p. 101-102.