Deliberately Damaged – Gyula Nemes: Lost World

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nemes_gyula_letunt_vilag_4Expired celluloid, deliberate imperfection, ten years of shooting with a handful of people – this is the making of Lost World. The poetic documentary of Gyula Nemes is a significant piece of the Hungarian (avant-garde) film scene. It recalls the innovations of the Soviet montage-theory, the canon of the lyrical avant-garde film form, caricatures the dogmatic socialist films of the fifties and refers to the home video-aesthetics of the 80s.

„Poetic experimentation in cinema arises largely from the cross-fertilization between cinema and the various modernist avant-gardes of the twentieth century. […] poetic documentary shares a common terrain with the modernist avant-garde.” – claims Bill Nichols in his book about the evolution of documentary film[1]. Filmmakers engaging in poetic documentary refuse to produce a perfect copy of reality and find the empirical ability of film to create a photographic record of what it recorded more of a handicap and prefer to recycle the images of reality in a more unconventional way. By synthesizing lira and documentary they manage to overcome the mechanical reproduction of reality, and by relying on Jean Epstein’s term „photogenie” and using Soviet film theory as guideline they re-arrange the elements of the recorded view and create a new reality.

Within the subgenre of lyrical documentary there are several other trends to be distinguished mostly according to their level of abstraction. The first wave of poetic documentaries, the city symphony films (Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, 1927; Manhatta, 1921; Nothing But Time, 1926) and a few of the movies P. Adams Sitney called the representatives of the lyrical avant-garde films[2] (Wonder Ring, 1955; The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, 1971) keep a fair distance from the depicted subject and only occasionally use the option of abstraction. On the contrary films aiming to create their own poetic form while still insisting on their documentary character get closer to their subject and instead of presenting the whole, they show only details. These details are so magnified or so disfigured by dissolves and superimpositions that the source, meaning the whole, often becomes unrecognizable. (Visual Variations on Noguchi, 1945; Notebook, 1963; Castro Street, 1966)

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Nemes’s experimentalism belongs to the first category. More precisely he stands on the shoulders of Dziga Vertov, draws on the sensibility of Joris Ivens (De brug, 1928; Regen, 1929), carries on with the traditions of the Eastern-Central-European avant-garde (see earlier post on Martin Slivka’s Water and Labor, 1963) and borrows the technique of the lyrical abstract films, specifically the modification of the film stock using chemicals or making handmade scratches. As for the Hungarian context story-wise Lost World could be related to some of the BBS films[3] made by the Gulyás-brothers (Changes That Have Been, 1979; Water Remains The Master, 1980) and to another lyrical documentary released two years before Nemes’s work, Egerszalók (2006). Considering the formal experimentation the ironic-sentimental tone recalls István Bácskai Lauró’s Fascination (1963) and János Tóth’s Arena (1970)

Lost World covers ten years of the history of Kopaszi dam, from the chaotic-eclectic romanticism of the boathouses and huts made of corrugated slate to the forward-looking minimalism of the buildings designed according to the EU standards. The 2008 work is known as a sequel of a previous film, The Dike of Transience (2004). But it is important to note that Lost World is not an extended version of the first dam piece, they differ in several aspects and there is only six minutes overlap between the two. As for the „message” of the film Lost World is halfway between Ruttmann’s Berlin film and Vertov’s iconic Man With The Movie Camera (1929), because – even if unintentionally – it does have an analytic approach but refuses to take sides. The straggly wilderness of the past and the clear living spaces of the present are both without positive or negative signs in the interpretation of Nemes.

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As for its technique Nemes’s piece represents a softer trend of avant-garde film. The deliberately damaged 16 mm material plays with the variation of traditional and unconventional film forms. It refers to previous film historical eras (sequences recall the silent film imaginary or borrow from the home video-aesthetics of the 80s), it exploits more common atmospheric guidelines (uses the opposition of black & white and sepia/colored footage to separate recordings of the past and present; and fast-forwards to emphasize the modern age) and throws the viewer off balance with the juxtaposition of more unfamiliar montage-techniques (plastic cutting, jump cuts). The material which was partly cheaply purchased and partly found in the attic and was continuously under a jacket over the years would already have resulted in a „poor” image quality but Nemes and his cinematographer Balázs Dobóczi decided to fracture the celluloid even more:

„We worked a lot to make the film look like this […] we took the 25 year old material, put it into the camera, which we kept on opening to let the light go in, and pushed the button on the snap camera so the film would crumple. […] We wanted the film to have bad quality and be more imperfect, because it gives the material a personal pulsation and rhythm.” –interview with Nemes.[4]

The music is from a previous, unfinished documentary of Nemes, on a rehearsal of the Dunakeszi MÁV orchestra. The editing of sound goes against the usual music video-like method as it is based on the counterpoint of sound and images. This technique underlines the randomness pervading the whole film and allows new layers of meaning. For example the act of a man painting shark teeth onto his boat becomes ironic because of the monotone music in the background which can easily be interpreted as a reference to John Williams’s minimalist composition.[5]

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One of the main characteristics of poetic documentary is that „social actors seldom take on the full-blooded form of characters with psychological complexity and a fixed view of the world. People more typically function on a par with other objects as raw material that filmmakers select and arrange into associations and patterns of their choosing.”[6] Even with the transformation from lyrical film to socio-documentary within the film the same applies to Lost World, the depicted people stay equivalent with the other components of the background. The recurring elements, be it a boat, a cat or the residents of the dam, function as illustrations of the passing time and their reappearance often „only” serves the fulfillment of the film’s rhythm.[7]

By editing Lost World frame by frame Nemes showed how to create perfect imperfection, and therefore something genuinely lifelike. The product of his ten year long project is tradition preserving and experimental, epic and lyric at the same time. As an instruction manual for his film it is best to quote Nemes himself and repeat his thoughts on BBS poetic films: „they have to be dealt with as poems, slowly turning the pages, getting back to them again and again.”[8]

Written by: Dorottya Szalay

[1] Nichols, Bill: Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001, 88, 102.p.
[2] Sitney, Adams P.: Visionary Film. The American Avant-garde 1943-2000, Oxford University Press, 2002
[3] Balázs Béla Studio – see the official website and the archives
and see the description of the Studio at monoscop.org
[4] magyar.film.hu.’
[5] The one he composed for Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.
[6] Nichols, 2001, 102.p.
[7] The only apparent exeption is the portait of a man around the eights minute of the film.
[8] Gyula Nemes: „Vanishing Magic – the poetic films of BBS”, Filmvilág, 2002/szeptember, 44.o.

Lost World

The Dike of Transience

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