Metal / Music – István Bácskai Lauró: Fascination (1963)

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© Balázs Béla Studio

© Balázs Béla Studio

With its cryptic atmosphere, sci-fi like images and unearthly music, Bácskai Lauró’s 1963 short piece is a truly playful representative of Hungarian avant-garde film. By deliberately crossing borders between genres and openly utilizing trends of Modern art, Fascination stands out as a cogent illustration of the softening political atmosphere of the early sixties in Hungary.

Even though István Bácskai Lauró’s Fascination (1963) is a revolutionary piece of Hungarian cinema, a unique example of the early lyrical documentaries made in the Balázs Béla Studio (BBS), it has been greatly neglected in Hungarian film history writing. Besides a few short summaries[1], Fascination is usually mentioned as part of a group of films defining the first wave of endeavours to overcome the boundaries of classical documentary filmmaking (Strand, 1963; Bakers, 1966) or as a precursor of more mature formal experiments (Elegy, 1965; Capriccio, 1969; Arena, 1970). Bearing in mind that several other significant BBS experimental films have suffered similar or worse fates, it is time to give Bácskai Lauró and his Fascination a few more paragraphs.

BBS was not at all meant to be a workshop for free cinematic experimentation, not to mention an artistic community engaged in politically critical works. The government funded institution was established for young directors and cinematographers freshly graduated from the University of Theatre and Film Arts to give them an opportunity to practice filmmaking before shifting to more expensive feature films. Even though most BBS members tempted by the avant-garde refused to follow this path, Bácskai Lauró – who was one of the founding members of the Studio – used the BBS opportunity as the authorities intended. He made a single film at the BBS before migrating to feature films. The fact that he later engaged mainly in lighter and apolitical genres like comedies, satires, adventure and youth films, might explain the general disregard of his one experimental piece. For Zoltán Huszárik, János Tóth and even more so for Miklós Erdély and Gábor Bódy, formal experimentation and the expression of political, cultural, and social commitment was the only true way of filmmaking and each of their persona is almost inseparable from their body of work. In Bácskai Lauró’s case there is no iconic life story or even a follow up experimental piece to hold onto when forming an introduction about Fascination.

© Balázs Béla Studio

© Balázs Béla Studio

The officially declared thematic goal of the Balázs Béla Studio was a dual one. On the one hand based on the principles established by the modernist cinema of the 60’s it aimed to reform traditional, literary filmmaking, on the other hand it meant to inspire the scientific exploration of facts of contemporary reality and their unique and personal reorganization.[2] In this sense Bácskai Lauró’s Fascination is a textbook example of the BBS aim as it “transform recorded scenes of factorial production into visual poetry.”[3]

The film connects two different spheres: the dark and mysterious (under)world of metal workers and the ephemeral atmosphere around a man (Miklós Mészöly, Hungarian novelist and poet) sitting in an empty concert hall observing a handful of classical musicians performing a piece that might only be an old memory or even just a figment of his imagination. These colliding opposites form the core of the structural principle of the film. All at once Fascination is informative and unsettling, spirited and daunting, static and varying. It is a documentary but shows characteristics of the sci-fi genre. It fulfils the expected role of an artwork in the Soviet era by depicting the everyday of the working class but with the use of purely abstract images. By including Miklós Mészöly, known for his refusal to compromise with the regime, it also flagrantly rises against it.

When having the opportunity to experiment with Modernist cinema, the BBS members of the sixties seemed to rely on the three main principles of Modernism: subjectivity, reflexivity, and abstraction, which in the case of documentaries meant compression. [4] In the Soviet era documentaries were screened before feature films, therefore they could not exceed a certain length (17 min). Also filmmakers were forced to hand in complete scripts for their documentaries which ruled out the possibility of spontaneity and eventuality.[5] Bácskai Lauró – who in the end created a film exceeding the criteria in length – utilized compression to create a very tight structure for his film, allowing him to get away with a film rather ambiguous in its message. Furthermore he took the pursuit of abstraction to another level. He inserted long sequences of actual abstract images, an utterly rare move even in experimental films made in Hungary. Taking advantage of the scenery, the film depicts molten metal in a way that the material appears in differently distorted, indistinguishable forms, as lonely dots against a black background, as meandering serpents or as a flaming and throbbing surface. Through these images Bácskai Lauró makes a clear connection with the new tendencies of the nascent Hungarian neo-avant-garde while recalling the need to experiment with different methods to create purely filmic abstraction.

© Balázs Béla Studio

© Balázs Béla Studio

With the juxtaposition of the two environments (factory and the concert hall) Bácskai Lauró alters the experience of both. The cave-like space of the metal workers becomes more elated, while the almost empty concert hall with the lonely man sitting in desolate rows offers a grinding, heavy feeling. This exchange of qualities is largely supported by Péter Eötvös’s music, whose compositions are in constant dialogue with the alternatingly monotone and alarming sounds of the factory.

The music serves as a link between the two spheres, or in other words as a catalyst for the overlap between worlds. The sci-fi like hints strangely have the same effect. They elevate the workers from their embedded earthly roots to bring them closer to the equally peculiar reality of the music hall scene. This duality of the film is underlined when the identity of the observer is unveiled. The lone man is played by Miklós Mészöly, a leading writer of post-war Hungary whose novels often analysed the dichotomy of modern human existence.

With this film Bácskai Lauró gives an extremely complex perspective on his era at local and global scales. It demonstrates the new artistic opportunities of the sixties when repression and censorship of the Soviet Union were more relaxed and serves an even more precise illustration of the aims of the early BBS. With its abstract imagery, referential complexity, engaging personal tone and quasi Gesammkunst quality Fascination is clearly a groundbreaking piece of Hungarian film that deserves further discussion.

 

Written by: Dorottya Szalay
English proofreader: Johannes Wachs


[1] Győrffy, Iván (2009) “Antropomorf alakzatok”, in. Gelencsér, Gábor ed. (2009) BBS 50. Budapest: Kusthalle, pp. 109-110.
Rapfogel, Jared (2012) “The Oberhausen Manifesto and Its Contexts: The 58th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen”. Cineaste, fall/2012.
[2] Kovács, András Bálint (2009) “A szabadság szigete (A BBS szerepéről), in. Gelencsér, Gábor ed. (2009) BBS 50. Budapest: Kusthalle, p. 9,
[3] Gelencsér Gábor (2009) “A kiséréstől a kísérletezésig. A Balázs Béla Stúdió ötven éve”. Filmvilág, 12/2009, p. 31.
[4] Stőhr Lóránt (2009)  “Elégiák” Gelencsér, Gábor ed. (2009) BBS 50. Budapest: Kusthalle, p. 82.
[5] Ibid.

 

 

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