American Torso (EN)
This film by Gabor Body takes place back in 1865 - that is a hundred years back in time from where he was standing that time. Making a costume movie, a period flick is no big deal, but American Torso is a totally different phenomenon - it's not "about" 1865, it's not placed in 1865 - but it is from 1865 :) (Before motion picture was even invented !!)
Gabor Body was a really playful and really intense artist. Playful in this sense means something that jazz musicians do when they improvise. He'd start from a commonly acceptable starting point, like a nice and fine opening shot (just like everybody) and while he just seems to be telling a story (like everybody else) he's in fact rapidly and vehemently expanding the "elbowroom" of of his playing: you'll see motifs unfolding from motifs, new layers, new lines of action, parallel plots springing and rising, getting airborne and you'll be in the middle of something totally new before you know it. This is almost exactly like the booting up of an operating system.
Gabor Body was an extremely talented artist but beside that he was a very fresh scientist too - that of visual language of motion picture, that is cinema. Practically speaking he didn't just "use" "the language" to "express" "something" that he wanted to express - what he did was rather creating, exploring and expanding the language - as he was speaking ... His films and videos are like "live acts" of attribution ... they will always surprise you (a lot!!) demonstrating what an intense and highly organized expression a film can be.
American Torso, if you want to get "what it's about" - is quite a period-like movie. It's about 2 Hungarians meeting overseas - in the Civil War. If Civil War then Ambrose Bierce will be the right weapon of choice (thought the 28 year old Hungarian guy - in Budapest, 1974 :)). Even the making of his films is like "free jazz" - everything is possible, nothing is too far away to be brought into the context. The film is based on the Bierce novel (George Thurston) - but not as you would imagine. Usually this would mean "they used the story but changed some details".
For Gabor Body it's different, it's many stories in the film, but not like in Short Cuts, it's rather in a non-linear mode. Today, being acquainted to such phenomenons as the flash movie (Adobe Flash) it's easier to understand how American Torso works with all the stories in it. It's not "movies" (stories) one after one, but movies within "movies", which are not to be mistaken for "sub-movies" - they each have their own time-line independently.
This is based on the art of montage, editing - it's like advanced alchemy - that is aware of the fact that however we watch a movie linearly in real time, it's still a non-linear experience, we just "load it" linearly :) This kind of editing is rather psychological instead of being materialistic (according to the art of traditional story-telling). Gabor Body called it a "sign-aware way of composition" - which practically means that when you're filming a scene you're not only focusing on what's important in that scene ("information" - in terms of semiotics, his favorite science), but instead you'll open all doors and windows and let everything flow thru it ("redundancy" - in terms of semiotics). This, of course, doesn't mean unimportant details - it's just exactly how ADSL works today: man realized that a phone-line can convey quite a great deal of traffic - much more than speech :) - and the spectrum where before only noise would travel now is a multi-dimensional highway for all kinds of info-flows. Film, cinema always worked like this - it's just that not everybody was aware of it, especially not at a scientific level :)
Two Hungarian men meet in the big America, in the middle of changes. Normally (in someone else's film) only these men would meet. In American Torso however it's the two men - and two stories too. On Wereczky's side there's the Ambrose Bierce novel, and on Fiala's there's the story of the theodolite (this new and revolutionary cartographic tool) and the Hungarian war of independence in 1848.
The story that we see in the film is actually the meeting of these two stories.
The brave and bold fatalist soldier, lieutenant Wereczky will find his destiny not in the battlefield but in the field of science. Today's blockbuster-attracted thinking will say "hm", but it is quite a story!
When these two strong personalities meet in the beginning they start out with the wrong foot, but later (after Wereczky performed an almost lethal stunt before Fiala's eyes) they become friends. It is an amazingly beautiful scene in which Fiala is explaining how theodolite works. Two men in a bar, big noise, hookers and soldiers play their eternal games in the background, the band is also very busy playing music, and in the midst of all this buzz they two talk about the art of cartography. This is not about an abstract thing - but about one person's inviting the other into his world and the other's proving to be worth of it (being not only polite but very smart too).
You don't need to understand their words - it's happening at the level of gestures too. Actually Hungarians had to have this experience for long - since in cinemas used to show this film without subtitles - since this was supposed to be a Hungarian film. Speaking of language, one might find it pretty much amazing too that this young Hungarian, back in 1974-75 considered it evident that Americans in a film will have to speak in English :) Even today it's very rare (because of commercial reasons) that Germans speak German in a movie (a good exception is Female Agents by Jean-Paul Salomé). For Gabor Body it was not only evident but also he utilized this multi-lingual situation very intensely - making this the source of the opening conflict in the first place (as Wereczky as an American soldier listens to two Hungarians talk without indicating that he understands Hungarian), but also in the fabulous Casino scene where soldiers mix up like three languages in a very-very funny way (German, English, Hungarian). Ja... - yeah.
He plays with the language even within Hungarian having Boldogh, the warm, home-sick Hungarian character to stagger heavily (up to a decisive moment, when he speaks out that he just wants to go home). Needless to say this play with languages is no l'art-pour-l'art, its a very effective way of dramatic expression, characterization, depiction by utilizing the multilingual scene his elbowroom of building up his expression just became much wider.
The two Hungarian soldiers meet, and they two with their two stories join now and start out a new line of plot. They are like playing with fire, playing with a gun or something that is dangerous - they're playing with science. First they just talk about the basics at an abstract level. Next they decide to go out for a field trip - to do it for real what they'd just talked about over the beers. The scientific experiment however won't end here - it just can't.
It's exactly like in his previous wonderful film "After Jappe and Do Escobar Fought, How Did The World Come to Fight" - the flow of happenings won't stop at a point but go on and escalate, and get out of control. They start playing around with science but they just won't stop there, and they'll happen to catch sight of a huge swing in the misty autumn distance. The idea of trying their new art of measuring on this object comes naturally. First they estimate it from the distance: it must be like 16 feet high or so. After the estimation they use the theodolite and measure it - from the distance: all in all it's around 16 feet (meaning: measuring didn't really get them any closer). Now they decide to go over there. The swing is amazing and huge. they ask how high it is - the answer they get is: it's around 16 feet or so. Then what next? Turning back is not an option for young and brave lieutenant Wereczky. He'll have to try it - and not only to try, but also push the limits to the utmost ... and even over it ... Perfection is not enough ... perfection is boring - that is Gabor Body.
Besides being quite a magnificent cinematographic experience the swing scene is really like a rite. Like an art-performance - pushing and repeating a meaningful gesture in order to express something beyond its original meaning, and beyond words (or at a pre-verbal level), and when the other one is beginning to get the message he'll intensify the broadcast which will also be an indication that the other one is right about that :) A situation like that will always tend towards ecstasy.
In a normal film the swing scene could only be what it is - an ecstatic action which could be longer or shorter in the movie according to how excitingly the DOP managed to capture is and how much the editor is fond of it. With American Torso it's different. The swing scene is a global catharsis - in which every motif will get its ultimate climax, without physically being present - they'll just lend over their cargo to the swing-action. It's like all the springs and rivers join up in a huge flow - which this time has almost ZERO "redundancy" - it is only what it is, nothing else is present - only the swinging. However what's happening here "in the main flash movie" is what's happening in all the movies it contains. While in Godfather 2 close to the end you'll see an action in the church while at the same time a lot of killings will take place, here in this swing scene you see only the swing - and the rest is ... - the rest doesn't need to be physically cut in - cause they are all present by the benevolent effect of the intense attribution, they are already being represented. Our characters have spent 86 minutes in the charger and by this time they are full of "meaning" (in semiotic terms).
Before you'd ask: the statements of this chapter you can check yourself, when the fatal (not the same as accidental) swing-scene ends - what do you feel?
American Torso is a great film and today you'll stand much a better chance to comprehend than Hungarian people had back in 1975. Back then it might have looked like a funny experiment with distorted images and sound (even Miklós Erdély, a talented artist, and also a talented filmmaker wrote about it like hopefully it's not the best movie that this young filmmaker will ever have made, and in Hungarian film school they didn't even accept this film as a diploma film - while, not surprisingly, in Mannheim it won in best first film category). American Torso comes from the past - but it's almost totally independent of its own time - so it's just there - it's just here ...
And now (after almost 40 years) we don't even need explanations why image and even the sound is distorted - it just comes natural. Damaging his own material, his own film, distorting sound of beautiful music - this just demonstrates that 'film' is not a container, not a pipeline that you push your 'message' thru. Your film has to become what 'normally' it's just supposed to convey. Without the distortions this film would have only been a nice one, maybe a perfect one - anchored in time. Would have been like listening to an opera with a libretto in your hands. Now it's way beyond perfection - it's raw and raging beauty. Beauty out of control.
Even French films are hard to comprehend when you're in an American mood - as the whole movie-goer world. But every French movie will take you by around the 7th minute and it's almost the same for Gabor Body's amazing film. If you find yourself enjoying the almost totally exceptional scene in the casino where someone is reading up a Marx article, others are playing pool, and others are talking about lieutenant Wereczky - while the picture quality is so seriously having problems (like coming out from your grand pa's super-8 camera that'd sunk in the sea some 30 years ago, sorry, 40, sorry: 150) - you're just being lucky, cause you're getting a message that a fresh young artist sent out some 40 years ago.
Messages change, cities, clothes, faces, cars will change too - but art won't change. A fresh young man in the 70's will just be a fresh young man - for ever. That's the point about being fresh, and that's the point about art. If you enjoy the fantastic Fantastic Symphony by Berlioz in the film (distorted), if you enjoy the night barbecue in the camp, if you can share the loneliness of major Fiala (who'll orate a Walt Whitman poem to the stars above him) - you're lucky. You'll deserve congratulations cause you've passed the borderline of traditional and industrial cinema - and entered the realm of free and open art :)
It's really strange about Gabor Body that his films are no accidents - he never just happened to make them and they never just turned out to be great - he did them all totally on purpose, being totally aware of what would make them so ... so beautiful ...
And beautiful is much better than perfect - beautiful is just way beyond that !