Friday 24 September 2010

Eye-level realism

The Red And The White [Csillagosok, Katonák], directed by Miklos Jancso (1967)

Watching Hungarian filmmaker Miklos Jancso’s 1967 black and white film The Red And The White (Csillagosok, Katonák) is an interesting experience, because it really is an experience, more so than a coherent story. But, I mean that in the best possible way. No, it’s nowhere near great cinema, but it’s a very interesting film, especially considering that he is seen as the biggest influence on the later Hungarian film director, Bela Tarr, who perfected the long take aesthetic in modern film.

The primary difference between Tarr’s films and this one by Jancso is that Tarr’s cinema is definitely poetic -  from what is in the frame, to the lingering over shots, to the scoring, to the way he directs his actors. Jancso’s film, however, reveals a definitely prosaic aesthetic, as well as the off the cuff realism that eluded filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and the rest of the New Wave aesthetic that swept into European cinema earlier in that decade. Simply put, Jancso’s tale of slaughter during the Russian Revolution plays out as if it was happening in real time, as the camera often follows the Bolshevik Reds on some campaign of slaughter, until they are stopped by the Czarist Whites, who then up the atrocity ante, and back and forth again, until the final shot, at the end of the hour and a half long film, when a Red soldier sees the camera, and makes a gallant gesture with his sword, as he looks into the abyss of the camera.

Yes, there are moments that play out well, but the camera acts in a truly impartial way, rendering much of the criticism of this film as being pro-Communist absurd. The Reds come out every bit as poorly as the Whites; if not more so. The film is set in 1919 and shows alternating bands of Hungarian Reds running away from Russian Whites, then merging with Russian Reds, who pursue the Whites. Along the way we see rapes and executions done with such casualness that the sense is that this is real. In fact, at points, the film almost seems to speed up from real elapsed time. Cinematographer Tamás Somló does a good job of spreading the action all over the widescreen (which is in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio), and this distancing of the viewer from the individuals, contrasted with the eye level realism in some moments. Heightens the viewers sense of being omnipotent, able to see ‘the big picture,’ as well as empathise with the ‘everyman.’

No particular actor is important, because, in total, none has lines or screen time totaling more than 12-15 minutes, and this happens to only a handful of characters. Oftentimes art, like this, is defended for its radicalism alone - either political, artistic, or both, but in this case, it is not the radicalism, but that the radicalism so serves the art. Again, while this film’s distancing from the characters ultimately prevents this film from artistic ‘greatness,’ it may serve an even better purpose - making this film an artistically and socially important one, if not a greater artistic one. That’s not to say that there is not art in the sweep of the camera, and the decision to let characters come in to the scene and slip out with ease. But, in a sense, it’s a sort of hollow exercise, however well crafted any particular moment may be. What it does mean is that The Red And The White, while not the greatest war (or anti-war) film ever made, is in many ways, the most realistic one ever made. But, the implicit message the technique imparts - that war is pointless, and that both sides in a war are equally culpable, is just not realistically sustainable. One may argue that many, if not most, wars are in that vein, but there are clear exceptions to the rule. The Allies, while far from perfect, were clearly in the ethical right, during World War Two. Similarly, the Union North was clearly in the ethical right during the American Civil War. History has shown that the Reds in the Russian Revolution were no saints, and were, in many ways (especially overall bodycount), even worse and more murderous than the Whites they ultimately displaced.

Yet again, many critics flub at defining this film, especially when they label it non-narrative. Yet, clearly there is a tale and line of progression. It just advances in multiple arcs, and in an ebb and flow, rather than a singular linear narrative. It’s amazing how, when confronted with something so strong in a film (such as this one’s narrative thrust), if it is done in a new or unusual way, the first thing critics tend to do is deny the very strength, rather than recognising and/or celebrating its innovation.

The DVD, put out by Kino Video, is a big disappointment. Kino has a reputation as one of the premier DVD companies in the world (right up there with Masters Of Cinema and The Criterion Collection), but this DVD really sucks. First of all, there’s not a single bonus feature- not even a trailer. Forget about featurettes or audio commentaries, much less a choice between a dubbed film and a subtitled one. The print of the film is also in, at best, mediocre condition. There are major flaws in graininess and out and out splotched and dirt. Then there is the terrible subtitling, original with the print, rather than a later edition by the DVD company. It’s so lousy because a) it covers only about 75-80% of the spoken dialogue, b) like Criterion, the font is in unbordered white on a black and white film, and c) the font is in some weird cursive format that is puffed in an odd way that it resembles posterboard font from Haight-Ashbury. Perhaps this was a way to sell the film to the potential contemporary viewership, but, c’mon, four plus decades have passed!

The film that most closely resembles this film, in terms of eye-level realism is likely Ingmar Bergman’s Shame, released a year later. While that film also follows war’s hell-mellness, it does follow two lead characters and develops them well, coring into the internal mechanisms that trigger war fever in men. We see the conversion of a meek, shy man, played by Max Von Sydow, into an almost remorseless killer of a defenseless soldier. The Red And The White has no such characterisations, much less an arc. Its posit, from beginning to end, is that war and its participants are all equally culpable; that war is, in some ways, a thing that is independent of the human will, and seeps in, rots, corrupts, and perverts man, rather than it being an extension of man that leaks out and poisons all around. The very fact that none of the characters has a moment of growth, and all are automatonic, supports the claim that the film posits war as a force gripping man rather than a force emanating from and enervating man.

But, this is the sort of film that only interests one more on rewatch. No, there are no hidden ‘moments’, but the details sketched out are very interesting to watch for the nuances which connect the two battling factions with each other. Other than that, though, the camera is basically passive, and the viewer is free to imbue interpretation wherever. We see moments of seeming heroism - one nurse refuses to separate the wounded into factions, but another does. Yet, she was willing to help a Red soldier she lusted for escape, by stripping naked to distract the Whites. Yet, the camera does not pore over the body of the attractive nurse. She has no eros, and the soldier she sought to save ends up dead, even as we saw him earlier killing wantonly. But those he killed were engaged in depredations, and so on. Killers who shoot defenseless men like wild game can have heroism, and heroes can become craven rapists in the next moment. Yet, all of this plays out under a watchful camera eye that is seemingly indifferent to conventional notions and mores.

While the field of vision of the camera is large, this film is in no way an ‘epic’ film. The battles that are large involve a few dozen men, not sweeping hordes, no tanks or large gunnery battalions. We see no Pattons nor Rommels leading battlefield charges, much less any strategising behind the scenes. The closest thing to Jancso’s camera eye in other films is likely Francis Ford Coppola’s tracking equipment in The Conversation; especially that film’s final scene where its protagonist, played by Gene Hackman, is seen impassively destroying his apartment, looking for bugging equipment, as the film’s camera sways back and forth like a monitor, recording his destructive paranoid insanity. But, this element is the very reason that comparisons to Andre Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr fail. Those directors used the camera to involve the viewer, and also to symbolically render moments and concepts intro metaphors. Jancso’s camera is a husking cleanser of all poesy and symbolism- even the acts of courage and kindness toward captured prisoners or civilians are seen as utterly random, and not ennobled in the least by Jancso’s camera’s eye.

In a quirk of human stolidity, it is the very impassiveness of Jancso’s camera’s eye that has led to him being branded a Communist propagandist in this film. Why? Because the impassive eye is, according to the film’s and director’s detractors, evidence of his materialistic Communist background that views all acts of war as evil and unheroic. Of course, while the posit of Jancso’s belief system has merit, the claim that this stems from his Marxism or pinko tendencies seems to be wholly refuted by not only the film’s ability to show the Communists in a horrible light, but also by the director’s own later statements. Of course, the best evidence is the film, itself, but it shows again how easily critics ignore the actual art in front of them in favor of whatever biases they happen to be nursing at the time.

As for the film? The Red And The White is not a great film. It’s simply too one dimensional and intellectually and emotionally flat. On the other hand, it is an important film, and a good, solid one; basically a good idea, well executed, but limited by the very idea itself, which gets no formal exploration in depth. Its only posit of depth is that this is as close to real war as one will see onscreen, and that the main character of any war film should be war, itself. And it delivers. But, unfortunately, it delivers nothing else for the viewer to wrangle with at its conclusion. Or maybe that is a fortunate thing, considering all the horrors real war can unfurl. Either way, it is a film to be seen and appreciated. Just watch what’s onscreen, and check one’s biases at the door, please.


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Resources

The Times BFI 53rd London Film Festival

Internet Movie Database
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BFI
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BFI’s Sight and Sound
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Barbican Film
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ICA Film
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National Media Museum
Not nearly as bad as it sounds

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