Monday, November 13, 2006

The Lord's Lantern in Budapest (1999)

One thing I learned from Miklós Jancsó's The Lord's Lantern in Budapest: Hungarians do not clink glasses before drinking. The execution of 13 Arad martyrs, generals from the 1848 rebellion against the Hapsburgs, was toasted with the clinking of beer glasses by the occupiers, for which reason Hungarians never make contact with their pints when raising them for a toast [paraphrased from Andrew James Horton's essay on the film].

Another thing I learned: Jancsó's pretty funny. Yes, the distanced analyst of state violence and political communion and upheaval has made a comedy. It's astonishing what isn't known about him over here. Apart from The Round-Up (1965), The Red and the White (1967), and Red Psalm (1972), his films are virtually unknown, IMDB lists over 70 films to his credit, and 5 features since Lord's Lantern was made (which Horton notes was
"the fourth most popular Hungarian film of 1999" - I don't know how to take that).

I have seen 3 out of this output. So I'm a little behind. Lord's Lantern is the most recent of these, and the style is strikingly different (as one could imagine considering the 20 odd year gap). Instead of vast landscapes on which large groups march in choreographed diagonals, we get cramped frames. Here Jancso prefers to pack the foreground with characters, three or more, often in extreme close-up. The camera is mostly stationary, aside from a few striking examples. He eschews shot-countershot, maintaining these strange close-up two shots as faces loom in and out of the frame, quickly becoming grotesque caricatures - especially when the two leads, Péter Scherer and Zoltán Musci, play off each other. Popular comedians in their home country, the former is Pepe, a withdrawn doofus, while the latter is Kapa, an aggressive gasbag prone to violent outbursts. They have great chemistry together, thank goodness, because the film derives all its energy from their interaction.

There is no story, just the two characters transposed into a variety of different vignettes, with no connective tissue between them - they're grave diggers one scene, while the next Kapa is businessman, and next a mob boss. It's a freewheeling affair, almost like sketch comedy, it's self-consciousness peaking when Jancso and his screenwriter, Gyula Hernadi (who's worked with him since Round-Up) appear in the Grave-Digger section, philosophizing, getting assassinated, and then appearing in the next scene as if nothing happened. They even get the comic duo to re-do a joke they failed to execute the first time. Something about a bike.

There are endless references to Hungarian history and culture - all of which I'm ignorant of - but I got the feeling there were some scathing denigrations of the country's direction. The shot where Jancso and various countrymen are wearing angel wings while being blasted by firehoses might have something to do with it.

Best scene: a long take of Pepe and Kapa arguing on a bridge. Pepe wants to commit suicide and Kapa tries to dissuade him, eventually their discussion so enrages Kapa that he decides to jump and Pepe has to talk him down. The shift in the relationship is marked by a switch in direction of the camera, as it starts to pan left. I laughed. More at the incessant vulgarity than the camera movement, but that was nice too.


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