PRINT October 1986


OVER THE PAST FIFTEEN YEARS Peter Hutton has created a body of films distinguished for their vision, modesty, and craft. Hutton is one of the most individual artists to emerge in the aftermath of the structural avant-garde and is not easily classified. He engages the diaristic tradition of Jonas Mekas, Andrew Noren, Warren Sonbert, and others, as well as the older avant-garde mode of the film city-symphony and even the commercial travelogue.

Hutton has described his films as “diaristic without being autobiographical”; his titles indicate the range of his travels—July 1971 in San Francisco, 1971, Images of Asian Music, 1973, New York Near Sleep, 1972, Florence, 1976, Boston Fire, 1978, New York Portrait, 1979–83, At Sea, In Berlin, Lenin Portrait, 1981–82. He has been compared to Louis Lumière and "the band of peripatetic cameramen such as Promio and Doublier who took the cinematographe around the world at the end of the nineteenth century.”1 Yet the single-mindedness and consistency of Hutton’s sensibility confounds normal categories of the familiar and the exotic, the ordinary and the touristic. If his subject is less himself than his surroundings, he still manages to find his personality mirrored in every environment.

Hutton is a flâneur, a walker in the city. Whereas his contemporary Ernie Gehr typically portrays the street as the site of past and present energies, and other filmmakers focus on the human fauna of the urban scene, Hutton evokes the solitary epiphanies of the metropolitan explorer. His silent, usually monochromatic films suggest photographic albums. Each image or image cluster is autonomous. Composition, tonality, and scale are more important than movement. Frequently, the only animation in a precisely balanced frame comes from the wind, or else a slight shift in illumination; Hutton likes to traffic in the tension established by holding a fixed image on the screen, and his subject is often the way light fills a particular space. Montage is of limited importance in these films: typically successions of static shots set off individually or in small groups by passages of black leader, they run absolutely counter to the development of cinema since the Lumière brothers.

Despite their formal rigor, Hutton’s films are not structurally systematic. Nor are they particularly naturalistic, being marked by the artist’s distinctively austere romanticism. Whether in Boston or Bangkok, Hutton favors overcast skies and underpopulated vistas. It has been observed that even his New York studies have little street life. He has a fondness for the long shot, and this emphasis on the physical distance between observer and subject further tends to produce a hauntingly emptied-out world.

Like most American avant-garde filmmakers, Hutton supports himself and his work through a combination of teaching jobs and government grants (the largest of which, he says, was $12,000). In 1984, he was invited to make a film portrait of Budapest under the auspices of Hungary’s Béla Balazs Studio (BBS). One of the most remarkable film institutions in the world today, the BBS—named for the pioneer Hungarian film theorist—was established in 1958 as a sort of halfway house between the film academy and the nation’s movie industry, allowing recent film-school graduates an opportunity to hone their skills and develop their ideas.

The earliest BBS productions were mainly short, poetic movies, some of which had a major impact upon Hungarian film culture as a whole. By the late ’60s the studio had come to occupy something like the cutting edge of Hungarian cinema, producing not only experimental features but also all manner of social documentaries. This period passed with the worldwide waning of the “new left” and the counterculture, but during the mid ’70s a so-called linguistic wave of structural experiments came to the fore. Around the same time, the studio opened its membership to amateur filmmakers, as well as to painters, musicians, and other artists with an interest in cinema.

As a professional movie studio devoted to (mainly 35-mm) vanguard films, the BBS has no equivalent in either the socialist or capitalist worlds. “In theory everyone whose script is approved by the [BBS] membership is free to produce a film,” writes the art historian Lásló Beke, although “this democracy can always be counterbalanced by the management committee.” The studio is also answerable to the Ministry of Culture: according to Beke, “the final go-ahead for each film project comes from the ministry.” More importantly, perhaps, in view of the unavoidable differences between a script and a film, ”the ministry also decides whether the completed product will be distributed or not, and under what circumstances.”^^ Hutton was only the second non-Hungarian to make a film at BBS, as well as the first from a nonsocialist country (the Yugoslav avant-gardist Ivan Galeta had made a film there the preceding year).

Completed in 1985, Hutton’s Budapest Portrait suggests the photographs alternately of Eugène Atget and Bernd and Hilla Becher, if not a lushly entropic gloss on Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, 1929. It may be his strongest essay yet on the naturalization of the urban landscape. For Hutton, the city is less a social matrix than a verdant asphalt jungle. Close-up portraits of two ancient ragpickers and a succession of elderly peasant women aside, virtually every other person shown is dominated by the surroundings. Human presence is often suggested merely by indexical signs—photographs, shadows, or bullet holes.

This relative absence of the figure, together with the harsh chiaroscuro of the winter light, induces a poignant sense of loneliness and isolation. Voluptuously gray, worn, and lived in, the city is like a stage set for an invisible drama. The theatricality is heightened by Hutton’s fondness for archaic neon signs and faded advertising images, just as the recurring images of things veiled, covered, and concealed suggest the ultimate unknowability of a foreign culture.

Budapest, as Hutton has observed, is a city that is inexorably (and perhaps irrevocably) growing more "European,” thus losing something of its unique character. His Budapest is a world of moldering apartment houses and massive factories, lonely Stalinist monuments and revolutionary ghosts (the post–World War I communist leader Béla Kun can be glimpsed at one point in an old newsreel film-within-the-film, and an image of Yuri Andropov appears at another strategic juncture). If light-years away from the colorful, music-filled environment depicted by Miklós Jancsó in a recent television documentary this is still recognizably and brilliantly Budapest. Yet in the end, the film may be less a portrait of a specific city than the evocation of a lost world: one wonders to what degree the outsize scale, the mixture of faded splendor and industrial funk, reflect the Detroit of Hutton’s childhood.

I saw another version of Budapest Portrait while in Hungary for the 1986 Hungarian Film Week. Retitled Memories of a City (Emlékek egg városról), the film was included in a program of recent BBS productions. Memories of a City—the title perhaps prudently reinforcing the sense implicit in the film of documenting what is past—ran some eight minutes shorter than the version of Budapest Portrait shown in the United States. Hutton’s images were accompanied by a vaguely jazzy score of reverberating piano doodles, and the work was cosigned by the documentary filmmaker András Mész; this certified it as a Hungarian coproduction which it had to be in order to have been made at BBS at all. Certain images were conspicuous by their absence: I noticed that Memories of a City dropped not only the portrait of Andropov but also an ordinary shot of a drab, empty suburban street. Other shots were rearranged.

The paradox was that the evident tightening and obtrusive music failed to efface the film’s pervasive bleakness. If anything, by obliterating Hutton’s subtle visual rhythms, the score made the images seem that much more oppressive and over-determined. When I asked about these changes I was told simply that the BBS membership had found Hutton’s cut too long and too monotonous. Clearly (or, rather, obscurely), there was more at stake. Hutton’s film had lost its innocence—but to understand how, one had to read it against the revisions made in the Hungarian version.

In Budapest Portrait, for example, there’s a series of studies of disheveled men sleeping in the waiting room of the Eastern Railway Station, among them a uniformed official dozing at his post. For Memories of a City this sequence was reshuffled so that the official appeared first. No longer was the stationmaster a man among men. Now the collapse of his authority permitted the general torpor. Was this intentional? Or was I overinterpreting a formal decision? Did Memories of a City politicize or depoliticize Budapest Portrait? If Hutton is in some ways an ethnographic filmmaker, in this case he was one who—because he could not ultimately understand the unwritten rules of local production —left his producers with the right of final cut. When I spoke to him about this in June 1985, and then again early this year, he was still sorting it out.

J. Hoberman: What brought you to Hungary in the first place?

Peter Hutton: Gábor Bódy,3 whom I met in Berlin in 1982, invited me to Budapest for two weeks as a guest editor on Infermental, an annual magazinelike sampling of film and video work going on around the world. I came with some of my own films, and the Béla Balázs Studio asked me to do a show for their membership. After the discussion I mentioned that I’d love to make a film in Budapest. I was very taken by the city. Lo and behold, about a week later they said, "Look, we’re going to give you a little money to shoot a short film.” So I wrote up a proposal saying I wanted to make a film in the tradition of a 19th-century photographer going to a new city and recording his impressions. That led me to staying another 3 1/2 months, during the winter of 1984, and undertaking a portrait of Budapest as I saw it.

JH: How much money did the BBS give you?

PH: About 200,000 forints,4 with which I bought raw stock and paid for my processing and work print. They also gave me a stipend and an apartment.

JH: Once your proposal was accepted, was there much red tape?

PH: When they gave me money they asked, “Who is your producer? Who is your sound editor? Who is going to do this and that technical job?” I told them I wanted to do all these things myself, which was a bit unheard of—even with experimental films, a cameraman is usually hired to do the shooting. I caught them off balance but I pointed out that I was saving money. As an American, I couldn’t just go to Hungary and make a film. Officially, I had to do a coproduction. András Mész sort of acted as a producer. He would drive me around from place to place and help out with the bureaucracy You have to have official permission to do just about anything in Hungary, particularly with 16 mm and a tripod.

JH: You need permission to put a tripod down in New York, too; it’s just rarely enforced.

PH: The Budapest police are a bit more wary. I told András I wanted to film an old movie theater, an old café old factories, et cetera, places which evoked a feeling of the past. That entailed writing letters to all the various ministries for these different places, as well as to the director of public transportation, the police department, and all the bureaucracies I would be interacting with. It took about a month and a half just to write the letters. I ended up with a whole dossier of permits. When I’d go to a factory to shoot, I was a curiosity for the Hungarians; they’d want to know why this American wanted to shoot a hundred-year-old asphalt factory and not a modern textile plant. In that kind of “official” situation I often had a little entourage of functionaries. It was a bit of a problem having ten people breathing down my neck while I was making a film that I hoped would be just straight personal observations.

JH: But you did manage some off-the-cuff shooting on the street by yourself?

PH: I did have a lot of freedom to just wander through the streets, although sometimes I would get stopped by suspicious citizens. One day I was going down Mayakovsky Street and saw this wall which had a little opening about six inches in diameter. I looked through the hole and saw a simple line of buildings and the dome of a cathedral, and I wanted the shot. As soon as I put my camera up and inserted the lens, I felt a tap on my shoulder. This guy was standing there, shaking his head. He proceeded to haul me off to the police department, much to my bewilderment—even after I showed him a whole bunch of permits. He noticed on one of my forms that it said 1983 instead of 1984; he had finally caught the big spy from the West! Another time, when I was filming old neon signs—the type of things that might not be there ten years from now—and shot a big red star, a man came up shouting “tilos, tilos” (forbidden, forbidden), and said that I couldn’t film a government building.

JH: That star is in the film.

PH: This guy had heavy alcohol on his breath, and he tried to drag me off to the police. So I just ran away from him. This sort of heightened the adventure of being in a new place. In a way I did feel like a spy.

JH: What was the equipment situation?

PH: My Bolex broke down after a month, and after that I had a hard time. A lot of the young filmmakers at the BBS had Super 8 cameras but there were only a few antique 16-mm ones. So I rented a 16-mm camera from the big studio Mafilm and at several junctures during the filmmaking I had to return it. My production didn’t have any priority in the Hungarian film system, obviously. Once, I came across a Mafilm crew shooting Mata Hari, a Cannon film with Sylvia Kristel. The director turned out to be Curtis Harrington, and I said, “I know about you, you used to do experimental films in New York in the ’50s.” He was thrilled that someone knew who he was. Harrington told me that he had always wanted to go to Hollywood. He felt totally misunderstood by the New York avant-garde and was still bitter about it. I was amazed. He called Budapest Hollywood’s back lot: ”We can come here and do period pictures for one fifth the cost, plus we have all the architecture and sets and props.”

JH: That must have given you pause, since he was exploiting Budapest’s underdeveloped quality and, in a sense, you were too.

PH: He was going back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and I was doing the ’50s.

JH: In general, what did your BBS colleagues think of your methodology?

PH: I think they felt I depicted Budapest in a shabby way. They weren’t anxious to show me the rundown things. When I went to Hungary I saw situations that reminded me of everyone’s past, and of how precious it was to make a document before it disappeared. These feelings permeated my ideas. The old Jewish quarter was the most poignant neighborhood—they were already beginning to tear things down. A lot of the younger Hungarian filmmakers wondered why I wanted to film the old East-em train station. András would just slap his forehead every time I said "Let’s go back there.” For him, the station was a symbol of the worst of Budapest.

JH: You seem to have gone out of your way to avoid the city’s Disneyland aspect—the castle district, the glitzy cafés, the Dohany Street synagogue. . . .

PH: Exactly. Most visitors see only the grandiose architectural cakes. Even though I did film a lot of that stuff, I cut most of it out; it was too typically tourist brochure. Anyway, I shot all this material over a period of several months and then told my friends at the BBS I’d take it back to the States and edit it. So I got a work print, mulled over it for six or eight months, made a cut, and then sent it to Budapest. About a month later I started getting calls from the studio saying "Listen, this film is too long, why do you have all this architecture in it?

JH: How long was it?

PH: About 50 minutes. I was bewildered—and then there were certain delicate questions about shots juxtaposed against each other which perhaps weren’t to their liking: “Can we rearrange it?”

JH: So they saw things in the montage that you didn’t?

PH: Yes. For example, there’s a shot of a neon lottery sign followed by the neon red star. To the Hungarians, this juxtaposition suggested that communism was a lottery! My films aren’t structured so that they can’t be changed. I allow myself a certain flexibility So I wasn’t particularly up-tight. I said if you want to change a shot, then change a shot. András shortened some shots and he incorporated fade-outs. I gave him a little liberty on that, and also with the music—which sounds like something from a cocktail lounge.

JH: In a sense, András normalized your film. He made it more like a conventional, poetic documentary.

PH: From my point of view, the film looked better as a sketchbook. Even if they did try to make it more palatable, it doesn’t work. The images are the same. I was disillusioned that they would change things around that didn’t have any political content.

JH: Yes, but you can appreciate their position. András Mész stuck out his neck for your film; he’s the one who has to answer for it to the membership or the Ministry or whatever. He was responsible for the production and he acted like your producer. It’s just like Hollywood. Also, in Eastern Europe there’s a tradition of putting blatantly forbidden things in a film as a diversionary tactic to protect more subtle material. The obvious stuff is what gets cut out. You couldn’t have been too surprised to find the shot of Andropov missing.

PH: No. When I told András I was making this double exposure to commemorate Andropov’s death he said, “You can do it but you know you won’t see it in the official version.” Altogether, about a dozen shots were removed. They dropped the image of the crucifix, even though there’s actually a lot of religion going on there and it doesn’t seem like a political issue.

JH: I think it’s a safe assumption that if something can be interpreted as political it will be. Perhaps the crucifix was removed to protect the feelings of religious filmgoers. You show it in the context of an advertising sign for a hairdressing salon, thus making an equation between these two icons. Were they also upset by your inclusion of Stalin-era monuments?

PH: Perhaps. They subtly deemphasized some things by rearranging them. In my version, for example, the image of a heroic statue is followed by a shot of a woman washing her window In the official version it goes from the statue to a shot of pure architecture and then to the woman, removing the human connection. But some of the architecture disappeared too. There was a curved building that looks kind of Bauhaus except that part of the facade is flaked away; it’s got some chunks missing. I really love that shot but they cut it out.

JH: I wonder if it was the combination of the modernity and the cruddiness. Is that really atrocious-looking courtyard also gone? They did clean things up a bit for the official version—but for subsidized movies, in the West as well as the East, the whole notion of final cut is somewhat chimerical. Think of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil or Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in America. Hungarian studios may well be accustomed to the notion of two versions. They’ve made international coproductions in which they have their cut and the other country has theirs. Jancsó’s The Red and the White is the most notorious example, but two years ago there was another Hungarian/Soviet film called The Music of a Lifetime. It was a biography of the operetta composer Imre Kalman. Supposedly, the Russians cut out everything about Kalman being a Jew, while the Hungarians dropped a scene where his music inspires the people of Stalingrad during the German siege.

PH: For me it was a revelation that filmmakers could get production funds without going down on their knees to a corporation or someone with a lot of money: any filmmaker can go to BBS and make a proposal to the membership. It’s a very collective organization. But at the other end of the system you have this problem: a film can get the kiss of death by being put into the archive.

JH: When I was there in 1979, Péter Bacsó’s The Witness—a slapstick comedy about the show trials of the ’50s—had just been cleared after ten years on the shelf. Even so, the relevant officials weren’t too keen for me to see it. They kept being vague, putting the screening off, proposing other movies instead. Then a director I met told me the film was actually showing at an out-of-the-way theater for a week. That way the filmmaker can’t complain that his movie has been banned—but it’s not exactly accessible either. It’s not as if there’s this office of censorship. Everyone has an internal censor. There’s a wonderful quote from George Konrad: "When your fancies touch barbed wire, the bloodhounds that protect you from yourself begin to bark.”

PH: A lot of interesting culture is not officially sanctioned. I met a group of mail artists who had a secret way of communicating with each other. If they were sending me a letter, they would send it to a nonexistent party and then for the return address they would put mine. It was like a backward mail system, designed to protect themselves. There are only a few public art galleries, but there are a lot of artists. I met a number of people who had started experimental galleries that were shut down because they were too outrageous—they attracted too many undesirables or whatever. They have a central place, the Young Artists Club. From there you learn what’s going on just from word of mouth. The whole communications system is amazing. There are very few telephones.

JH: What sort of avant-garde films did you see?

PH: There were some epic-length experimental films that were well attended by young people. Of course they’re not mass-market films, and the government doesn’t know what to do with them. András Szirtes is probably the most obsessed experimental filmmaker in Budapest. There’s also a guy named Péter Müller, who made a long experimental film based on the word “assassin”—a rambling, wacky comedy he carved out of a lot of drug-culture influences. It reminded me of the early ’60s. There were some other experimental movies shown during the 1984 Film Week that were three hours long, and it struck me that was a quality unique to Hungary. It may be they put in as much stuff as they possibly can, knowing that at some point the government is going to hack away at it. You’d be boggled by what to take out—so many hidden meanings and underground references. They remove the whole editing concept from their personal work. It’s so precious for them to be able to ramble.

JH: Szirtes has been working on an ongoing film “diary” since the late ’70s. By now, it’s at least three hours long. Do you think the local filmmakers connected your work to any traditions of their own?

PH: I think so. They said, "Peter, we’re going to give you money because we can’t make films like you make.” I sensed that for many of the young directors there’s this social responsibility: they have to relate to the whole structure of Hungarian politics. It’s hard for them just to look at things as removed observers. They saw some value in something that wasn’t really Hungarian, but that they could bring out of their own system.

J.Hoberman writes regularly for The Village Voice.



1. Tom Gunning, "The Image and Its Eclipse The Films of Peter Hutton,” Spiral 4. Los Angeles, July 1985, p 7.

2. Lásló Beke, "Hungarian Experimental Film and the Béla Balázs Studio,” in BBS Budapest: Twenty of Hungarian Experimental Film, New York: The American Federation of Arts, 1985, p 7.

3. An influential figure in Hungarian cinema. Gábor Bódy (1945–85) was the cofounder of the BBS’ experimental "K3” unit His work ranged from videotapes and compilations of found footage to experimental features and lavish costume dramas, and was relatively well distributed abroad.

4. About $4,000 at the 1984 rate of exchange. In 1985 the entire BBS budget was approximately 8,000,000 forints, or $160,000.