New York

Gabor Body

Bleecker Street Cinema

When we think of East European avant-garde filmmakers we usually think either of directors who have developed formally radical strategies (Miklos Jancso, Vera Chytilova) or of those whose subject matter expands the perimeter of the politically permissible. Despite the existence of “amateur” camera clubs, an underground or counter-cinema has not yet surfaced.

There is, however, another sort of state subsidized avant-garde in Poland and, to a lesser degree, Hungary—although “experimental” would probably be a better word to categorize its more-scientific-than-expressive output. The Hungarian Gabor Body, whose work is steeped in game theory and semiotics, is one of these “experimental” filmmakers. Actually, the 34-year-old Body has shuttled back and forth a bit between the laboratory and the mainstream. His latest and still unreleased feature Psyche and Narcissus—a Nabokovian biography of a nonexistent Magyar poet—was one of the most expensive Hungarian productions of recent years, and American Torso, 1975, the most ambitious of the three films he showed in New York, did enjoy something of commercial run in Budapest. Ostensibly based on an Ambrose Bierce story, and set in the final days of the American Civil War, American Torso concerns three emigre Hugarians who find themselves officers in the Union army. Half in English, half in Hungarian, the film is understated but bizarre—a succession of unexplained battle sequences and off-hand absurdities, with a score that segues from Liszt piano doodles to buzzy space music. Its key figure is a detached, inventive surveyor, and there are so many subjective shots through the cross-haired lens of his telescope that he quickly becomes identified with the filmmaker. Body has said that he wanted to make a film about Hungarian immigration, and American Torso does have a political subtext. It’s the film’s surface, though, that’s the real attention-grabber. Body refilmed his original footage in order to achieve an archaic Mathew Brady texture. Thus, there are times when the film appears to jump in the gate, or when the image fissures and disintegrates like an ancient photograph crumbling in your hand. Body’s favorite device, deployed several times a minute with an irritating but admirable persistence, is the two second white-out. The notion of the film as an exhumed 1865 document is a bit arch for my taste, but American Torso does offer a powerful spectacle of rational activity (surveying, filmmaking) carried out against a dangerously chaotic backdrop-everything undercut by the obtrusively unstable quality of the medium itself.

Several of American Torso’s formal motifs are also integral to Body’s short; Four Bagatelles, 1973–75. A cross-hair pattern superimposed over elderly peasants as they demonstrate various folk dances, wittily changes its ratio to comment on the action. In a similar spirit, an iris fluctuates accord ing to the motions of a crouching ballerina. The film’s episodic anthology of tricks also includes a film of a film, a lecture on Timothy Leary, and an infinite regression within a TV monitor.

Body seems as interested in video as in motion pictures. He distributed a manifest on a global broadcast system called “Infinite Image and Reflection/Totally Expanded Cinema,” and his 1976 short Psycho-Cosmos is like a didactic version of a pinball-parlor video game—a kinescope of computer generated patterns based on the interactions of “aggressor,” “defender” and “neutral” blips. Each of the three types has several minutes of dominance, and Body gives these movements poetic titles, e.g., “Night Song of the Dog.” Far more than American Torso, his shorts have no real parallel in the Western avant-garde. Despite Body’s conversance with the ideas of Michael Snow or Umberto Eco, his movies seem the products of an alternate universe. One watches them with a kind of bemused semi-comprehension—the parlor games of the man who fell to earth.

J. Hoberman