Uncompromising Cinema

Cinema has the duty to ask questions about what we do and how

Cinema as an art form has the potential to shed light on the destructive effects of mainstream culture, politics and ideology. In western thought Deleuze has written about art as resistance: cinema becomes resistance by offering alternative worlds for humanity to go towards.

When I turned four years old, Gábor Bódy finished Dog’s Night Song (1983). That’s significant. When my early childhood ends, Bódy makes a film that clearly marks a new start in film history in Hungary, signalling the nearing end of soviet style state-capitalism and the advent of video (he also makes the first Hungarian video art installation in 1973). [10]

Dog’s Night Song is the example of uncompromising cinema. It transcends the boundaries of formats and dramatic structure, acting and non-acting, fiction and experimental film. It is coherent and full of paradoxes – among them the symbolic clues left by the author for the future, perhaps intentionally. Today the film is considered by film theory as a “clear signal that [at the time] only a radical break with the dominant styles, thematics and genres could lead to the rebirth of Hungarian cinema.”[11]

The film brilliantly captures what historians and sociologists have been grappling with since the 1980s: what is the social dynamic and force that prevents Hungarian society to radically overcome disfunctional political and cultural codes? What are the rituals that maintain chaos, hatred and prevent redemption from the sins of the past?

Set in the small mountain village of Mátraszentimre, to call Dog’s Night Song a crime story would discredit the multiple universes created within the film. There is a narrative thread built around the friendship of a fake priest and a retired Stalinist chairman, ending in the eventual suicide of the latter, as we discover that the priest was on a paid mission by his cult to facilitate the chairman’s death. We also catch glimpses of the life of an avant-garde astronomer musician, partly through his interaction with the child of a young (fictive) couple on the border of divorce (the husband is piromaniac), and meet the fake priest at concerts of two underground bands of the Hungarian 1980 new wave: Vágtázó Halottkémek* and Bizottság**, of which the singer-astronomer character, Attila Grandpierre, acting himself, is the lead.

The film stood out and caused a stir in 1983 partly because of the exhibitionist, untrained vocal technique used by the amateur actors, who all happened to be in the role of intellectuals with a cosmic vision to their profession – a general metaphor for the way of being of a priest, artist and astronomer. This is not accidental: Bódy’s self-reflexive critique of his own role as artist/ priest is as much part of the work as the nihilism of the whole film, grasped brilliantly in gestures of the everyday and snippets of dialogue. Bódy explains the role of these intellectuals from a critical position:

“We’re talking about the formal attitude of someone designating themselves a role, but whether this role is desired by society is unknown” (Gábor Bódy)

At the time the film’s dense layers of meaning received accurate analysis in Filmvilág, the Cahiers of Hungarian film culture.  The metaphor of the “coroner” is the most important symbol that holds the film together:

“What can the artist, the official magician do, if he is invited to observe life, history and his own personality and self as the coroner? What can he do when, absurdly, his task is to investigate whether clinical death can be established?”[12]

What is remarkable is that Bódy’s film captures some of the ethnographic dynamic of 1980s Hungarian micro-communities, making the film the document of a sensation that remained valid well into the 1990s. Nobody depicts the emptiness of a crumbling, tired stalinist ideology with such brutal force and irony as Bódy. It is perhaps when Béla Tarr finishes Sátántangó in 1992 that a new era begins in Hungarian author cinema, but Sátántangó is a document of landscape as location as much as a narrative film. Not incidentally: the latter film is based on the novel of László Krasznahorkai written in the year Dog’s Night Song is produced, offering two connected visions on the era.

Dog’s Night Song is also a brilliant precedent in Hungarian cinema for a possible ethnography of the filmic medium – something that interested Bódy more than the cultural theory of film. In Dog’s Night Song, the filmmaker is clearly conscious of the cultural code assigned different media. Super 8 mm amateur film is used by the detectives as evidence - captured by the good-and-fatherly German tourist and later accidentally mixed up with 8 mm porn at the police station. Porn and naïve tourist images are placed side by side, becoming material evidence in crime investigations, i.e. documents. The scenes can be read as a sarcastic reflection on the status of the home-made image and its future (death?) in the hands of the authorities: we’re all evidence and archive.

The concert scenes of the film were shot in video and later transferred to film. To use video was a clever move that both predicted and pioneered what later became the music video culture. Finally, he executes the main plot within the tradition of fiction cinema and 35 mm film.  In sum, Bódy manages to inscribe the different “materialities” into the film without becoming self-indulgent about form, with the different textures performing a reflexive and narrative function at the same time.[13] 

The film had no pre­-decessor or following in Hungarian cinema. Two years after its release, the filmmaker is found dead, he is reported to have ended his life with a Swiss pocket knife. In the second half of the 1990s it was revealed that he worked as an agent for the secret police since 1973, something not uncommon among talented and successful artists who wanted to continue making work under the communist regime. Bódy regularly reported on the artists, writers and intelligentsia in his circles. A sinister and revealing epilogue to certain scenes in Dog’s Night Song, and a logical explanation to his attempts to stay away from Budapest and work in Berlin in the early 1980s.

* Galloping Coroners
** The Committee

[10] Gábor Bódy (1946 –1985) was a Hungarian film director, screenwriter, theoretic, and occasional actor. A pioneer of experimental filmmaking and film language, Bódy is one of the most important figures of Hungarian cinema. Alongside being an influential member of the renown Balazs Bela Studio, he continued producing lyrical experimental film work in parallel to shooting fiction features and making experiments in video art. For more:
[11] Kovács András Bálint: A film szerint a világ – The world according to film =
[12] Ákos Szilágyi: Morbiditás és burleszk: A kutya éji dala (Filmvilág, 1983, október)
[13] “In order for a film to have some value in terms of film, there must be some kind of personal formal organization. By that I mean a cinematic expression achieved through filmic means (imagery, movement, time, space, sound and color) and mode of composition (the organic relationships of these means).”  On the Nature and Function of the Experimental (Poetic) Film, Gideon Bachmann, Film Culture, No. 14, 1957, pp. 12-15.

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