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Creative History: Engaging the Work of Peter Forgacs

By mary moylan

Cinema's Alchemist: The Films of Peter Forgaćs
Editors, Bill Nichols and Michael Renov
Minneapolis: Visible Evidence, University of Minnesota Press
$27.50,  271pps.
ISBN 978-0-8166-4874-0c


Cinema's Alchemist, The Films of Peter Forgaćs, the latest  from the Visible Evidence series of texts on nonfiction cinema, unfolds with an impressive array of essays from contemporary international scholars about one of Hungary's preeminent filmmakers. The book is organized into three sections: Part One, "Setting the Scene," contains the text's two interviews with Forgaćs; Part Two, "The Holocaust Films," and Part Three, "Other Films, Other Contexts," includes essays from 12 scholars, with themes ranging from memory practices to the phenomenology of the trace. A unique perspective is offered up by the contributions from Hungarian intellectual thinkers on the soulfulness of Forgaćs' installation spaces, for example. Through rare reflections on the delicate compositions for this compilation film genre, we are acquainted with the rich collaborative effort between Peter Forgćas and composer Tibor Szemzö.

Part One features interviews from Bill Nichols and Scott MacDonald concerning the nuanced specificity of the everyday lives of Hungarian families during World War II, and the special commitments required of filmmakers engaged with this compilation film genre. MacDonald, a professor of film at Hamilton College, delivers articulate aspects of Forgaćs' collage method: "Forgaćs creates a kaleidoscope of events by moving from one place to another, from one kind of human experience to another, from one home movie-amateur film style to another, and even from one balance of formal devices to another, and provides viewers with an opportunity to meditate on the remarkable surreality of what we call everyday life."

Throughout the interview, a thorough and detailed description of filmic elements and motifs unfold, namely, the formal device used by Forgaćs that stands as a metaphor for his work-that of implementing a small frame in the corner of the image, an element of which is unfolding in the main frame. Intentionally set apart from the original amateur filmmaker's focus, Forgaćs' device draws our attention to the surrounding activities.  MacDonald asks Forgaćs to discuss his sense of political filmmaking, and what unravels is an account of how he came to study culture-as if it were natural and a duty. Listing his own artistic exposures and influences, from fluxus and concept art to John Cage and Phillip Glass, Forgaćs explains, "Somehow, my background in concept art and minimal music became very important to me in this study of Hungarian culture."  

MacDonald's solid knowledge of avant-garde film history grounds and directs the discussion, and the result is a real sense of Forgaćs as the true artist. A thorough recounting of Forgaćs' collaboration with Tibor Szemzö reveals an authentic artistic partnership. "Our performances came from fluxus and from psychoanalysis," Forgaćs recalls in the book. "They especially came from our awareness of the vanishing part of Hungarian history, from the feeling that the semantic context of communism not only was a big lie but was fake in every manifestation. Over the years Tibor and I worked out, on stage, our special relationship between his music and my found footage; our method was an effective tool, well before I even dreamed of The Bartos Family [1988], the first episode of what became Private Hungary."


From Peter Forgaćs' The Bartos Family


Commenting on Forgaćs' style and methods, Bill Nichols, a professor of film at San Francisco State, introduces their dialogue: "Through the eerily effective music of Tibor Szemzö, laconic commentary, titles zooms and pans, tinting and toning, slow motion, freeze-framing, and oratorio-all in evidence of his film The Maelstrom: A Family Chronicle, for example--Forgćas turns salvaged images into a vivid glimpse of a lost world."  


From Peter Forgaćs' Maelstrom: A Family Chronicle


Nichols' main emphasis in this interview approaches issues concerning the representation of historical events, and the success of Forgaćs' "compilation film" method in subverting the typical conventional approaches within fiction and documentary. Indeed, each contribution to this book unfolds this effort to situate the interpretive meaningfulness of historicism and possible historiographies.

Ernst van Alphen, in his essay "Toward a New Historiography," shares a discussion on similarity and temporal sequentiality, and Forgaćs' success in disrupting historicism in his film, while reorienting a historiography.  "If similarity occurs, it has to be disentangled and repositioned into unique sequential moments," van Alphen writes. "Similarity-hence, allegory-is the enemy of historicism." Perhaps given that van Alphen is a professor of literary studies at Leiden University, however, his contribution to this collection is too heavily rooted within literary theoretical practices, distracting from the more filmic interpretations.

In contrast, the work from University of Southern California film professor Michael Renov in "The Holocaust Films, Historical Discourses of the Unimaginable " stands out as he strikes an accurate interpretative balance between the sociological and the documentary. This is achieved through the delivery of a detailed and erudite chronicling of Holocaust film as genre. Renov's success in locating Forgaćs' films reflects an important shift from some of the more heavily rooted philosophical theorizing. "The Holocaust as documentary genre is a particularly charged site for debates around the ontological status of documentary discourse," he writes. Formal innovation, analytic rigor and the avant-garde combine as Forgaćs' methods, and as a radical intervention into the Holocaust film genre, according to Renov. Forgaćs is described as having a dual allegiance to historical accountability and the poetic. In this regard, canonical historiography is considered challenged.

Part Three, "Other Films/Other Contexts," includes critical texts from Roger Odin, Tamás Korányi and Lászlo Földényi, among others. Odin, an emeritus professor of communication at the Sorbonne in Paris, notes in his chapter, "How to Make History Perceptible," a significant tendency for this unique type of compilation film occurring in places for which questions of national identity occur. Odin speaks of Forgaćs' films being endowed with "aura." Defining "aura" by relating distance and nearness of a phenomenon, Odin regards home movies as "the unique trace of a family's past." Writer/actor Tamás Korányi, in "Taking the Part of the Whole, quotes Tibor Szemzö in regard to his specific musical compilation efforts: "Traditional film music is illustrative; it is manipulative in a premeditated way. In this sense, I am not a film composer." A chronicle of compositional effects unfolds, listing a foundation in classical music, minimalism, pop music, jazz and opera. Korányi singles out John Cage as Szemzö's strongest influence: "Cage's imprint can also be seen in Szemzö's fascination with philosophy, whether we think of the performance inspired by the texts of philosopher Béla Homvas, or, above all, Szemzö's score for Peter Forgaćs Tractatus, based on the famous work by Wittgenstein." 

Földényi, a professor at the University of Theatre, Film, and Television in Budapest, offers in his essay "Analytical Spaces" a detailed recounting of his encounter with Forgaćs' installation video spaces, which, in turn, evolves into a meditation on the possibilities and controversies regarding the essence of aura in Forgaćs' work. Describing the filmmaker's tendency to simultaneously deconstruct and construct works of existential interdependence, Fölédnyi draws on instances of layering, relating to the very nature of installations as genre. Forgaćs' works are further regarded as "rousing analytic installations." Földnéyi thus delivers possibly the clearest depiction of the function of the philosophical concept of simulacra:  "In Peter Forgaćs' video installations, reality and the simulacrum are realized at one and the same time." 


Mary Moylan is a San Francisco-based writer and independent scholar. She has a professional background in documentary film production, and has worked with the George Lucas Educational Foundation on Web documentaries about public education. Her research background includes British and international cinema, as well as an interdisciplinary research training from London, in social and cultural theory. She is currently writing a book, Unstable Intersections: The Films of Lourdes Portillo. Follow Mary on her blog, "Docuthinker," at