Party Pooper | Movie Review | Chicago Reader

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Party Pooper




*** (A must-see)

Directed by Gyula Gazdag and Judit Ember.


(** Worth seeing)

Directed by Gyula Gazdag.


(*** A must-see)

Directed by Gyula Gazdag

Written by Gazdag and Miklos Gyorffy

With Zoltan Paulinyi, Gabor Gergely, and Janos Atkari.

God knows it isn't easy being an East European party apparatchik, no matter how clever and cautious you are. The tasks are thankless, the hours long, purges are not infrequent, the populace woefully misconstrues your good intentions, and all your colleagues chain-smoke. I mean, when was the last time an artist really portrayed the anguish and the grandeur that party functionaries feel is their lot in life in classless societies.

Enter Gyula Gazdag, a Hungarian film director who obligingly records the travails of the bureaucratic scene. Why is it, though, that all the camera captures is the party elite making ineptly Machiavellian decisions, and asses of themselves in the process?

In The Resolution (1972), a documentary, party chiefs grapple with the delicate task of removing "without force" the overly entrepreneurial leader of an agricultural cooperative with whom the co-op members are distressingly well pleased. Another documentary, Selection (1970), is a howlingly funny, deadpan account of an ultra-square party youth committee--none of whom can dance or would know a good beat if it bit them--sifting through 95 applicants to find a rock and roll band that can pull off the dialectical feat of "not being old-fashioned, but be in good taste." In the fictional feature The Whistling Cobblestone (1971) a horde of teenage boys from Budapest arrive in a rural work camp in the summer of 1968 to find that their bumbling, blustering elders have nothing for them to do. These three archly etched films are part of a Gazdag retrospective at the Film Center, and there is precious little indeed in these wry, wily movies for Hungarian authorities to cherish.

The party doesn't take it on the chin in Gazdag's films; instead, over and over again, it is in close-up with egg on its face. Unlike so many of his Eastern European counterparts--who artfully cloak their social critiques in allegory, symbolism, and historical treatments--Gazdag "disguises" his own misgivings and dissent by hiding them in plain sight. In the documentaries The Resolution and Selection, shot sans narration "Direct Cinema"-style, Gazdag simply issues the party members enough celluloid to ensnarl, if not hang, themselves. The techniques are straightforward and sparse, and rarely are shots juxtaposed to achieve any obvious "punch." Gazdag's strategy (much like Frederick Wiseman's in such films as Welfare, Meat, and Hospital) is less a matter of stabbing through layers of "the official story" than of keeping the cameras pitilessly rolling while the party bureaucrats--who, mind you, are willing subjects--go about duties that cumulatively begin to appear sinister, absurd, or both. This low-key but ultimately lacerating documentary approach also infuses the feature film The Whistling Cobblestone--a Hungarian answer to If and Lord of the Flies. This is all audacious stuff, and, not surprisingly, Cobblestone stirred an official furor while The Resolution was banned for ten years. Astonishingly, Selection suffered no such fate, and Gazdag is still cranking out films in his homeland.

Imagine an American documentarist planting a camera squarely in the midst of the Oval Office while Nixon discusses the implications of the Watergate break-in. That gives you some sense of the magnitude of Gazdag's intrusion into inner party sanctums in The Resolution. "We do not intend to violate co-op democracy," a party chief promises--yet the head of a popular co-op leader must roll. The threatened leader is credited by the members with transforming a ramshackle operation into a prosperous and efficient concern; the party accuses him of padding his expense account, hiring an ex-brothel owner as his assistant, and indulging in shady practices endangering the co-op "morally, ethically, and concretely." The documentary proceeds along two interweaving, thematic strands. First, there is genuine doubt raised in the audience as to the motives and innocence of the party's prey: the guy might be guilty as hell, and may only have reaped plaudits from the workers because the entire economy was surging upward. But the second strand--the film's drama of democracy--becomes vastly more significant. The co-op members legally have the right to vote to retain the fellow despite his (unproven) crimes--even if he has a team of hookers working the country trails and uses a poster of Brezhnev as a dart board. There may be no "class struggle" in the Soviet bloc, but certainly an intriguing conflict is ignited here, and Gazdag caustically records it. For all the protestations of respect for democracy, the party functionaries certain, that they "know best"--unleash a campaign of slander and partially veiled intimidation to get the co-op in line. The final vote is laced with all the suspense of a taut courtroom melodrama, and the conclusion is surprising, though, regrettably, the tagged-on postscript is not.

Gazdag never resorts to finger pointing; the party managers are confident the dirty tricks they employ are totally consistent with the scrupulous ends they claim to be selflessly serving. And what could be more damning? These are utterly sincere and self-deceiving guardians of the public good; the species, of course, is not peculiar to the Soviet bloc. The short (41 minutes) Selection likewise is fashioned so as to make the subjects, four ambitiously orthodox Party Youth Committee hacks, complicit in their own merciless lampooning. This dreary crew of conformists earnestly debate "principles and methods of selection" of a local rock band for a Youth Committee-sponsored dance. Expeditiously, they interview only the first four applicants, ascertain that they're all properly house-trained, and then pit these pretty pathetic ensembles against one another in a run-off. The scene in which four constipated souls render judgment on four diarrheically dissonant bands is too priceless for mere words. But beneath the hilarity is the palpable hostility of the party to any joyous (and uncontrollable) vision of life that transcends the verities of "steady work and an honest life"--stolid obedience. Yet the setting might just as well be a small midwestern town in the mid-1950s when our elders worried overmuch about Elvis's twitching pelvis, and the young apparatchiks and the amateur musicians are, as personality types, quite universal. Gazdag's quarrel is not with the way economic systems are organized, but with abusive authority and with a perceived lack of animating values and vision.

His feature The Whistling Cobblestone casts these themes into sharper relief. A group of city boys are deposited in Kafkaesque style in a rural backwater where they were intended to help harvest a crop that isn't yet ripe. The adult camp leader surveys the bungled and now purposeless enterprise and, improvising quite madly, announces reveille will sound at 5 AM anyway, orders them to dig ditches and refill them, and preaches the virtue of "adapting to conditions," that is to say, conforming. For the camp leader, nicknamed "Mr. Dormitive," authority is at stake. The more idiotic the authority, the more crucial it is to encourage lads in such a formative stage of development to obey. The boys never quite get the hang of loving Big Brother, neither do the confused teens--"We're uneasy about being uneasy"--manage to understand or channel their collective energies in any other way despite a fleeting visit by a young Frenchman carrying tales of Paris in May of 1968--where Western youth challenged another, ideologically different bureaucracy.

Gazdag is not quite the name. in the West that fellow Hungarians Miklos Jansco, Istvan Szabo, and Karoly Makk are. But, judging by this potent and provocative trio of works, that should be remedied shortly.

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