The other day I was on my way from Buda to Pest with the help of the tram no. 47, boarding it on Móricz square. I boarded the vehicle along with a bunch of secondary school students who were discussing the stories of the day at school. Then they switched to list all the mandatory readings, cataloguing them in a way. Each of them informed the others about their already accomplished readings and the forthcoming agenda, briefly describing their reading experiences, which was positive only in a few cases – though it is also true that they had specifically delighted words on some novels generally considered to be difficult reads, which they found intriguing and thought provoking. Unlike Zsigmond Móricz’s Relatives, which they dealt with in the following dialogue:
Have you already read Relatives?
Not yet. How was it?
Arrgh. It killed me. I simply couldn’t get it. Seriously, it blew the fuse. I freaked out really. It’s packed with stupid monologues, they’re just talking endlessly, total nerds, unable to get from A to B. It sucks.
To translate it: probably the person describing the text did not really like it, she thought it was problematic on the level of rhetorics on the one hand, and on the level of characterization, on the other hand. Her classmate was no late with the reply, ?Hey, have you seen the movie? You know, this Csányi stars in it. It was directed by István Szabó. Guess what, it’s OK I think. I will only read the novel ?cause I liked the movie.”
What I attempted to illustrate with this short anecdote is not to prove yet again that ?the youth of today don’t read” or that ?they don’t understand what they are reading”- though the latter conclusion could hardly be drawn based on the above discussion (it may happen that the one who hated the text, when forced to tackle it in an exam situation, would come up with an excellent discussion of the text and its characters). I would rather point at the fact that Szabó’s film makes one read the Móricz text, in other words it initiates a dialogue.
Starting with Being Julia, it appears as if Szabó was repositioning himself, even if far less radically than Miklós Jancsó with his Kapa-Pepe cycle of films: Szabó is changing to a lighter, more entertaining, more comedy-like tone which, while he has always presented a kind of subtle humor, may appear as foreign terrain or genre for him. However, there is perhaps no better candidate to deliver such a feat that these lighter comedies address their audience just the same way as his earlier films of different tone. Both in Being Julia and in Relatives Szabó seems to pose the same question with ease: questions that made him think before. However, with the lighter tone ideology is in a better position to get to the spectator due to the mechanism of the cinematic apparatus.
According to the theory of ideology described by Louis Althusser, the overall ideology of a given society, when barely noticeable, works the better, seems the more natural, self-explanatory for the subject.1 This is also the basis of a Hollywood type film: the more it can make the spectator believe that s/he sees and hears all, the more it can perfect the illusion of reality, the more it can involve and implicate its spectator, who enters the trap the moment s/he assumes its subject/ed role and accepts the conditions proposed by the cinema-as-institution (ideological state apparatus, as Althusser would certainly put it), among them his/her cinematic subject position. Moreover, the better s/he feels and the more entertaining the occupied position becomes, s/he enters the ?game” without reservations, and thus the subject becomes subjected: it is but illusion that s/he is mastering the images and sounds. Thus, when for instance Being Julia or Relatives surprises the spectator, since his/her horizon of expectations would advise him/her that a Szabó-film previously worked differently, but this surprise is not as overtaking as to ruin spectatorial enjoyment, Szabó is not only successful in transmitting his question/s toward the audience, but he also makes them face problems the nature of which may not be so clear at first sight for them.
Since Szabó’s real feat is to present a Hollywood narrative not in the classic ?narrative” manner, i.e. telling and showing a story, saying where it begins and ends, providing a due closure for narrative bliss and comprehension. Szabó-films have always been ?interrogative texts,” and it has not changed with his recent films either. The interrogative text is a notion adapted from linguistics. According to Catherine Belsey, Emile Benveniste distinguished among three functions by which ?discourse” can be characterised: declarative, imperative and interrogative, which Belsey reappropriates as three kinds of texts.2 The declarative text simply gives information to the reader; the imperative gives orders. ?The interrogative text, on the other hand, disrupts the unity of the reader by discouraging identification with a unified subject of the enunciation.”3 This opens a gap in comprehension that seeks to be filled in by the answer of the reader/spectator. In other words, the interrogative text ?does literally invite the reader to produce answers to the questions it implicitly or explicitly raises.”4 Szabó’s films administer the questions quite carefully, but the issues themselves do not let the spectator rest: the effect of the film is prolonged, it does not pertain solely to the building of the movie theater. What is more, we never get an answer – we always have to find our own answers.5
The question id whether the traumatic register hidden within the comedy hits the spectator less, or quite the contrary: since the spectator awaits a comedy, or at least some hyperbole spiced with fine humor, it is more shocking to face a question – and himself/herself via the question. If there is any truth in Althusser’s notion of ideology, then the answer is quite simple: since the hidden traumatic question (and his/her own reply) hits the spectator unexpectedly, s/he faces an unprepared confrontation, the force of which is barely calculable.
It would be only too simple to project the film onto the events around its premiere, moreover, this would also be a hardly sustainable ciritical-ethical position, either. It is also only scratching the surface to say that the story of Relatives is a perfect picture of what is going on around all of us (not to mention that this remark goes for Móricz and not for Szabó). The interrogative text starts its interrogation proper when the spectator does not merely perceive what is going on ?around” them, but when s/he poses the question, ?What would I do in this situation?” We encounter such a question in Relatives if we recognize our own Real in Kojáss’s traumatic reality, in other words when, cherishing our own everyday, safe narratives, we find a blindspot that simply cannot be contextualized, and as such, it fundamentally shocks our symbolic-imaginary reality. This blindspot is a buried, forgotten or foreclosed traumatic moment that on the one hand makes it possible to ?narrate” ourselves, and on the other hand it is the very point that when scratched a little, deconstructs our well constructed lives, our reality that this way turns out to be no more than a complex of fantasies.
István Kopjáss (Sándor Csányi) is in fact a perfect illustration of the issue of desire in Lacan, as the desire of the subject is by definition the desire of the Other.6 Kopjáss asks the very question that leaves the lips of Hendrik Höfgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) in Szabó’s Mephisto, ?What do they want from me?,” only when Höfgen adds – and what a difference it makes! – that ?I’m just an actor,” Kopjáss has nothing to add. Höfgen always has another shell that can hide his traumatic Real, whereas Kopjáss’s tragedy lies in the fact that when he arrives at the verge of being lost, he has no more masks, nothing up his sleeve that may hide him further. In Kopjáss’s case, the Real disrupts the volatile texture of his Symbolic-Imaginary reality that it is impossible to suture.7
It is only the icing on the cake that his seemingly meaningless suicide takes place at the pig farm: his career is more or less the chronicle of his endeavor to rehabilitate the farm that is in a difficult financial situation, and to turn it into a useful firm that benefits the society of the town of Zsarátnok. More precisely, his (quite short) professional career is about how he could not achieve anything in fact, since the failure had already been coded in the system. However sympathetic Kopjáss may seem, his character is nothing else than the mistake coded into the working mechanism of the ideological apparatus (cf.: the case of Neo and agent Smith in the Matrix trilogy where especially in the case of Smith, the Symbolic code, i.e. the program of the Matrix produces the mistake) that attempts to counteract the system from within, while its fate (its being repaired) is part of the system right from the start. Kopjáss, in a sense, dies of being unsuccessful, i.e. dies at and ?into” the pig farm: he sacrifices himself at the metaphor of the very center of the system.
However, his sacrifice is absolutely meaningless: and it is precisely the reason why it does work. It seems to be an irrational, spontaneous, even overreacted deed, yet he throws his own being away in order to put a ?grain” into the system to make someone aware of what is going on. The sacrifice itself is thus empty, while it can also be read as the sole meaning producing act on the horizon of the Other. Kopjáss’s act is the only valid ethical position against himself and also the system he is the product of, the spark in a well-designed engine that is capable of halting the entire machine (while the spectator, watching a satire, of course knows quite well that it is out of question).8
In fact everything is perfectly crafted in Relatives. So much so that the spectator might entertain the suspicion that the filmmakers were only too cautious to produce a vintage Szabó-film. Bergman once noted that towards the end of their career, the admired Fellini and Tarkovsky started to produce ?Fellini-? and ?Tarkovsky-films”, and owes the failure of his own Autumn Sonate (1978) to this phenomenon, too: he lost the spontaneity considered to be the sine qua non of his art with which he touched his creative material and began – unconsciously, of course – to imitate himself.9 Unconsciously, Szabó himself gets into the shoes of Kopjáss, as much as he is also studying the „desire of the Other – in this case that of the audience and the literary predecessor, towards whom he aims his questions. We should not forget one thing though, and probably this is the ingenuity of Relatives: it is only Szabó himself who is capable of perfectly imitating Szabó. It is his privilege.10
1 Louis Althusser. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. (Trans. Ben Brewster). New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971., 127-186.
2 Catherine Belsey. Critical Practice. London: Routledge, 1980. p. 91.
5 More on this subject and related to further Szabó-films, see: Zoltán Dragon. The Spectral Body: Aspects of the Cinematic Oeuvre of István Szabó. Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006.
6 Jacques Lacan: The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious. In: Écrits: A Selection. (ford. Alan Sheridan) London: Routledge, 1992. p. 313.
7 I am continuously referring to the categories defined by Jacques Lacan (Real, Imaginary, Symbolic). The Real is the lifeless, pre-symbolic reality that keeps on returning to its place. The Symbolic is the order that structures our social reality via intersubjective relations, and the Imaginary is the order of identifications, of structural effects.
8 Interestingly, Slavoj ®iľek notes similar, meaningless, ?empty” sacrificial moments in Tarkovsky’s oeuvre, the importance of which is that retrospectively they bring the reality that is becoming unbearable and impossible back into a livable and bearable mode of existence. The sacrifice a’ la Tarkovsky does not have any meaning according to ®iľek, since it is precisely the sacrifice of Meaning. Slavoj ®iľek. The Parallax View. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006., 85-86.