Monday, February 20, 2012

Essay: An Assessment of the Writings of Yvette Biró and Ágnes Pethö

By Olivia Maria Hărşan

Two Academics Concerned with the Distinctive Aesthetics of Eastern European Cinema

Abstract: This essay compares the writing of two different academics. It is concerned with the varying ways that each address the study of Eastern European cinema.

“The cinema of accusation, the cinema of outcry and bitter inquiry…” (Biró 1983, p. 30)

Information on Eastern European cinema has proven to be quite scarce compared to other national cinemas such as that of Hollywood or Western European countries. Interest in the East is, however, continuing to rise among academics, particularly since the fall of communism. For this essay, I have chosen to examine more closely the work of Yvette Biró and Àgnes Pethö. Both authors are academics, Biró having taught at New York University and Pethö at the Babes-Bolyai University and the Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania in Romania. Biró’s chapter, Pathos and irony in Eastern European films, was written in 1983 and has been cited extensively alongside her other essays on the subject. Pethö has also contributed a significant amount of research on the field as proven when reading her chapter, Chaos, intermediality, allegory: the cinema of Mircea Daneliuc. Her writing has also been often referred to, particularly in volume 34, issue 2-3 of the journal Film Criticism—a double issue on Romanian cinema.

The essays are similar in nature, that is, they are both written poetically while their underlying concern centres upon the veiled notions presented in many Eastern European films—notions that symbolise a united fight against an oppressive regime. Biró’s argument is of a more philosophical substance while Pethö writes in relation to cultural and literary connections between Romania and France. Nonetheless, both articles are influential to the study of Eastern Europe, and not only in terms of its cinema.

1. On Yvette Biró and her interpretation of Eastern European cinema with its pathos, irony, Manichaean symbolism and a collective fight for the Cause.

Biró has a particular writing style that is very much the psychological conceptions to a novel that underlying themes are to a film. Her interpretations of Eastern European cinema can be compared to the presentations of socio-political and historical events in the films that she discusses—thus evoking pathos in an unrefined manner. Biró writes poetically in her article, so much so, that she masters the literary mode of stream of consciousness, which may make it hard for the reader to remain engaged. An example of this can be seen in the following quote in which she immerses her style into the context of film, referencing various titles belonging to Polish director Andrzej Wajda and Miklós Jancsó, a Hungarian filmmaker.

They offered relentless jeremiads about being trapped in the Kanal, being rounded up, facing nothing but ashes and looking for the lost diamonds, with an exuberant exasperation of silence and cry (1983, p. 29).

There is a motif, a type of rhythm in Biró’s language that is not necessarily obvious, but like many Eastern European films of the 1960s and 1970s, it is as though the spectator is invited on board a closely observed train of thought provoked by imagery that lies somewhere beyond that of surrealism. Like the cinema of Eastern Europe, Biró’s thoughts and wording results from a world of its own and therefore makes it a unique piece of analytical prose.

“…to carry the charge of the Deed.” (1983, p. 28)

Biró’s claim is located in two different sections of her introduction. She begins her argument by placing things into context thus assisting readers to situate themselves in relation to the realm of Eastern European cinema—a medium where art takes its inspiration from politics. She states that she will focuses on two different periods of filmmaking in Eastern Europe, which she defines as “the late 1950’s through to the mid-1960s (the first period) and the late 1960s through to the 1970s (the second period)” (1983, p. 28). Her article is thus divided into two main sections (one for each period) in which she characterises films belonging to the first period as acquiring pathos and discusses the second period in relation to irony. The basis of her argument is something that persistently ventures back to her introduction in which she mentions the idea of fighting for justice as a collective consciousness. “Filmmakers were proud representatives of the Cause, of their people, their revolutionary struggles” (1983, p. 28). Through the examination of this claim, Biró considers the pathos and the irony of Eastern European cinema.

With each piece of evidence, Biró creates a concoction of nuances that beautifully illustrate her analysis from a different level. Following her introduction, she commences her exploration of the first period with, as previously mentioned, an emphasis on Wajda and Jancsó but also the Polish director, Andrzej Munk and the Czechoslovakian cinema of Jan Nemec. In this section, pathos is exemplified through symbolism in the films of these directors. In accordance to this, she looks to other sources for her explanations, often making literary references to Franz Kafka, constantly reminding the reader of his dystopian novel The Trial (1925)—the story portraying one man’s decent into the abyss following his false accusation of an ambiguous crime. Moreover, the concepts behind the religion of Manichaeism are incorporated to reinforce subjects such as irony, tragicomedy and absurdity, all of which may manifest in either formation of light or dark on the screen—mirroring the very essence of the ancient philosophy.

“…the deliberate return to banality” (1983, p. 38)

For the second period, Biró focuses on irony and draws upon examples from the films of Roman Polanski and Czech New Wave directors, Milos Forman, Jirí Menzel and Ivan Passer. She also re-thinks Jan Nemec by examining his later films in the context of irony, banality and absurdity. Biró generally uses scenes from films to explain her reasons for her claims. They are usually compared and contrasted to philosophical concepts and literary references. This type of comparative analysis acts as a strong piece of evidence because it answers directly to the main claim, that Eastern European cinema evokes pathos and irony through the use of Manichean symbolism and the idea of a collective consciousness fighting for the Cause.

Biró selects to include a counterpoint to her argument that anticipates the readers’ objections to the idea of producing art as a result of socio-political as inspiration. She includes a quote by the Czech writer, Ludvik Vaculik that appropriately qualifies such doubts: “if a person feels obliged to write exclusively against the power, he has actually submitted to the governments’ prohibition to write about other things” (1983, p. 33). Thus there is a blurred line between marching to the barricades and paying excessive attention to a corrupt administration. However, Biró warrants that it’s not all about the government but in fact, Eastern European cinema calls attention to something deeper in its imagery of pathos and irony—a call towards the documentation of the human condition under restriction.

II. On Àgnes Pethö and her examination of art in Glissando alongside other parables used to criticise the regime.

Like Biró, Pethö’s writing is as much literary as it is analytical. She too examines the symbolism of the social, political and historical in an Eastern European context, however, her concern being more specific—solely examining one film, Mircea Daneliuc’s Glissando (1984). At times, Pethö’s perspectives can be quite dense and the reasons to her claims can become tangled together like a pair of laces. The paragraphs are sometimes extended and, in some instances, she does not relieve the reader with a break between sentences. Understanding Pethö’s paper is comparable to deciphering the allegories of Glissando, however, once the knot is untangled, the reader’s effort has proven worthwhile.

There is a framework behind Pethö’s paper, which answers to the main claim, that Glissando comments on the regime and its effect on the human spirit through its use of symbol and metaphor. This framework, or structure, balances between two varying perspectives of considering Romanian cinema: Romanian art and its connection to Western examples, with a particular emphasis on France, and black humour characteristic of a Balkan identity. Pethö recognises that these two seemingly opposing cultural outlooks have the potential to unite in Romanian films, specifically by way of the underlying concept that is responsible for this link: “the present presented as past” (2005, p 166). Daneliuc chooses to criticize the communist government in an oblique manner—something that is achieved by setting the film in the 1930s, but essentially referencing the problems of the present (1980s) and using the arts, French culture and filmic space as a means to produce the allegorical.

“Every scene constructs atmosphere and expresses a feeling, a state of mind rather than a narrative sequence” (2005, p. 170).

Art is looked at in terms of the consecutive images of books, paintings and music that appear in the film. Pethö asserts that these symbols act as character traits for the protagonist. At certain sections of the plot, books are being burnt (destruction of culture), the protagonist collects paintings of the same woman (consistency of the banal) and the non-diegetic music appears predictably to enhance the pathos of scenes (convention). Pethö states that all these notions stand for the “gradual decay in existential and ethical values” (2005, p. 168), and, consequently, the annihilation of a once prosperous society—Romania in the 1930s, before the reign of communism. Ultimately, French culture becomes the sub reason to this idea of intellectual prosperity because it not only connotes Romania’s past but also emits a type of yearning for the West and its modern values.

Pethö presents a colourful selection of references that originate from philosophy, literature and, of course, cinema. She describes scenes from the film in which certain plot points become the reasons for her claim but also act as evidence. This happens often in her writing, where reason and evidence become amalgamated—something that is accurately demonstrated in the following quote.

The governess mixes French sentences in her speech; Teodorescu’s friend insists that his children learn French and recite French poetry; he has given his child a French name, Amelie; and he is proud that Teodorescu has been to Paris (2005, p. 169).

The quote is also a suitable model for discussion on the topic of French culture. Pethö clearly notices the existence of a type of intellectual and artistic bond between France and Romania and she supports her sub reason by placing Glissando alongside literary and filmic representatives such as the poets Baudelaire and Verlaine but also the Romanian playwright I.L. Caragiale. Pethö also discusses her third sub reason of filmic space in the context of French poetry in which she compares “the evolution of the spatial structure” (2005, p. 171) in Glissando to that of a poem by Baudelaire, Fleurs du Mal (1857).

To place the articles parallel to each other and to decide that one is more convincing than the other seems unjustifiable. Although the fact that their arguments differ isn’t the best excuse, they both present unique outlooks to their questions on Eastern European cinema and use significant reasoning and evidence to support their claims. Biró’s chapter acts as a foundation of an earlier reasoning on the topic and she has the benefit of writing about a certain context in a time when Europe was still divided into East and West. On the other hand, Pethö is able to look back and reflect, which proves advantageous because she is able to study the way in which cinema in Eastern Europe has evolved since the 1960s. Whether it be Manichaean symbolism, pathos and irony, French cultural connections or spatial politics, both articles serve their purpose well and evidently, through the use of abstract prose, fight for the Cause—placing awareness on the cinema Eastern Europe.

Works Cited

Biró, Y 1983, ‘Pathos and irony in East European cinemas’, in DW Paul (ed.),Politcs,
art and commitment in the East European cinema, Macmillan, London, pp. 28-48.

Pethö, Á 2005, ‘Chaos, intermediality, allegory: the cinema of Mircea Daneliuc’, in A Imre (ed.), East European Cinemas, Routledge, London: New York, pp. 165-175.