Cinema’s Alchemist

Cinema’s Alchemist: The Films of Péter Forgács

Bill Nichols
Michael Renov
Volume: 25
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 296
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttt9j6
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  • Book Info
    Cinema’s Alchemist
    Book Description:

    Péter Forgács is best known for his award-winning films built on home movies from the 1930s to 1960s that document ordinary lives soon to intersect with offscreen historical events. Cinema’s Alchemist offers a sustained exploration of the imagination and skill with which Forgács reshapes such footage into extraordinary films dedicated to remembering the past in ways that matter for our future.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-7830-3
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. vii-xxii)
    BILL NICHOLS

    In 1964 the respected film scholar Jay Leyda published an invaluable little book,Films Beget Films: A Study of the Compilation Film.¹ It was the first sustained effort to explore the effects of reusing footage originally intended to convey one meaning to convey a different meaning. In his foreword Leyda likens such films to H. G. Wells’sTime Machineas a way to return to and comment on the past: the “compilation machine,” as he termed this form of filmmaking, “offers itself for the communication of more abstract concepts than can be expected of the more habitual fiction film, more...

  4. PART I. SETTING THE SCENE
    • [1] Péter Forgács: An Interview
      (pp. 3-38)
      SCOTT MACDONALD

      In recent decades, some filmmakers have made remarkable films and videos that, in one way or another, retrieve films that are endangered, either because of their physical fragility or because of historical factors, and make them available to audiences in a new form. Instances of this approach include Alan Berliner’sA Family Album(1987), made up of excerpts from American home movies recorded in the United States during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s; Lynne Sachs’sSermons and Sacred Pictures(1989), which recycles excerpts of films made during the 1940s and 1950s by L. O. Taylor, an African American Baptist preacher...

    • [2] The Memory of Loss: Péter Forgács’s Saga of Family Life and Social Hell
      (pp. 39-56)
      PÉTER FORGÁCS and BILL NICHOLS

      What follows is the result of a series of exchanges conducted primarily at a distance by e-mail. I wanted to pursue a set of topics that revolved around what seemed to be nodal aspects of Péter Forgács’s overall work.These topics address the representation of historical events and the specific means by which Forgács sidesteps the conventions of both historical narratives (fiction) and traditional documentary (nonfiction). Like early documentarians in the 1920s, in that period before the practice of shaping films drawn from the practice of everyday life were commonly called documentaries, Forgács returns to the avant-garde, modernist tradition for much...

  5. PART II. THE HOLOCAUST FILMS
    • [3] Toward a New Historiography: The Aesthetics of Temporality
      (pp. 59-74)
      ERNST VAN ALPHEN

      Since the 1990s, the spread of memory practices in art and literature has been enormous. These memory practices manifest themselves not only around issues such as trauma, the Holocaust and other genocides, and migration but also in the increasing use of media and genres like photography, documentary film and video, the archive, and the family album. These memory practices form a specific aesthetics. The major question raised by this flourishing of memory practices is, should we see this as a celebration of memory, as a fin de siècle, and in the meantime a debut de siècle, as an expression of...

    • [4] Ordinary Film: The Maelstrom
      (pp. 75-84)
      MICHAEL S. ROTH

      The opening ofThe Maelstrompresents a silent image of a small, seemingly fragile boat being tossed on a stormy sea. Silence draws us out—where are we and what are we looking at?—and then the film pushes us back. The remainder of the film, with only a few punctuations, uses sound (music, cries, and sound effects) to bring us along. But we start with silence and the sea drawing us out. Where are we being taken?

      When the sound emerges near the beginning ofThe Maelstrom, we see people drawn to the waves that crash ominously against a...

    • [5] Historical Discourses of the Unimaginable: The Maelstrom
      (pp. 85-95)
      MICHAEL RENOV

      In 2000, the Foundation for Jewish Culture sponsored a “First Conference of American Jewish Film Festivals” in conjunction with the twentieth anniversary of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the first of the American Jewish film festivals. One conference session devoted to “The Holocaust Film as Genre” was meant to grapple with the sometimes-uncomfortable fact that the Holocaust continues to be the source and subject of countless documentary films by Jewish makers. This obsessive return to the Shoah, generations after the event, is figured by some as an overinvestment in Jewish victimhood or an unwillingness to move on to other...

    • [6] Waiting, Hoping, among the Ruins of All the Rest
      (pp. 96-118)
      KAJA SILVERMAN

      “Atget . . . photographed [the deserted streets of Paris] like scenes of crime,” Walter Benjamin wrote in 1939. “A crime scene, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence.”¹ These might not be the first words that come to mind when we are looking at Atget’s work, but they do describe the kind of photography that tends to be accorded historical value, especially when what is being reconstructed is an atrocity. Péter Forgács’s video films focus on periods of extraordinary upheaval and cultural loss—World War II and the establishment of east-bloc Communism. They also...

  6. PART III. OTHER FILMS/OTHER CONTEXTS
    • [8] How to Make History Perceptible: The Bartos Family and the Private Hungary Series
      (pp. 137-158)
      ROGER ODIN

      WithThe Bartos Family(1988), Péter Forgács inaugurated a series of films dedicated to the history of Hungary. All these films take up the tradition of the montage or archive film,¹ also known as the foundfootage film.² More precisely, they belong to a particular current in this tradition: compilations based on home movies. This current includes different styles of production, which can be grouped roughly into four broad categories: films with a psychological tendency (intimate journals, letters, autobiographies), which utilize home movies to increase a sense of lived experience;³ montages designed to be spectacular, comic, or dramatic (such as the...

    • [9] Found Images as Witness to Central European History: A Bibó Reader and Miss Universe 1929
      (pp. 159-176)
      CATHERINE PORTUGES

      In the masterful style that has become his artistic signature, Péter Forgács performs the task of a clinical archivist, evoking fragments of life stories, intercut with minimal explanatory material, through found footage and home movies in much the same way as psychoanalysis creates a narrativized intertext of continuities and discontinuities, of transference and countertransference, and of resistance and free association. The film-maker’s approach recalls that of Alain Resnais inLes statues meurent aussi(1953), in which archival images intervene in history in a cultural dialogue that critiques the French colonialist project.¹ The resulting alchemy for Forgács is not merely a...

    • [10] Reenvisioning the Documentary Fact: On Saying and Showing in Wittgenstein Tractatus and Bourgeois Dictionary
      (pp. 177-194)
      TYRUS MILLER

      In 1992, Péter Forgács made two films that utilize, like other of his Private Hungary films, amateur film footage but also stand out in his corpus for their explicitly reflexive, metapoetic treatment and their innovative, nonnarrative formal structure:Wittgenstein TractatusandBourgeois Dictionary.Both films, in fact, share overlapping film materials, withBourgeois Dictionarygenerally presenting lengthier, contextualized versions of some passages that appear inWittgenstein Tractatusin more pontillistic, fragmentary form. Both films also, notably, explore linguistic and quasi- mathematical frameworks for organizing the found images and motivating their potential meanings. Image, voice-over, music, and text stand in a...

    • [11] The World Rewound: Wittgenstein Tractatus
      (pp. 195-221)
      WHITNEY DAVIS

      In his study of the “ontology of film,”The World Viewed,Stanley Cavell writes that “Wittgenstein investigates the world (‘the possibilities of phenomena’) by investigating what we say, what we are inclined to say, what our pictures of phenomena are, in order to wrest the world from our possessions so that we may possess it again.”¹ Cavell takes Wittgenstein’s investigation to propose, perhaps to characterize, the deepest project of film conceived not only as art but also (and more important) as a mode of being in the world in which we inhabit a relation to the world—namely, viewing. Cavell’s...

    • [12] Taking the Part for the Whole: Some Thoughts Inspired by the Film Music of Tibor Szemzö
      (pp. 222-228)
      TAMÁS KORÁNYI

      Péter Forgács and Tibor Szemzö first became acquainted through stage and concert productions in the 1980s, the time ofSnapshot from the Island (Pillanatfelvétel a szigetröl).This 1987 record also includes another of Szemzö’s compositions,Water-Wonder N2 (Vizicsoda),which Forgács had previously used in a 1984 video work,The Golden Age (Aranykor).This was, in fact, the first occasion on which he employed Szemzö’s music. They later met as part of the Group 180(180-as Csoport),of which Szemzö was a founding member. It was here that Forgács participated (as narrator) in the performance of Frederic Rzewski’s compositionComing Together...

    • [13] Analytical Spaces: The Installations of Péter Forgács
      (pp. 229-234)
      LÁSZLÓ F. FÖLDÉNYI

      The installations of Péter Forgács are life spaces. In them, things evolve into space and inhabit it. Objects are brought to life that at first sight are completely inert. These installations are spaces of the soul. They make the invisible visible. Yet in the meantime, life falls into pieces, and its elements, far from being put together, are carefully spread out. These spaces are alive, yet whichever of them I step into, I am filled with a deadly sort of numbness. They hit me right in the face. Péter Forgács’s installations are disquieting; some are outright moving. Even in those...

    • [14] Reorchestrating History: Transforming The Danube Exodus into a Database Documentary
      (pp. 235-256)
      MARSHA KINDER

      In 2000, the Labyrinth Project (an art collective and research initiative on interactive narrative)¹ embarked on a collaboration with Hungarian media artist Péter Forgács to turn his sixty-minute, single-channel film,The Danube Exodus,into a large scale, multiscreen immersive installation. Forgács’s film (which was aired on European television in 1997) provided intriguing narrative material: a network of compelling stories, a mysterious river captain whose motives remain unknown, a Central European setting full of rich historical associations, and a hypnotic musical score that created a mesmerizing tone.

      Although our expanded adaptation drew on forty hours of footage, both the film and...

  7. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 257-258)
  8. Filmography
    (pp. 259-260)
  9. Contributors
    (pp. 261-264)
  10. Index
    (pp. 265-270)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 271-271)