[Deep Focus]
MY 20TH CENTURY
Written and Directed by Ildiko Enyedi
Cinematography by Tibor Mathe
Edited by Maria Rigo
Starring Dortha Segda and Oleg Jankowski
Hungary, 1989

GRADE: A-


My grandmother complains about movies in which nothing happens.

"If I'm going to watch a movie," she'll say, "I want something to happen." Her favorite movie has always been To Kill a Mockingbird. Mine may be Persona. You can see where our differences lie. One movie we were able to agree upon, remarkably enough, was Paris, Texas, which both of us like quite a lot. I'm not sure what that says about the film itself, which looked to me like a textbook example of the kind of movie my grandmother would hate. Maybe it speaks to the success that film had at evoking, through spare dialogue and rich imagery, a very true picture of contemporary dislocated America.

But I digress. I'm really thinking about my grandmother because I was watching My 20th Century last night, for perhaps the third time. Here's a movie in which so little happens that I actually felt, for a few brief moments, that I was being had. It's the story of a pair of orphaned twins, Lili and Dora. They sit on the cold streets of Budapest selling matches until, one night, they're taken for a ride through town by a donkey. Afterward, while they're sleeping, two men come across the girls and carry them off in two different directions.

Dora grows up to become an incorrigible flirt, a high class coquette/whore intent on scamming the men she comes across. Lili grows up to become a bomb-toting, propaganda-spewing revolutionary. Each of the two women is, for most of the movie, unaware of the other's existence. Unable to tell the twins apart, Oleg Jankowski is the hapless suitor who fails in his seduction of the serious-minded Lili, but later succeeds in bedding the cooing Dora (who rifles his wallet).

The backdrop for this rather straightforward story of mistaken identity is Hungary circa 1900. One of the first images is of an odd little parade that rather grandly celebrates a new invention -- the electric light bulb. The significance of such discoveries is echoed in scenes showing Nikolai Tesla running about a jillion volts throw his body and then throwing bolts of electric light across a lecture hall (he looks for all the world like Doctor Frankenstein). In another, the first circumglobal telegraph transmission is sent, and we're also witness to demonstrations of the very first motion picture projectors. Thank you indeed, Thomas Edison.

As if these odd little digressions weren't enough, we're treated to a few more fractious non sequiturs. Our guides throughout the film are a cadre of shimmering stars (yes, like those in the night sky) that act something like this film's Greek chorus, offering adroit commentary on certain of the proceedings. When we see a dog who has been wired rather unpleasantly with electrodes, the tittering stars set him free by showing him movies -- like Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr., the dog becomes the star of his own alternate cinematic reality. (Actually, that dog may have been wired by Edison himself, who I'm told abused animals to demonstrate what he said were the pernicious effects of Tesla's brand of electricity power.) Later, these mischievous creatures will take on the personae of light bulbs in a house of mirrors, nattering among themselves about which of the two women Jankowski would really prefer to have.

At times, director Ildiko Enyedi's flights of fancy can seem over-indulgent, and you start to wonder whether one scene really is tethered to another. Is the tale of the dog's escape into a movie world significant in the context of this story because eastern Europe is poised on a similar, tortured brink? Why are we subjected to a hysterical, pro-suffrage and anti-feminist lecture on the innate inferiority of the woman? Did the donkey escape from a Bunuel movie, or does it truly have a purpose here? Moving in fits and starts, the narrative is in thrall to the filmmaker's whims.

In summary, my grandmother would conclude that nothing much happens in My 20th Century -- at least nothing much about which we can draw concrete conclusions. Of course, a movie can be about nothing at all and everything in the world at the same time. I suspect that My 20th Century is actually about more than I'm qualified to guess -- at one point, we're fed a snide aside about Hungary ("Is that a nation? Or are you joking?") that suggests the whole whore/revolutionary angle may be part of a portrait of Hungary as a case study in national schizophrenia.

More than anything, though, My 20th Century is a movie that can be appreciated as a wallow in the sensual pleasures of movies. As Dora, Segda is lit like a 1930s movie star, and her insistent, overdubbed giggles and squeaks on the soundtrack are an absurd delight. A major aesthetic choice was made by shooting in "Academy ratio," which means the screen is squarish, like your TV set -- and like old (pre-1950s) movies. This makes a big difference, since the movie is lit and composed exactly like a silent film -- in fact, if Enyedi's camera didn't move so fluidly through some of the scenes, you might mistake this for a very old picture indeed. The final shot, an extended, unbroken boat's eye view of travel down a river as it opens up into the sea, serves no narrative purpose at all, but it's a wonderful shot, and we feel as though certain constraints have been loosed. It's our signal to exhale, to relax in preparation once again for the glare of incandescent light in our eyes, which will take the place of these plays of light and shadow. It's about any number of things, but at its heart, My 20th Century invites us to wonder at movies themselves.

Addenda: The jacket of my laserdisc copy of My 20th Century claims that it's "Presented With EASY-VIEW Yellow Subtitles," which would be fine if it were true. Instead, some telecine wunderkind has stripped gray boxes into each shot onto which white subtitles are superimposed, thus covering up some 10 percent of the screen, sometimes obscuring a character's mouth, sometimes most of the face. It's appalling, but unfortunately that's what we're stuck with. Try to see it if it plays, by some miracle, at a theater near you -- the subtitles on theatrical prints were sensible. Incidentally, the plot synopsis on the video jacket is just wrong. It was written by someone who didn't watch the movie.

On another note entirely, Magic Hunter, Enyedi's second film, played in New York City for a week, maybe two, to tepid reviews. I missed it completely. I suppose we'll be lucky if that shows up on video at all.


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