Decoding film schedules, avoiding dubbing, and other things lost in translation from Istanbul to Lapland
Arriving in Budapest, I knew little about Hungarian cinema except that it’s had an exciting year, with the authoritarian allegory White Dog receiving acclaim after opening at Sundance and the concentration camp-set Son of Saul winning the Grand Prize at Cannes. Unfortunately the current national offering I managed to see while in Budapest was neither of these, but rather the “quirky” romantic comedy For Some Inexplicable Reason, which had all the markers of a fresh-out-of-film-school feature. After a while I stopped counting all the derivative allusions to better films, from Harold and Maude to Swingers, but ignoring the protagonist’s prattling attempt to get over one manic pixie dream girl by romancing another proved more difficult. Filmed locally, it was enjoyable to see a number of the same sights I’d glimpsed around town, and the older actors who play the quirky protagonist’s parents were actually quite engaging – were the film to have focused on them rather than their navel-gazing son, it would have been far more compelling. But I’m glad to have seen a film at the funky Cirko-Gejzir, which bills itself as the smallest cinema in Europe (I’m skeptical), and where there was a stack of blankets at the front of each theater (lest you catch a chill while viewing).
My other cinema-going experience in Budapest was similarly funky, though in a different way: a rooftop screening of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, at a cavernous club called the Corvintető, atop a six-floor winding staircase (I couldn’t resist taking this video as I descended the stairs) in a building that was once a luxury department store. Under-estimating the scores of young Budapest hipsters that would come out in force, we arrived too late to get a proper seat and were forced to sit on the benches reserved for smoking (something everyone does, it seems, in Budapest) with an obstructed view of the screen. Not that I was expecting great things from Besson’s notorious flop, but its ridiculousness seemed all the more apparent because it was dubbed into Hungarian and given English subtitles – a choice that seemed to indicate that these moviegoers weren’t expected to be studiously attentive. As I’ve expressed in these blog-pages before, I find dubbing abominable, though it’s less offensive with a movie like The Fifth Element than with a series of French art films such as those screening at Corvintető later this summer in a series sponsored by the Budapest Film Institute.
Though Budapest has no shortage of similarly funky art house cinemas, unfortunately it is the default that they habitually dub their films – something not always easily deduced from the confounding Hungarian-language film listings. So my visits were confined to checking out the lobbies and (when I could gain access) theaters rather than having an actual film-going experience. While the Örökmozgó Filmmúzeum and Puskin Theatre looked to be programming some worthwhile work, I’m genuinely disappointed not to have seen a film in the resplendent cinema of the Uránia National Film Theatre. And in a continuing trend, my trip’s timing prevented me from attending this weekly event featuring Hungarian-born film critic Andrew L. Urban leading a English-language screening and discussion at Brody Studios.
My visit was perfectly timed, however, for the Ludwig Museum’s retrospective on Vilmos Zsigmond, one of the two Hungarian-born maestros of cinematography (the other being László Kovács, with whom Zsigmond escaped from the county after the 1956 Uprising). Zsigmond shot two of my favorite films (McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye), not to mention 24 episodes (to date) of The Mindy Project. Strangely, that last work wasn’t covered in the exhibit – but his student film was, which made abundantly clear the talent that would emerge. Though Hungary’s national cinema languished in the collective brain-drain during its years under Communist rule, its eventual revival has been coupled with an influx of foreign production outfits (doing a healthy business in both Hollywood blockbusters and pornography) attracted to its low cost and Old World atmosphere. Our first night there, what seemed to be an extensive production had taken over our hotel’s cross-street, so I’ll be looking for the aptly named Mária utca at a theatre near me.
Cinemas aside, my impressions of Budapest were mixed – though welcoming enough, the people seemed rather beleaguered, and a sense of Soviet Era despondency seemed to hang over the town. The city certainly has its charms: the #2 tram line, which winds along the Danube, was voted to have one of the prettiest views in all of Europe; the hereby-named “disco steamroom” is itself worth a trip to the Gellért Baths; and (after Istanbul) still more great-tasting and shockingly low-priced local wine was flowing. Less charming, at my age, were the “ruined garden” bars, which sounded evocative when I was reading about them but turned out, at least on the weekend night when we ventured to their ground zero, Kazinczy utca, to be Budapest’s answer to Bourbon Street. With a week spent inhaling secondary smoke and scrutinizing nearly unintelligible film listings only to be disappointed to find the “m.f.” designation signifying that a film is dubbed, I wasn’t sad to board the train for Vienna – especially since it would be the first in a few excursions inspired by a certain favorite film of mine, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise…
Sadly, train travel in Europe isn’t what it used to be…or at least how it used to look in movies. Not air-conditioned and packed to the gills, it wasn’t much different from America’s Amtrak – save some occasional pastoral views, it was decidedly less romantic than Céline and Jesse’s meet cute en route to Vienna. As were two other Before Sunrise sites I visited: used vinyl store Teuchtler Records appears to be run by hoarders who knocked out the listening booth where Céline and Jesse listen to a Kath Bloom album to make room for a fire escape (detailed here by a fan even more obsessive than I), while the Weiner Riesenrad ferris wheel (the latter also features prominently in The Third Man, discussed below) offered nice views but no private carriages, and the ADHD-addled children sharing ours compromised the experience significantly. Finally, Café Sperl fully lived up to its on-screen charm even if their Sacher torte was nothing to write home about.
As for cinemas, the single film-going experience I had here was memorable: a screening of The Third Man at the Burg Kino, which screens the classic thrice weekly. Even after repeat viewings it’s an outstanding film, though perhaps the Viennese go a tad overboard in dedicating a museum (open only four hours per week), a walking tour, and a guided descent into the sewer system where Orson Welles’ Harry Lime attempts to escape, to the film. Rats apparently being a feature of the latter, I’m glad to have missed it. I’m very much sorry, on the other hand, to have missed what looks like an amazing line-up at the biennial Identities Queer Film Festival – including one of my favorite films of last year, Appropriate Behavior, opening the fest, and other favorites both classic (Personal Best) and recent (Love Is Strange). I was glad to have at least seen the very cool Top Kino, one of the festival’s venues., alongside an inspiring exhibit of screen art at Vienna’s modern art museum MUMOK titled, with bravado, “My Body Is the Event: Vienna Actionism and International Performance.”
Despite being extremely hot during my stay, it seems Vienna waits until later in the summer to inaugurate their open air cinemas. Alas I didn’t have much luck with indoor viewings either, since it’s dismayingly the norm here as well to dub films or simply not to provide English subtitles (though I’m aware it seems Anglo-centric to imagine that an Austrian cinema would do the latter). Oddly, there simultaneously exists the family-run 1912 four-cinema complex named the Haydn English Cinema, which explicitly bills itself – in what seems like a declaration of war between dueling cinemas – as showing “current English-language movies without subtitles.” I opted not to choose sides, though had the Haydn been a trifle more charming and showing something better than Hollywood dreck, I’d have been tempted.
More upsetting was not getting to attend a vintage screening of an Ufa studio classic at the Bellaria Kino; to compensate, I promised myself a re-viewing of the moving 2002 documentary Bellaria: As Long as We Live!, about its devoted patrons. Where dubbing wasn’t an issue, timing was; most heartbreaking of all was missing the Austrian Film Museum’s (Honorary President: Martin Scorsese!) retrospective of works by Losey, Ray, and Welles, especially since those English-language films were show “O.S.,” in the original version. I was also disappointed to learn that the “museum” in its title was misleading, as there are no exhibitions but only an archive that required advance notice to access.
These setbacks aside, I found Vienna beguiling indeed; its legendary charms are very much intact, and come in equal doses of old world quaintness and contemporary cool. And as someone for whom a city’s culinary offerings largely determine my feelings about it, I was not disappointed – though not low-calorie, and not on par with Istanbul’s, Viennese cuisine is scrumptious, all the more so when enjoyed al fresco in one of the many tucked-away courtyard beisl. For the first time on the trip thus far, I was genuinely sad to leave. And excited to return, preferably in the cooler autumn, to catch some of what I missed: the Freud Museum, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, a chamber music concert, an excursion to some of the wine gardens on the city’s outskirts…but until I become fluent in German or Vienna’s art cinemas change their dubbing-and-no-subtitling ways, it’s not likely that I’ll be doing much film-going there.
From Vienna, it was on to northern Finland and beyond the Arctic Circle (literally) for the Midnight Sun Film Festival, in the Lapland hamlet of Sodankylä. If this all sounds too dreamy for words, you’d be correct on two counts – it was both fantastical and nightmarish, in relatively equal measures. To recount the negative aspects first: despite convening for its 30th year (and the first following the passing of its founder, Peter von Bagh), the festival is run a lot more like one in its first year. There was considerable confusion and frustration, from ticket-buying to schedule-consulting to parking to queuing. Crowd-control was non-existent, so throngs of people filled the small indoor venues before every screening. The Big and Small Tents, while atmospheric, were not ideal screening spaces – cold and with uncomfortable seating, much of which was obstructed by tent-poles. At nearly every screening I attended, there were faults with the projection. Worst of all, the Koulu (School) theatre had only one entrance/exit, making it a veritable firetrap and one that makes me extremely concerned for the well-being of Sodankylän schoolchildren. No longer do I begrudge the Teuchtler Records owner for doing away with that listening booth.
The lure of the midnight sun aside, I can’t fathom why Sodankylä was selected as the festival town – picture Twin Peaks as envisioned by the early Harmony Korine for a sense of its air of despondent weirdness. One restaurant and a handful of food shacks provided slim pickings food-wise, though I did try reindeer (tender, not too flavorful) and though they managed to keep the beer flowing from morning to night (and from the sound of popping tabs, folks continued to imbibe once in the theater). Wifi was restricted to the spotty (presumably overloaded) local service because the festival doled out theirs only to registered press and “VIPs.” Bathrooms were in inordinately short supply. The couple of hotels in town were every bit the fleabags they were warned to be online – one hopes the VIPs weren’t being put up there – so I was relieved to have booked a log cabin a half-hour drive away. While the cabin itself was entirely welcoming, the resort it was situated within (I’ll save my naming-names for the TripAdvisor review to follow) seemed strangely desolate and qualified as the Finnish version of The Overlook Hotel, complete with off-season eeriness and (literally and figuratively) absentee staff. It was reported that 30,000 people bought festival tickets this year, though I think that must be a misleading statistic – at least I can’t imagine where all those people were staying, unless there was some vast campsite that I never stumbled across. Add to it that the sun continued to shine 24 hours a day, a spectacle both mesmerizing and disorienting. To be fair, there were some fairly spectacular landscapes to be glimpsed though it was too cold to do much lakeside frolicking – a blessing, apparently, as I was told that in warmer years festival-goers are besieged by mosquitos.
And, of course, there were movies to be seen – though here too, festival management (or lack thereof) made for endless challenges. Attempting to purchase tickets in advance of the festival, I was notified that they were available for reservation (not purchase) at a single venue, but only by phone. Only loosely registering this first sign of the challenges that lie ahead, I managed to talk a staff-person into letting me reserve by email, since calling from abroad was exorbitantly expensive. I made my best estimation of what I wanted to see based on the current program – which would go on to be revised at least a dozen times, in multi-colored near-unintelligible handouts that looked like they were mimeographed in the 1970s; they made Budapest film listings seem transparent. What I failed to note, and was not told, was that although these and all tickets weren’t refundable, they were exchangeable. So while I was dutifully avoiding the sunk cost fallacy when I found more promising films to substitute for the tickets I already held, returning my unused tickets to the ticket-sellers with the request that they pass them along to others, I could have saved euros aplenty. Most annoying was that filmmaker appearances went unnoted (and seemingly unplanned), so you couldn’t be sure whether any of this year’s illustrious guests (Miguel Gomes, Mike Leigh, Christian Petzold, and Whit Stillman) would be introducing or doing a Q&A for any given screening.
Though the festival has an unmistakable charm, it’s one that would I’m sure be retained even if it were to be run in a less ass-backwards fashion. Its summer camp vibe and eclectic mix of classic and new films are strong selling points both. But ultimately I felt hoodwinked by what was undoubtedly a masterful marketing scheme that enticed me into traveling far off the beaten path at considerable (albeit fellowship-funded) expense. Theirs was a grand illusion, and one that I fell for just like the romantic cinephile I am – as with my Before Sunrise-seeking in Vienna, a valuable lesson in remembering that life is never as good as it looks in the movies…or on the website.
So while it took some stumbling through Days 1 and 2 (I missed one of my most anticipated films, Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, because it was screened with Russian/Swedish rather than English subtitles), by Day 3 I’d mastered things enough to know that the day was better spent walking around a nearby lake, sighting my first (live) reindeer (adorable, making me feel guilty about having eaten one a day earlier), and enjoying the log cabin’s brilliant built-in sauna (standard in Finnish homes, apparently) on what I only later learned was National Sauna Day.
And that night’s, my last’s, screenings were highly memorable, though neither film was new. Petzold was on hand to introduce the first, his arresting debut feature The State I Am In (2000). My film reviews will have to wait for the festival report I’m writing (publication information forthcoming), but the festival highlight was definitely my second film that night: the 11pm singalong screening of Purple Rain in the Big Tent – one of the top ten cinematic experiences I’ve had, with the exception of the local celebrity who was dressed up (unconvincingly) as Prince and charged (unnecessarily) with leading the singalong. As you can tell from my commemorative video, the crowd didn’t need any help in that department. While not a good film by any means, it made for a most excellent evening.
Unfortunately my layover in Helsinki is on a Monday, the day when museums and cinemas are largely dark, though I’m grateful both to be back in civilization and for the time to finish this blog entry. The takeaway from the trip thus far seems to be that the language barrier is a bitch, as I find myself seeing more English-language films than I’d planned merely because I can understand them (except in the case of The Fifth Element, and not just because it was dubbed), and far fewer films overall that I’d hoped. None of the promised attributes of Google Glass has ever appealed to me, but the option of instantaneous film translation would get me interested. I’m certainly ruing that I didn’t develop my language skills further, though it requires far more than a working knowledge of a foreign language to fully experience an art film sans subtitles. It’s no mystery why action-driven, effects-laden movies appeal to global audiences (though with Hollywood’s domination over distribution, there’s hardly any real alternative).
Though exceptions exist; to end on a related though somewhat random note, I’ve been surprised and impressed by the degree to which the films of Quentin Tarantino have penetrated these relatively distant lands – the Django Unchained soundtrack was playing at a bar in the Karaköy district of Istanbul; the film playing one week before The Fifth Element at Budapest’s Corvintető was Reservoir Dogs; the otherwise German-language CD selection at Vienna’s hip Phil Coffeehouse featured the Death Proof soundtrack; and at dinner on my first night in Helsinki, my curry stir-fry came with the apparently non sequitur name “Kill Bill.”
Coming Attractions: Console-ing Passions Conference in Dublin, Edinburgh Film Festival, Screen Conference in Glasgow, Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna