Gábor Bódy’s 1975 film American Torso, a Hungarian film set at the tail end of the American Civil War, is meant to look like an artifact from an earlier time: light overtakes the screen at unpredictable intervals, the film sometimes slows and “disintegrates” into irregular shapes, and many frames have rounded daguerreotype corners. (The film will screen tonight and next Thursday at MoMA’s Carte Blanche: Béla Tarr and Satantango series.) The result is not so much rustic as strangely, hypnotically psychedelic, though, especially when the light effects go strobe. And what was North Carolina circa 1865 if not a massive beardo convention?
The degraded found footage thing doesn’t quite work, but the American landscape, mostly featureless here except for shrub-dotted hills and neat rows of towering trees, feels totally alien for a reason. American Torso follows three army officers from Hungary, chief among them a major surveying enemy positions for the Union. With the war coming to a close, the exiled men must decide whether to push further West (“I need you,” commences an offer from a Pacific Railways headhunter, sounding more than a bit like Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine). In the Hungarian officers’ club, a moldering bar room with a billiards table where Bódy’s camera glides from conversation to conversation, men drink beer out of enormous steins and recount legends of the 1848 Hungarian revolution. Bódy’s compatriot Miklós Jancsó dramatized some aspects of this upheaval in The Round-Up (also playing in MoMA’s series), but American Torso, which contrasts the geometrical precision of the surveyors’ measurements with the confused skirmishes around them, most recalls the chaos pageant of Jancsó’s The Red and the White.
The scope of the Hungarian history and the constitution of the film’s script (the opening credits suggest a sort of open-source pastiche of diary entries, Marx, Whitman, and Ambrose Bierce) are difficult to get a handle on—or at least they were for this viewer—but Bódy’s collage-like film frequently dazzles, and never more so than during its conclusion, which concerns a swing hung precariously between two trees. It’s a stirring end to a story of men caught in the pendulum motion of history.