JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Lajos, the last member of the family works as a taxidermist turning bodies inside out.

Sheer quantities available in the era of wild-capitalism cannot fill the void left by the disappearance of the possibility of resisting.

Kálmán, the former eating champion is a prisoner of his own body. Once an instrument in revolting, it is now rendered meaningless.

Interpersonal connections disappear: Lajos trying to chat with the supermarket cashier.

The former socialist eating champion is gutted and eaten alive by his cats.

Final stuffing: the space to revolt ceases to exist.

The empty bodies of father and son in a gallery: the final disappearance of the ritualistic quality.

 

An empty body

Finally, following the ironically depicted causative logic of Taxidermia (according to which the generations of the family, and in analogy the different political eras have almost automatically led to the next one), the last act of the saga deals with Kálmán’s son, Lajos, who is the exact antithesis of his father. As a taxidermist, he stuffs dead animals in modern-day Budapest by turning their bodies inside out and filling them with lifeless material. The negative parallel between binge eating of his father, and his activity of filling cadavers with straw speaks of the emptying out of the strategies Kálmán used during the Socialist episode. In the contemporary world Lajos has become a secluded character, with no interpersonal connections at all: he only talks to his monstrous, former speed-eater father who grew out of proportions and cannot move anymore, and the pretty supermarket clerk Lajos attempts to talk to does not react at all to his advances. After the accidental death of the super-obese father (he is eaten alive by the speed-eating cats he is trying to train), Lajos takes the last logical step in the progression of his family’s story: he commits suicide by constructing a machine that kills him and finally stuffs his body. The film ends with the images of a postmodern gallery that has the exhibited body-artefacts of both father and son. A gallery crowd all dressed in white stands by while an arrogant connoisseur gives a speech on the artistic value of the suicidal gesture.

As the film moves into the third episode, the director again composes a transition between the parts that suggests continuity and causation using a hyperrealistic camera movement. At the very end of the middle episode of Taxidermia, we see the huge Gizi and Kálmán staring at their tiny new-born son Lajos in the hospital in disbelief: presumably they expected a more “healthy-looking” baby. After a quick cut the camera frames the mother breastfeeding Lajos. This static close-up turns into a panning movement away from the feeding baby, and the camera “travels” through the milk glass hospital door and arrives at the extreme close-up of rear of a defecating bird. The white bird faeces land on the sidewalk right on front of the taxidermist shop of Lajos, obviously several years later in the contemporary era. While the director’s comparing of mother’s milk with bird faeces seems to depict a troubling family lineage, the fact remains that the mobile frame establishes a strong causative connection linking the two generations and thus the two political eras.

Lajos’s father, Kálmán has become so fat that he is completely immobile: taking his obsession with eating somewhat too far, he is the prisoner of the body that he once used to revolt against the lack of personal freedom. For the first two generations of the family, there was a real possibility to rebel against the social exploitation, but the post-socialist world of the third act removes all visible sources of oppression. There is no monarchist-feudalistic ruling class here, and the Party secretaries of Socialism are also gone. In the presence of an oppressive political power, identity was easily defined and recognized: acts of resistance in themselves became ways to articulate it. Nevertheless, this framework suddenly disappears in 1989 and the historical changes in Eastern Europe create a vacuum: the resisting identities of the past decades become dated, and the new ones emerging were corrupted by their real or imagined connections with the past. The collective political-ethical standards of the East European nations in the post-WWII world were defined by the Manichean ideology of resisting and collaborating subjects. Taxidermia creates a mythology that puts the notion of body as a site for memory and political-cultural resistance at the centre of this struggle.

While for the grandfather resistance meant the creation of a sexual fantasy-world, a site for remembering and identity performance where the quotidian and the festival overlapped, the father revolted against the fakeness of “existing socialism” via literally turning his body into a food container. In the wild-capitalist world of contemporary Eastern Europe the space for the resisting mnemonic body ceases to exist. The sexualized body of Morosgoványi, or the rebellious body of Kálmán become gestures of the past, and the contemporary body is projected as an empty hull. It turns into a signifier or copy that no more maintains a connection with its original. What remains is a caricature of its original functions: it becomes the ultimate object. The third, post-socialist episode of the film collapses the three themes that are symptomatic for the family’s history. Interaction between subject and history (social mediation), the relevance of objects or the role of sexuality negatively refer back to the same phenomenon: how the human bodies are really just duplicates of something they symbolically used to be. They cannot socially interact, they cannot relate to the object world and their sexuality is rendered meaningless. The possibility of the festival, or an “authentic” social-cultural experience disappears in contemporary society, and in the post-industrial capitalist world commodification has reached a new level, where images and reality turn into simulacra.[21][open endnotes in new window] This is the experience that the performative rite of Lajos expresses repeatedly by stuffing lifeless cadavers for well-paying customers (which, again foreground the class-distinction between him and the clients: similar to his ancestors, the film render Lajos as a subordinate clown).

His activities take the concept of Connerton about the body as site of identity performance to a level where this performance destroys the subject attempting to remember. While the body was a resource, which the rebellious Morosgoványi and Kálmán used to perform resistant political body gestures, in the contemporary era the body itself becomes erased in the ultimate performative rite. The loosing of the body’s capacity to serve as a carrier of memory and identity reflects back on the political system that contributed to this shift in the function of corporeality. The falling apart of Lajos, his suicide hints at the perplexity, the confusion and the vacuum that the falling apart of the Socialist system has left behind.

After the death of Kálmán, his son Lajos stuffs him like an animal. The turning of the human body into an object occurs a second time, when a wealthy customer walks into the taxidermist’s shop with a disturbing request: he wants a fetus to be put into a glass ball on a keychain. Finally the viewer witnesses a third incidence of human taxidermy, but this time Lajos turns against his own body. He constructs a machine that decapitates him, but is programmed at the same time to automatically stuff his body after his death. The family saga ends with a scene in a modern gallery where Lajos’s and his father’s bodies are admired as works of art by a snobbish crowd dressed in all-white. The taxidermist’s customer, who earlier ordered the bizarre keychain, now talks to the gathered people about the last thoughts that might have crossed Lajos’s mind before his machine killed him. As he puts it,

“there are things that just cannot be mounted. You can mount your father, or so to speak your whole family, but somehow, what you feel when the blade gets nearer the head, what you feel then, just cannot be mounted. This is a part of who Lajos Balatoni really is.”

The power of this closing scene comes from the theatricality and pathetic melancholy that these thoughts express: the speaker cannot have any idea about who Lajos really is. As Baudrillard puts it,

“[w]hen the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning.”[22]

The stuffed and exhibited bodies of Lajos and Kálmán symbolically point to the twentieth-century Hungary with its political heroes and cultural myths. Instead of being understood and processed they are beheld with an empty gaze. The trendy gallery-crowd in the colourless outfits depicts the basic ahistoricity of contemporary society: by contemplating the human statues as remarkable objects it fails to recognize their relevance for present-day social totality.

According to Niedermüller,

“Today in Hungary most political and social problems can be traced back to the fact that the economic and cultural modernization occurs at a different pace, and that in terms of cultural modernization, the difference between Hungary and other European countries is not diminishing.” [23]

Cultural modernization (also) results in the formation of a modern national identity, which moves away from inventing the country for almost a hundred years as a martyr nation. However, the 20th-century history of Hungary is an imagined story a large portion of which is dominated by occupying foreign powers. As the story goes, until 1918 the Habsburg House maintained its influence over the entire East-Central European region. Then the alliance with Germany from the mid-1930s had a decisive impact on the country’s future and after World War II, Hungary was under Soviet occupation. For the almost the entire century Hungarian collective memory bore the imprints of foreign invasions. Regardless whether these were the results of short-sighted decisions on part of the Hungarian politicians, or in fact unavoidable conflicts with the neighbouring powers, national identity shifted towards an often exaggerated and romanticized notion of the “enslaved” underdog.[24]

Pálfi’s film succeeds in turning the tragic-heroic understanding of the succession of the male generations into a parody. The critical tone manifests itself in the caricaturized depiction of each of the characters‘ actions, the director’s tendency to take the performances of sexual fantasizing, eating and stuffing of bodies to extreme ends and the creation of unavoidable connections between the generations. As I have indicated earlier, the main issue with the tragic-heroic resistant nation myth is that it diverts the attention away from individual and collective responsibility and positions the entire community (the nation) as passive and suffering. Taxidermia targets this logic through the overdrawn, hyperbolic story and its frequent forays into stylistic hyperrealism.

The progression through the episodes of the film shows the disappearance of a ritualistic quality that is depicted through the triptych of the body as a historical entity. As the mnemonic capacity of the performative body is questioned (it destroys itself), in the contemporary section of the film the director foregrounds the problem of historical memory, and consequently that of identity. This provocative gesture does not offer ready-made solutions to the problem it locates, but provokes the viewer to face the questionable nature of the causal- and tragic-heroic mnemonic program. The protagonists in the first two episodes of Taxidermia created a universe, a cultural performativity that allowed them to reenact group identity. Morosgoványi is repressed and he creates a secular bodily mythology and retreats into a private world. Eating for Balatoni is a sport that allows him to escape the repressive bounds of the system, although his body becomes seriously disfigured in the process. This resilient attitude became hard to adopt after 1989. For the taxidermist there is nothing he could resist, he is unable to develop his own ceremonies so he turns against his own body.

Historically, the resistance under both the feudalist-monarchist or the socialist systems facilitated the creation of a cultural attitude that can be described as a negation to the disruption of social totality. However, this is not taking place under the fetishizing capitalist system, as for Adorno: the negation of classist monarchism or feudalism, or the negation of socialism develops this resistant attitude as well.[25] Thus the characters of the first two generations in Taxidermia “survive because they create:” they work out the immanent, dialectical contradictions between their subjectivity and the political reality by using their bodies as mnemonic sites. For the orderly Morosgoványi and for Balatoni, their bodies are at once autonomous works that constantly refer back to their social character but also produced artefacts that position themselves as experienced phenomena. Finally, however, the last descendent of the family looses his mnemonic capacity, which reflects back on the director’s opinion on the faulty logic that he ironically followed throughout the film: the causal narrative of oppressed heroism in twentieth-century Hungary.

According to Adorno, works of art function as monads that are autonomous, since they do not directly reflect on society but are socially anchored (they hide manifest historical tensions and bring to light its surrounding social process).[26] These social monads reveal the significance of art under contemporary capitalism: as independent entities they can articulate a criticism that in turn has a social character. Paradoxically, what the taxidermist as a filmic character is unable to accomplish—use art to reenact and remember social totality—comes to life in director Pálfi György’s film. He is able to display through Taxidermia, a film that functions as a social monad, that the most problematic consequence of a historically causative memory is that it depicts the present as a direct result of the past. This teleological pattern then has the chance to determine current political and ideological positions. The recognition of this dynamics would be a major step in coming to terms with the Hungarian past.

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