The camera often assumes the position of non-human spectators: animals, looking from a distance, with curiosity but without emotional involvement. ...
... Sometimes the camera takes the position of an inanimate object capable of “reframing” the human being.
The old man hiccupping becomes the typical observer of the events of the film: he sits on his bench in front of the house, watching life and death go by without any comment except for the hiccups.
The small village in the middle of nowhere, on the margins of history.
Traces of a narrative: the midwife bottling the poison in her kitchen.
When objects are also metaphorical: the bowling pins fall like the men of the village.
In the first scene of Hukkle (right after the main credits), we see a long shot of a valley and a tiny village in the early morning of a spring day. Together with this establishing shot, the hiccups begin. The next shot shows an iron milk-pot in close-up, and we can see how milk is poured into it. At the next hiccup, a little milk is spilled. We see an old man in the kitchen of an old village house, surrounded by objects, most of which probably did not change much in the last few centuries. He walks out with the pot and sits down on the little wooden bench in front of the house. As he moves out, we see in close-ups the flap-hinge of the creaking garden gate with its age-old handle that the old hand must have touched countless times; we see the ants running around the bench-post that moves rhythmically with each hiccup (see pictures). These shots do not support storytelling: they are more phenomenological than functional or narrative, which is further emphasised by the amplified noises accompanying the pictures. (It may not be by accident that Hukkle is the first Hungarian film with a Dolby-Digital soundtrack.) The “story” does not require such details, noises and sensuousness: our attention is guided towards the “life-world” (in the phenomenological sense) of the village.
To many Hungarians, these images evoke childhood memories: the scenes of village life, summers at the grandparents in the country-side, the morning milking of cows, the sight, sound and smell of old wooden furniture, spring gardens, the touch of the old iron handle of a country wooden gate. Through evoking these memories, Hukkle connects to a rich sensuous strata of memory, which is often only loosely integrated into the “official” linear narrative of our lives.
In her influential study of Eastern-European cinemas, Identity-Games, Anikó Imre makes an observation crucial for the present study: she establishes a logical link between Eastern-European memory-politics and the aesthetic practice of such directors as Svankmajer and Pálfi:
Imre is referring here to Laura U. Marks’s ground-breaking book on intercultural cinema, The Skin of the Film, which calls attention to the multisensory potentials of the cinematic image, to the way the image may connect the spectator to a whole world of sensuous experience.
Like Proust’s narrator upon tasting the Madeleine that he used to eat on Sunday mornings in his childhood in Combray, the spectator of these strongly evocative images may also be overcome by a rush of involuntary sensuous memories, which “call up conscious, unconscious, and nonsymbolic associations with touch, taste and smell.”
What happens in Hukkle, similarly to In Search of Lost Time, is an invasion of the senses (so as to use Proust’s expression), which the spectator cannot completely control. We are definitely not in the realms of the kind of controlled visual space of monocular perspective that is created by classical narrative cinema. In Hukkle our perspective on, distance from and mastery over the images, events and evoked sensuous memories are undermined by the aesthetics of sensuous overload and a peculiar, amusing cinematography (by Gergely Pohárnok) that works at each and every point against the ideology of humanism and generally against human mastery over meaning. The milk pot, the wooden garden gate’s iron handle, the lady bug on one’s hand may all function as (what Marks calls) recollection objects, something she defines as an “irreducibly material object that encodes collective memory” (77). These recollection objects evoke multi-sensorial memory traces and establish symbolically non-mediated relations with the past.
Apropos of similar tendencies in intercultural cinema, Marks establishes the term “haptic visuality” (haptic coming from the Greek word to touch) in order to denote the sort of non-conventional aesthetics, another kind of relation to images, that she contrasts with traditional, “optical visuality:”
In other words, traditional “optical” visuality (as it is analyzed by Heath and others) is based on distance from the image (which is also necessary for perspective), mastery over the image, control over the visual space, and is characterized by keeping boundaries intact, and by the emphasis on narrative and symbolic meaning. In contrast, haptic visuality is based on proximity, a loss of control and mastery over the image, a richness of sensorial impressions, and is characterised by unclear boundaries. Whereas in optical visuality we see “things,” that is, we know what objects we see and why they may be important for the story, in haptic visuality the multisensorial impressions overshadow symbolic and narrative meaning.
When the camera shows these haptic close-ups for several seconds, the spectator may not be sure what “thing” it is that one sees; rather the surface, colour and sensuous qualities of the images, that is, their non-symbolic meaning, dominate. It takes time for the spectator to realize that what one sees is, for example, sheep or fish. Sometimes the “object” moves, sometimes the camera cuts back, and then we may recognize “what” we see. However, the film typically gives us several seconds to watch and listen without knowing “what” we see and hear, thereby establishing a purely phenomenological (and often haptic) immediacy with sensuous phenomena outside the realm of concepts. “Things” – that is, objects socially defined and endowed with symbolic meaning – are recognized later, after this time of phenomenological/aesthetic contemplation, if recognized at all. Hukkle is, therefore, not only set on the margins of history, but also on the margins of (symbolic) meaning. Contra Derrida and film semiotics, Hukkle seems to manifest that there is an outside to text, concepts, meaning and signification. It offers a realm without words, a thickly sensuous world that activates the spectator’s senses, past impressions and memory traces without passing through (what Friedrich Kittler calls) the bottleneck of the symbolic.
This way, Hukkle successfully creates a world full of memories that nevertheless bypasses the ideologically compromised realms of history, humanism and optical visuality. It remembers, but it does not remember “historical” events, it may contain traits of a story, but it is not necessarily a story seen by human eyes, it is rich in meaning, yet this meaning does not necessarily belong to the symbolic order of language, and definitely not to the all-seeing, all-controlling gaze of a (presumed) symbolic Other.
Flat history, flat cinema, flat meaning
“It was not the film’s awfully deep meaning, or its unprecedented authenticity of the representation of reality that made Hukkle one of the best films, if not the best film, of the 33rd Hungarian Film Week” – remarked one of the film’s Hungarian critics (see: Böszörményi). This sentence, simple as it may seem, points out one of the most crucial characteristic features of Hukkle: its break with a traditional cinematic aesthetics that usually favors representation, authenticity, truthfulness and profoundness of meaning. From the point of view of the rebellious politics of counter-memory practiced widely in Eastern-Europe, traditional, hegemonic aesthetics may easily seem tainted with ideologies with which one cannot identify without complicity with the oppressive political forces that systematically appropriate them. In a post-deconstructive intellectual context, such terms as “depth” appear as tropes sustaining a metaphysically-laden ideology of the aesthetic that tends to inscribe all sensuous impressions back into the supreme Logos of symbolic meaning (see: de Man). Accordingly, in a world where depth, meaning, history and truthful representation are highly politicized concepts, the lack of “depth” and “truthful representation” may actually be productive strategies.
The case of Hukkle, its system of representation and its tendency to undermine hegemonic discourses (of memory-politics, storytelling and the cinematic representation of human beings)seems to make it a par excellence example of what Laurent Berlant calls the “flatness” of traumatic experience and what she refers to as the presence of the traumatic in everyday experience. According to Berlant, modernity tends to have a dramatic approach. It is obsessed with the “depth” (of the psyche, of meaning etc.), and favors melodramatic expressions of past traumas. In this tradition (that probably affects most art forms), high intensity equals high importance. Berlant, however, calls attention to another kind of tradition, one associated with flatness. This cinematic style is characterized by the casualization of emotion, underperformance, diminished activity, inexpressivity, a lack of on-screen affect, and non-melodramatic responses. Berlant specifically focuses on cases in which silence may or may not stand for a repressed trauma.
Berlant’s description of the possible flatness of cinematic representation perfectly suits Hukkle’s stylistic qualities. The film never turns into a murder mystery in which one must find the secret causes of these murders, human beings do not appear as enigmas with a deep reservoir of (maybe unconscious) meaning, and the images of the film do not become symptoms of another, secret, hidden truth. These images may or may not tell another story of deep feeling, anger, frustration, guilt and desperation. As the critical reception of the film clearly shows, this peculiarly constructed film-text allows for (at least) two different types of interpretations: a deep and a flat one. I would argue that these two interpretations correspond with what – following Marks – one may call an optical and a haptic reading, respectively.
The optical/deep interpretation would take the film’s slightly experimental formal qualities, its lack of clear narrative, its nonsymbolic meanings and sensuousness simply as a bait that only increases the sense of mystery and narrative desire. This reading would follow the well-known, good old modernist/ psychoanalytical paradigm that supposes that the more the surface of a text/film/dream resists conceptual understanding, the deeper its meaning must be. The less sense it makes, the more we have to dig, in order to reconstruct the other, secret, hidden, deep, latent story behind the apparently nonsensical cover story/ manifest scene. The haptic/flat reading, however, would not make this assumption of a hidden, deep, “true” meaning. It would rather focus (as I have mostly done in this essay) on the ways these “flat” surfaces affect the spectator, how their sensuousness works, how they evoke a multi-sensorial experience, and how they may evoke sensorial, bodily memories lying outside narrative, history and symbolization. Let me make it clear: the film does allow for an optical/deep interpretation, many of its shots of animals and nature may be read allegorically, and – paraphrasing Nietzsche – I would even venture to say that probably it is impossible not to desire (more or less) totalized meaning and narrative coherence. The film’s novelty, however, is due to its haptic strategies that may evade such ideologically and metaphysically charged reading strategies. It is also through this possibility of a flat, haptic, sensuous film-text that Hukkle becomes an instructive example of Eastern-European politics of identity and memory.