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Gazdag Wryly Skewers Hungary's Officialdom

May 11, 1987|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

Gyula Gazdag has been praised as the most original Hungarian film maker of his generation, yet the very gifts that have made him such an important director have also made him controversial. As talented as he is outspoken, Gazdag, now 40, saw most of his work banned in his native country in the '70s and, until recently, much of it prohibited for export as well.

The first three films in the UCLA Film Archives' "Tribute to Gyula Gazdag," screening next weekend at 7:30 p.m. in Melnitz Theater, show that he is a major discovery. "Singing on the Treadmill" (1974) and "The Resolution" (1972), showing Saturday, and "The Whistling Cobblestone" (1971) on Sunday are about as different in style as three films could be, yet they are the same in their inescapable conclusion that communism is both evil and inefficient. In all three Gazdag reveals an intense loathing of the paternalism inherent in the system.

"Singing on the Treadmill" is a corrosive musical fantasy-satire of description-defying bizarreness that skewers kitsch taste as well as Hungarian politics. Gazdag has updated a 1957 operetta, called "Bastion Alley 57," in which four young couples compete for the chance to restore a ramshackle house. He then envisioned it as the creation of a pair of zany librettists who in paternal, bureaucratic fashion attempt to regulate the lives of those eight young people, even to the extent of pairing them off.

The film's other characters, seen toiling in the field, drop dead only to be loaded on to a conveyor belt to be reborn in the "treadmill" of the librettists' imaginations.

The film's many political and cultural references may remain obscure to most non-Hungarian audiences, but Gazdag's protest against the folly of attempting to regulate human nature is crystal clear.

In 1972 a sleek, Nelson Rockefeller-handsome party secretary was so confident of the removal of the leader of an agricultural cooperative that he allowed Judit Ember and Gazdag to film the proceedings. Their resulting documentary, "The Resolution," is a unique and devastating look at everyday communism at work in this attempt by bureaucrats to railroad a highly effective man out of office without a fair hearing, while members of the cooperative struggle to assert their right to be told what's going on and to have a voice in the matter. "The Resolution" is every bit as dramatic and suspenseful as "12 Angry Men"--one of those instances when life and art seem to become one.

"The Whistling Cobblestone," Gazdag's debut film, takes its title from a squeaking rubber rock, a souvenir of the Paris '68 uprising. It belongs to a college student on his first visit back to Hungary since his family fled at the time of the 1956 Soviet invasion. He's been invited to speak on the "drawbacks" of the French educational system at a summer work camp for teen-age boys that is lurching toward chaos because there's no work. The corn is not yet ripe for harvest and the camp's leader, a staunch, by-the-book type, has not prepared any alternate program. As in the other two films, the central figure--or figures--are bureaucrats who attempt to assert control all the more forcefully when they are most surely losing it.

By 1977, Gazdag was so controversial that he had to tone down his polemics if he wished to continue working. As a result, "Swap," which follows the screening of "The Whistling Cobblestone" on Sunday, is a far milder work, a deliberate emulation of the gentler, more indirect Czech style of social commentary. Rudolph Hrusinsky, the great, burly Czech star, plays the director of a small-town museum, a 19th-Century revolutionary landmark, invaded by a TV company filming an opera. Hrusinsky becomes foolishly inspired to stage his own historical pageant. "Swap" offers a wry, affectionate view of human nature much like Jiri Menzel's recent "How Sweet Was My Little Village," in which Hrusinsky played the local doctor. (213) 825-2581.

Among the films screening at the weekend in LACMA's Tribute to Joseph Cotten is "Gaslight" (1944), George Cukor's still-potent film of the popular stage melodrama of psychological suspense. Cotten plays the gentlemanly Scotland Yard detective attempting to save poor Ingrid Bergman from a diabolical, sexy Charles Boyer. For full schedule: (213) 857-6010.

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