Tuesday, December 29, 2009

You Couldn't Make This Up If You Tried!

Thanks to Sarah 'Colbert' Gancher for turning me on to the kitchiest of retro-Hungarian videos. Be sure you stick around for the chicken boiling. Ladies and gentleman: Z' Zi Labor.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Guest Spot: Lenore Weiss

Every now and again we get some submissions that won't fit into the coming issue of Pilvax, but are too good not to pass along. Such was the case with the poetry of Lenore Weiss, daughter of Hungarian emigrants to America. Enjoy these two poems that are part of a cycle about Lenore's mother, and drop her a line if you like them.

Coffee with Mom

"Those busy arms of yours are cool now
like this river with its broad silence
winding soft and slow."

--Attila József, Sleep Quietly Now

The removal of a kidney
brought you downtown,
yours didn't come out, but Daddy's did, buying him
coffee with a cheese danish
from across the street, whatever it took
to make a red light turn green again.

He had five more years left on the books,
marked by a daily dose of dipping his hands
in the waters of acetone to terminal cancer.
Better than staying in Hungary
during the War and becoming a ghost
on a railroad train. Choose your poison.
You left early, survivors

stuffing everything
inside a back pocket,
who taught me
to ride standing up
without losing my balance.
And so here I am.

You want to know if I've
been taking good care of myself.
Yes, I say. I have.
Afterward, we talk about the children,
there are no grand kids yet,
catching up on how the world's been doing
playing Disney on high-def sets,

wars, the presidency, and all the rest,
and how everything
is getting smaller
and costing more money. Money.
How it runs out like time,
the bottom of your change jar
with two pennies.

The Cymbalon and the Oud

A cymbalon and an oud
Growing out from the grass
Where a headstone beckons
For me to come closer.

It's my mother,
Powdering herself with
Silent Night
Under her arms, between her breasts.
She's busy and doesn't notice
When I sit down,
Measures a tablespoon of baby oil
Into her palm and smears her face,
Turns into a finger painting
With her nose on a plate.

She always had a sense of humor but now
Has become someone I don't recognize.
Disappears into her boudoir
Leaving only a smell
And a trace of powder.

Gone for all those times
I needed to know what to do.
The hammer of the cymbalon
And the cry of the oud
Is all she'll say.

Lenore Weiss is a poet, writer, and editor of Hungarian heritage who now lives in Oakland, California. Both of her parents came to the United States and settled in New York City where she was raised with her two sisters. Her father was a medal-winning soccer player and gymnast. Her mother had a uniquely strange sense of humor and knew how to bake cakes filled with delicious lekvár. She died more than 40 years ago. Lenore wishes she could sit down and have coffee with her Mom today with a slice of her cake. Lenore's email is: lenoreweiss@sbcglobal.net. She also serves as the fiction editor of the November 3rd Club.

Lenore Weiss

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Five Great Hungarian Products

5. Tokaj Aszú: Perhaps the wine of kings is virtually unknown in America because we have no tradition of royalty, or due to the fact that dessert wines don't figure into many menus. Or perhaps it is the price that is prohibitive, a modest 3 puttonyos bottle could set you back close to a hundred dollars at a wine shop. But in Hungary, Tokaj Aszú – made from grapes that have attained a 'noble rot ' on the vine – is available relatively inexpensively by the bottle – or by the glass at any of any upscale bar.

4. Tisza Trainers: Retro-hip has never been cooler in Budapest, especially to a generation that is discovering kitsch and didn't have to endure the repression of the Soviet-imposed socialist regime. This re-fangled brand of shoe updates the omnipresent state-owned Tisza trainer, to fantastic results. It is only a matter of time before Japanese shoe fetishists catch on.

3. Tomatoes: Try this: cut out the stem at the top of a summertime tomato, put it to your lips and suck. What you get is a burst of pure tomato flavor that might as well be another fruit from the pale, grainy supermarket-bought American variety. True, tomatoes are not originally Hungarian – not by a long shot – and they don't use them in cooking as much as they do in the Balkans, but a Hungarian tomato is one of our true simple seasonal pleasures.

2. Mangalica pork: believe the hype. The rescue of this species of wooly pig from near extinction and its ascension as a sought-after gourmet foodstuff is already well documented, so much so that it has become popular to bash the trendy pig. But there is a good reason mangalica it has found its way onto the menus of America’s most esteemed restaurants: the meat is beautifully marbled and fantastically rich. That'll do, pig.

1. Le Parfum perfumes: Using scents of derived from such whimsical sources as absinthe and smoky lapsang souchong tea, Zsolt Zólyomi’s perfumes, which he creates for his own line as well as already existing brands, are inventive and exclusive. But expect no Eastern European budget shopping here: prices of his artisan perfumes run close to $ 150 for a 100-ml size bottle. For a longer treatment of Le Parfum, and an interview with Zolt, stay tuned.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Found in Translation: an Interview with Peter Strickland about his debut film Katalin Varga

It is ironic that British expatriate Peter Strickland – writer and director of the lauded, soon-to-be released Katalin Varga, is getting a lot of attention abroad, from invitations to film festivals in Taipei and Mumbai, to the cover of Sight and Sound magazine suggesting he has made the best British film of the year. His first feature, seeded with his own money, has made barely a ripple in Hungary, his adoptive home. Indeed, the Budapest film community should have been the first to champion Katalin Varga (shot in Transylvania with a Hungarian-speaking cast) for no other reason that it is destine to reflect well on local film-making. Instead, a film that has already won a coveted Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, has thus far been ignored or subjected to hostile attacks regarding its politics. But I don’t want to dwell on the negative, because I have seen Katalin Varga on video and at a screening at Urania, and there is a much better story than the predictable local cynicism.

The film Katalin Varga is an enormous artistic achievement, and the making of it is a triumph of will and commitment to a dream. Though Strickland and his producers bill the film as a ‘revenge movie’ Katalin Varga really defies genre pigeon-holing. It is something a horror movie without a monster, or one of Grimm’s darker fairy-tales without supernatural intervention. It is an Eastern European gothic, which derives as much from Flannery O’Conner as Tarr Béla. The powerfully told story of a woman traveling across Transylvania to confront the man who raped her is told with minimal reliance on dialogue. Instead, the elegiac, forebodingly beautiful landscapes of Transylvania almost appear to narrate the story. Like baron, icy Nordic panorama in Lars Van Trier’s Breaking the Waves, the setting is a character in itself. But the most notable aspect, from this writer’s point of view, is that Katalin Varga is a work of outsider art which was written and filmed without compromise, and is succeeding in commercial release. Every aspiring filmmaker should take note and draw inspiration: despite the manifold obstacles and nay-sayers, it can be done.

Below find a brief interview with Peter Strickland about the making of Katalin Varga, and some of the reaction the film has received thus far.

Mókus: What has been the difference in the reaction from Hungarian film community and those at the international festivals?

Peter Strickland: Katalin Varga has yet to come out in Hungary, so I can’t gauge or compare the reaction. In general, the film has already fallen into some ridiculous and protracted arguments about its nationality or identity. It’s really tiresome and pointless, but one that always comes up. For me, film is mostly meta-national in that it's beyond nationality. With co-productions now, film-making is such a fluid process in terms of countries involved. If a story is specific to a country, locale or culture, then it can be national, but if we’re talking about a story non-specific to its environment, then that question about nationality really isn’t relevant. Some people say Katalin Varga is not British because it’s in Hungarian and Romanian, filmed in Romania with a Hungarian crew and post-produced in Hungary. Some people say the film is not Romanian because I’m not Romanian, the film is mostly in Hungarian with a Hungarian cast and crew and post-produced in Hungary. Some people say the film is not Hungarian because I’m not Hungarian and we filmed it in Romania. It’s quite surprising how rigid some people can be. Even national football teams are more flexible than this. For me, the film takes place in my world. I embraced some elements from the Szekély region – the rhythm, the Catholicism, the connection to the earth, but overall I would be an impostor to say I made a film about Transylvania. The characters you find in my film could be found anywhere. We portrayed the region as this hostile, forbidding world, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I chose to make the film in Transylvania because it had that epic canvas, it had the ingredients needed for a ballad already embedded in its bloodstream and most of all, because of Hilda Peter and the actors in whom I trusted. Even if we had millions of pounds, I still would have chosen Transylvania. The question of authenticity will always come up when making a film and as an outsider, I had to think very carefully about how I portray an existing place even though the villages in the film are fictitious. Ultimately, audiences in Hungary and Romania will be the harshest critics simply because they know the region and culture. Film-makers have to accept that wherever they shoot. If someone from Hungary or Romania expects to see an authentic representation of Transylvania with this film, then the chances are that they'll be disappointed. Saying that, outsiders have an advantage as they can offer a slant on an existing landscape. One can't deny the formidable influence of foreign blood on British cinema starting with Emeric Pressburger.

Mókus: How would you respond to questions of misogyny in your film?

Peter Strickland: Almost every man in Katalin Varga is flawed with pride, aggression, chauvinism, and hypocrisy. Yet nobody has once accused me of hating men. True, the female characters in the film do suffer because of men, but if someone wants to equate that with misogyny, then there’s not much I can do to change that opinion. Contempt towards women is certainly present throughout Katalin Varga, but does that mean the film itself embodies misogyny?

Mókus: How much of the film (particularly in atmosphere, scene, and sound) did you discover on set once shooting began?

Peter Strickland
: The film I wrote and the film that we made are two entirely separate things. The roads, houses, and terrain that drove the script never existed and it is very strange to force myself to think back to how the film looked in my head prior to shooting. Because I spent a lot of time preparing for the shoot, I knew what to expect in terms of the environment we were shooting in. So much of the time, we took advantage of the spaces we were shooting in and I chose them because they served the atmosphere of the film. We didn’t dress or design any sets. Everything is how you see it, apart from moving a few logs every now and then. The weather in the Carpathians is unpredictable. You can have four seasons in one scene. The film was difficult to grade in post-production because of the sun and the clouds being so volatile. If you look at the rushes of the lake scene, the light continuity is all over the place. This is probably one of the few films where thunder had to be taken out instead of put in. There was so much thunder during shooting, that it felt too Gothic to leave it all in. However, we were very lucky and at times the weather almost became a collaborator. When it rained during the lake scene, I almost shouted ‘Cut’ from the other boat, but since I noticed how Hilda was so lost in what she was doing, I just stayed out of it and that’s the best thing I didn’t do during the shoot. I thought it would look ridiculous with the rain, but what was on the screen was so serendipitous in terms of the ripples and the refraction of the light at just the right moment. It seemed as if Hilda and the weather had made some secret rehearsal together.

With the sound, most of the film was artificially constructed. We didn’t get so much good atmosphere during the shoot. The dialog recordings by Zoltán Karaszek were fine, but to get good atmosphere takes time and luck. We only had seventeen days of shooting. We put a few hours aside one night to record some frogs and general atmosphere, but the police stopped us and they took forever checking our ID cards, so I had to source recordings from elsewhere in post-production.

I went to Transylvania in 2004 with Clive Graham to start on insect and goat bell recordings. Clive recorded some good material and we combined that with a few of Zoltán’s pieces. The sound team during post-production also brought in their field recordings. György Kovács had some incredible recordings he made of wind, dogs and other things. Some elements that you would think were just there in the background during shooting took months to fit in. There is one scene with a scops owl hooting in the background. I spent months looking for the right sound, partly because I wanted to pay tribute to Luc Ferrari’s Presque Rien, which is one of my favorite records. I found the best scops owl recording through the National Sound Archive in London and the owl comes from Cserépfalu in Hungary recorded by the English ornithologist, Alan Burbidge. Quite a lot of birdsong comes from my record collection. The lake scene is 90 percent artificial when it comes to sound. Hilda overdubbed her lines a year later. The rain, the wind and the oars are all carefully positioned and layered on Pro Tools. I love that process of making a film and there is a high degree of sonic artifice to what we did. Transylvania does not sound so intense.

Mókus: Why did you elect to subtitle with Hungarian speakers rather than dub or use English-speaking actors?

Peter Strickland: There was no question about doing the film in any language other than those spoken by the actors. I remember speaking to an English film person about the project and as soon as I said the language would not be in English, he backed off and told me to forget about it. One executive in London refused to even look at a 3-minute clip of the film because it was in Hungarian and Romanian. I had the DVD on my person. I was in his office, which had a DVD player and he still said ‘no.’ One can’t deny that you lose a certain audience once you have subtitles in a film, but equally you lose another audience if you have non-English characters speaking to each other in English.

Films should be in the tongue of the characters’ nationalities. It’s not about authenticity or understanding, but it is about entering the mindset of a character through the tempo, the texture of language. Characters should be universal, but they can only be made so when they are true to their own voice and train of thought, and only then can we believe in them. Hilda and the actors brought something unique to Katalin Varga with their language. It would have been a very different film with a different rhythm alien to that region, had we made it in English.

Foreign literature has to be available in English because we only have text, but with film it’s different. The timbre of the voice when it is in its own linguistic environment conveys something far richer than when speaking in English if it is not the mother tongue. Spoken language corresponds with body language and everything is so intertwined when it's in the language it should be in. If we're having non-English actors speak in English because that's what their characters do, then that's fine.

Paradoxically, making a foreign character more accessible through English language only serves to distance the audience. So many historical films do this. It’s bullshit and I hate the way that they patronize an audience in this fashion. It’s a dictate purely fuelled by commercialism. How about we make a film about Winston Churchill talking to Franklin Roosevelt in German, but with the accent of an English person speaking German? It sounds ludicrous, but no more ludicrous than what we do with our representation of foreign characters. Saying that, I’m quite a fan of ‘Dad’s Army’. I’d forgive that show anything.

In terms of how challenging it was for me to direct a film in a language I didn't know well? It was fine for me, only because the cast and crew spoke such good English and they were incredibly astute in terms of understanding what was needed for the characters. The credit goes to them.

Mókus: How have you balanced day-to day needs of living and making money with the huge commitment of the film?

Peter Strickland: Throughout the ‘90s, I balanced day jobs with film and music activities. It was possible then because youth was on my side. When you’re in your twenties, you can go to an employment agency and pick up a basic job whenever you need to and with relative ease. When I moved back to Reading in 2007, at the age of 34, it wasn’t so easy to find a job either there or in London. The law states that you can’t be discriminated against because of age, but the reality is somewhat different. If you’re moving between jobs within your chosen profession or field, age can almost be to your advantage. However, if you have a complete career change or start looking for a job when you have huge holes in your CV, then age is definitely against you. After Katalin Varga failed in September 2007, I just tried to think about staying afloat financially and getting work in. I’d had enough of film and being treated like a prostitute by certain people in the industry. I tried to go for something similar, such as copy writing and built up a CV of fake paper adverts. The reaction in London was, ‘why hire someone inexperienced who is 34, when we can get someone fresh out of university?’

When applying for regular jobs, I learnt my lesson during the ‘90s, and that was to never put down more than a cursory interest in film on my CV. Once you claim any aspiration towards film-making on your CV, at best you are regarded as a dreamer. Even if they like you, from their point of view, they will see that your heart is not in the job and you’ll jump ship when something better comes along. So for me, after having spent years away making Katalin Varga, constructing a CV was a real challenge. My CV basically consisted of elaborate lies and fake firms with friends disguised as employment contacts. I couldn't say I had made a film. It was a crushing time for me to go back and plead for the most basic data entry jobs and be treated like a drifting loser by people ten years younger than me. Some people were very supportive, but the usual reaction was to regard a thirty-something, bald, unemployed man living with his mother as something that blew in with the trash. Who gives a hoot whether you put all that effort into a film? People only pay attention once you have some kind of ‘branding’ – be it an award or distribution company behind you. Everyone loves to champion an underdog, but it’s a lie, as one has to already be a successful underdog in order to be championed. A huge difference. ‘Katalin Varga’ is now a comparatively successful underdog story, but what about all the other people struggling to make films? I don’t think my story and situation is so unique, and that’s why I talk about it at length. It is relevant to other film-makers. We delude ourselves that we break into the industry because of our talent, but it’s more because of luck than talent.

The conventional route during the ‘90s was to do work experience if you could afford to do it. I saved up enough money to work for a pop video production company for free for one month and it was thoroughly wretched. You think that you’ll gain some kind of useful computer skill or on-set experience, but you’re just told to copy from one Beta tape to another and go to the post office. If you complain, you’re very aware that there is a whole queue of people desperate to take your place. You're at the butt-end of the industry and that reinforced my idea about getting away from some vile people and being independent, taking a good day job unrelated to cinema and just doing film and music stuff with my friends during the evenings and weekends. It was an amazing and empowering time for us.

I did have some great day jobs – Edexcel, the examination board in London was one. Because it’s run mainly by ex-teachers, there isn’t the usual preoccupation with status and money. The majority of them were incredibly supportive of employees who harbored their own passions. When I worked at that company, I could work with my friends on music. With music you could do that because it was relatively cheap to produce. We could afford to be uncompromising and make financial losses. I put a huge amount of work and love into producing a seven-inch single of entomology recordings by Jim Reynolds and David Ragge, and we only sold around fifty copies. It didn’t matter and it was very liberating that we could act as purists. Film is too prohibitively expensive for that. So you are forced by its very financial nature to network, to get in there somehow and to convince people that they will see a return on their money.

I wasn't any good at networking or meeting people and when I ended up with an inheritance of 30,000 euros, I used it to shoot and edit Katalin Varga. That money went a long way. I had a steady and very flexible job in Slovakia at that time, so I could support myself and pay rent with my earnings and use the inheritance purely to fund the film. That was a very strange period of my life. I had lost my father and his brother within a few years. That was the only immediate English side of my family (my mother is Greek), so a huge change was forced upon me. A whole way of life had gone, so going further into Europe made sense. A few years later, the inheritance from this fuelled an incredibly optimistic bout of aggressive energy to make this film and just do what was always denied to me. I just felt I could work. It was so liberating to actually work and do what I always wanted regardless of future consequences. The chances were clearly that we would fail on the lack of money and experience we had, but I was so fired-up, I just threw myself into it. I was lucky in a sense because my family never discouraged me, even though they feared the consequences, so there was always a sense of good will despite the ridicule I faced outside the home. My uncle refused to watch any film made post-1960 and only cared about Jacques Tati or the Marx Brothers, so it's somewhat ironic his money went towards this. However, that money dried up during post-production in 2007, I lost my job in Slovakia and the rot set in very rapidly.

I fell into teaching in 2008 and that became a revelation for me. With all these data entry jobs, I could get away with being stubborn, lazy, and irresponsible, but with teaching, one has to embrace the inherent responsibility it entails and it does force you to forget your own troubles and give something of your personality and experience to other people. There is no space for one to dwell and consequently it does become uplifting and enriching. The danger with teaching abroad (and you really feel this when some English teachers you meet are also struggling musicians, writers, artists, or film-makers and often beset with alcohol problems) is that it’s viewed as a stopgap instead of something that can enhance your worldview, especially when teaching adults. Teaching is something I would never want to give up entirely.

The mistake I made during the ‘90s was to settle for non-committal data-entry jobs in offices. Easy to get into, easy to do, and easy to get out of, and the rest of the day is yours. However, that denied me a back-up career. One could argue that a back-up career is self-defeating because you can inevitably fall into it out of comfort, but at least you can pay the bills. The last decade was strange for me. I envied my friends with regular jobs because they had security and comfort. They envied me because I was pursuing my dreams. It would be difficult to advise others on what to do. One piece of luck got me to where I am now and that plays such a vital part. I gave a new script to Oana and Tudor Giurgiu from Libra Film along with a rough cut of Katalin Varga as an example of previous work. They didn’t like the script, but asked why the rough cut wasn’t finished and from that moment on, they sourced money to finish the post-production, a sales agent came on board, Berlin invited the film and so on. It had been eight months since I blew my money and abandoned the film, and suddenly it very quickly sprang back to life.

I’m slowly trying to piece together a comprehensive CV of all my jobs, which so far total over fifty. This is the reality for most people who are middle or working class and without connections or luck. The grip of elitism and nepotism in some places is stifling, and there are some very talented people I know who sadly have all the odds against them just because they don’t have connections through their families. Of course there are hugely talented film-makers who come from film industry families and they can put maybe 60 percent of their perspiration into making great films, but the one thing some of them fail to recognize is that for the rest of us, the act of making a film is only a fraction of our work. 99 percent of our perspiration goes towards getting into the position where we can actually begin to make a film – the endless application forms, waiting, rejection, phone-calling, hustling, and balancing that with day jobs. The whole of the ‘90s flew by on that generic response to an application — ‘you’ll get your answer in another two weeks.’ If you’ve spent a decade waiting ‘another two weeks’ for that letter, phone call, or e-mail, it’s very easy to understand how you’d use an inheritance to make a film instead of putting a deposit on a flat.

Saying all this, I've known of some people who just get that insanely lucky break at a young age — right place, right time, and that's it. Yet strangely I don’t regret that struggle. I’m a big fan of the TV series, ‘The Office’ and part of its power is in transforming such a frustrating part of my life into something very funny. I’m almost nostalgic for those endless weeks typing in codes into computers in sterile offices, dreaming of escape and what I could do for my first film. Those hours and hours of bone idle dreaming definitely fuelled that drive to make a film.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Five Most Over-Rated Tourist Spots in Budapest

5. Vásárcsarnok

The District IX market hall is basically a decked-out airplane hanger for produce. It impresses at first blush, but it doesn't take long to realize that an eggplant looks the same in Hungary as it does at home. It is left to the vendors to give the place some local flavor. A butcher at Vásárcsarnok once tried to sell me cow cheeks (which they don’t even put on display – they are so unsightly and unpopular) for a higher price than an equivalent quantity of a prime mangalica cut. He succeeded (crafty bastard) in selling me ground beef at twice the going rate. Central Market? Try, Central Mark-up.

Happy Alternative: District V Csarnok

Also designed by Gustave Eiffel, it is the Vásárcsarnok in miniature, without the busloads of Koreans, and without the attitude.

4. Szentendre

Aside from a few good museums, the charm of Szentrenre still eludes me. A small – albeit picturesque town – with big city prices. Most of what you find, aside from the most gaudy of Hungarian craft souvenirs, are other tourists wandering around looking at each other, wondering why every travel book insists Szentendre is an essential part of their itinerary.

Happy Alternative: Vác

Equally small and picturesque, with a few great produce and flea markets, Vác is an under-touristed gem. An excellent starting point for expeditions into the Bukk hills, and you don’t have to suffer the HEV to get there.

3. Váci U.

Featuring low-rent brands that pass for luxury shopping in Budapest, Váci is perhaps the last street in Budapest I would elect to show a visiting friend. With the konzum lányok, professional beggars, and bus tour ticket hawkers making forward motion a chore, it's not even all that pretty a walk.

Happy Alternative: Király Ut.

Before Andrássy was built, Budapest’s gentry paraded up and down Király, the city's most elegant shopping street. Though it lost its high-end status long ago, Király has retained its charm. From haute-cuisine to budget dining, 24-hour dentists, hipster bookshops, and a few of Pest’s best bars, Király is a more authentic representation of the city than Váci, or, these days, Andrássy.

2. Gundel

A former irreproachable bastion of Budapest fine-dining, it is now the favorite spot of reality clown Győzika. Enough said.

Happy Alternative: Klassz

There are always inventive takes on local produce for very reasonable prices at Klassz, which is why it is full every night. The menu changes every few months, but they always have goose liver (still legal in Hungary!) and much-hyped mangalica pork on offer. As Klassz is partnered with the Wine Society, their wine list is amongst the best in the city.

1. Lánc Híd

Hungarians love their fancified Chain Bridge. But in the scheme of great European bridges, it pales. Go to Prague if you want spectacular bridges. The Chain Bridge connects the equally over-rated Castle District with bone dry Roosevelt Square, making it all that much more avoidable.

Happy Alternative: Szabadság Híd

This is an honest, elegant, working-man’s bridge. Patina-green Szabadság just received a huge renovation and is open again for business, with its wonderful views of the Danube from the southern part of central Budapest. Connecting lovely Gellért Hill with Fővám Tér, Szabadság Bridge is also the top choice of jumpers. What is more Hungarian than that?

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Five Reasons to Quit Facebook (not that I'm going to)

5. Parasite of Time. There is a miniature Japanese girl that lives in each of our minds, and she loves tiny little cute things: like digital eggs, packrats that collect trading cards, and virtual pets who eat cupcakes. She needs to satisfy these urges daily. You deny her at your peril. But like Samara from The Ring, once you give her a little attention, she demands it all.

4. Voyeurism. This is a personal, life-long weakness. The minutia of other people’s lives are secretly fascinating to me. I can’t get enough of rummaging around in other people’s stuff, and this is the easiest most anonymous place to do it. It is a bad habit, and facebook provides for a virtually limitless amount of poking. Basically, you are my reality TV.

3. Too Much Information. And I’m not talking about the continuously updated home page, which can be strangely addictive, like your friends are stocks on a ticker-tape. I mean that I am comfortable with my memories of past relationships, for the most part. But twenty years on, you find faces have changed, as have ideals: a friend turns deeply politically conservative, or a wild ex-girlfriend is ‘reborn’ and shouting about it, and a former feminist is keeping you up-to-date on her kids’ bowel movements. Folks, stay where you are, comfortably embalmed and unchanging—in my mind.

2. Communication Substitute. If email killed letter writing, facebook drove the final nail into that coffin. If you miss somebody, you can leave a note on their wall, and feel like you have been in touch. Everybody has experienced the rush to catch up with lost friend. But that is usually where it ends. Seeing that they are there, in your little digital stratosphere, then watching them slowly age, seems to be enough.

1. Activism Inhibiter. Like MTV with teen rebellion, facebook provides a kind of faux-activism. The danger is that people often feel like they have contributed something meaningful by donating their status to a cause, or joining a facebook group. But last I checked, there was no Minister of Facebook, ready to dispatch armies on China, once a threshold people have joined the Free Tibet group. Ahmadinejad does not care if you have turned your profile picture green to support the opposition, and homophobes certainly won’t be swayed by your status update. There was a time when, in America, people demonstrated. You had to be active to feel like you contributed. These days, the Million Man March might well be relegated to a digital group. Facebook promotes passive activism – an oxymoron – and the best reason to quit facebook, and never look back.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Skin Care, or: the Metro-sexualization of the Budapest Male

Not too long ago, I wrote a post entitled the Hipster Conquest of Budapest, which delineated the susceptibility of local youth culture to overt and covert marketing strategies developed in the West. There is a flip-side to that story, however. Marketing is not entirely a social evil. There are instances where persuasive marketing can be a force for good (to my mind, Obama ran a marketing campaign as much as a political one–but that is another story). Take , for instance, the feminization of the average–typically Hungarian–urban male, disguised in the cloak of the metro-sexual: a marketing dream term if there ever was one. In evolving male conditioning about gender, where feminism failed in Hungary, marketing triumphed. Over the past ten years the average Budapest male is more attuned, whether they are conscious of it or not, to their feminine side.

There are several forces at work behind this transformation, and not all the usual culprits: the apparel and cosmetics industries, and mass media. I am thinking of role models, from the utter worship of ambi-sexual clothing horses like Freddie Mercury and football stars Ronaldo and David Beckham. And given that local men were already indulging in habits that would widely be considered overly feminine anywhere outside of LA (the double cheek, man-on-man kiss, and rosé wine spritzers); coupled with the lack of imaginative home-grown fashion, and adding unbridled acceptance of capitalism and mall culture, the territory was ripe for a metro-sexual revolution. Indeed, some of the change came from within. Take the Hungarian hip-hop band, Belga, who routinely, royally, and amusingly skewer macho behavior in their songs and videos. (On a digressive note: Belga also manage to consistently create original and entertaining Hungarian hip-hop. Not to mention, they smoke, live). Or the first openly out politician Gábor Szetey. Even Hungarian skinheads are more fashionable than ever, sporting their Lonsdale hoodies and Fred Perry logos. It absolutely delights me that working-class Hungarian skinheads are saving up 25,000 forints, around 130 USD, to sport a Fred Perry polo, along with 150 USD Doc Marten’s. The Magyar Gárda too, though far from the Magyar-Práda, are quite fastidiously dressed in their black Fourth Reich uniforms. Hitler’s tailor’s would have been proud

A change of attitudes is harder to verify. Correlating the drop in incidence of spousal abuse with the sightings of pleasingly colorful summer scarves, would be both speculative and irresponsible. But one thing is for sure: gay men are more comfortable coming out in Budapest, and have been doing so in legion; and showing their consumer muscle with the opening of numerous gay-oriented clubs and bars, and–for the first time in the country’s history–enfranchising themselves politically. This, in the eyes of anybody who believes in human rights, can only be a good thing. And don’t doubt that the marketing of gays to a straight audience has had a lot to do with that. Not everybody may cop to having a gay friend in Hungary, but everybody has seen Queer Eye for the Straight Eye. Just one more debt that will go unpaid by the straight world.

If we need any more evidence of the metro-sexualization of the local male, we need only look at the average cosmetics store, where there are a wide variety of colognes, and men’s skin-care products available, not to mention male cosmetics. These days the bald goon at the club door smells of winsome CK One and businessmen smell-test soap at Lush. I don’t want to harp on Hungarian Emo any more than I already have–it exists for a reason–and one of these reasons may very well be a rebellion against the expected standards of male behavior. (That, or the CEOs of all the hair-product companies got together in a dark room, scheming to leave no hungo-hairsyle unperfected without gel, spray or mousse.) As if this wasn’t enough proof, there is now a males-only day spa–because, you know, us men just need some alone space when nurturing our wellness.

The confluence of this might be the summer scarf–so aggressively pushed by Zara and H & M as the must-have summer accessory. Let’s face it, nobody, male or female, really needs a summer scarf, unless you are susceptible to hickeys. (Though, that kind of defeats the point of getting a hickey in the first place.) Summer scarves are gratuitous fashion, designed only to move more product off the shelves of the large department stores. Conversely, it does fly in the wind as a kind of liberating flag–that attitudes can change, albeit slowly, certainly slower than fashion. But that is not necessarily a bad thing.

I can’t prove, scientifically or otherwise, that marketing has done more to affect male behavior patterns than feminism in Hungary, but this being a personal blog and not a news-source, so I don’t feel particularly compelled to. But change for the better is afoot. It will not come without struggle or resistance, and backlash–but I am sure the marketers will devise a strategy to neutralize and sell that too.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Fuck You (Very Very Much)

Is there any more universally understood phrase in the English language than a good old 'fuck you'? In this case, it is directed at our local frothing-at-the-mouth homophobes. Props to the various Hungarian sztárs here, whomever they may be. And a grand flaming fuck you to those who would deny them.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Trabant Two-Step

Presenting a super DIY Budapest-based clip by former resident and Mókus Patrol member Ernst Schoen-Rene, otherwise known as Jean Mikoyan. It seems like forever ago when Jill (Ernst’s wife, the vampish Meg White of the duo in the video), taught me the meaning of the word senki-házi, and how to use it properly (for the record, that would be at 3 a.m. in the cellar of Vittula, when addressing some anti-Semitic fuck-tard). Here they are, as though they never departed—a’ rhymin and a’ ritalin to Ernst’s former band Trabant.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Lyric Life with David Hill

David Hill ConsumedI am kind of on a poetry jag here, and see no real reason to abandon it at this point. The truth is that Pilvax gets so many more poetry submissions than we could possibly publish, thus it is nice to dedicate some space to verse here. It is interesting that, in terms of popularity, few genres of writing sell less than poetry. Even Pulizer Prize winning poets sell fewer, sometimes far fewer, than ten-thousand copes of their work. Most major publishing houses no longer consider poetry commercially viable. But poetry as a democratic art form is alive and well. Why is that? At my most cynical, editorial-minded, I believe it is because it is the least objective form of writing. Anything goes in free verse, and it takes a sensitive, well-trained mind to distinguish the real thing from the imposters. Or, more generously, I believe there is a real human need for poetry. It is the most elegant and expressive form of writing, and indeed, a poem like Sándor Petőfi’s Nemzeti Dal can change the world we live in.

One poet that did manage to get past the Pilvax radar was Budapest’s original lit-dude, David Hill, a co-founder of the Bardroom, Budapest's forum for live readings in English. His poetry is unique in its tempo, pith, and, above all, wit. His verse walks the tightrope between erudition and accessibility, and is the kind of stuff former editors of magazines like the New Yorker championed. Both Aaron and I were attracted to David’s work long before we conceived of Pilvax, and were thrilled to publish an array of his verse in Pilvax 4, including one Hill poem on the back cover. Below you will find a brief interview with David Hill, followed by a selection from his new book Consumed published last year by Ken Arnold Books in the United States.

Pilvax: What is the best pun with your name?

David Hill: Someone pointed out to me once (at a party in Budapest) that "Dave Hill" sounds a bit like "Devil." He speculated that I was actually Satan in disguise. That appealed to me quite a lot, although it requires some effort to make the pun work. It helps if you put on a Spanish accent. A few years ago, I went through a phase of writing poems that contained puns on my name, specifically in order to get around the irritating anonymity requirements that are common in writing competitions. But they were rather bad puns. No doubt that's why I didn't win anything.

: What are a few things that surprised you about your move to the States?

David Hill: I didn't know the Pacific Northwest was so beautiful. And not just when you're visiting a waterfall, walking along the coast, gazing down into the Columbia Gorge or strolling in downtown Portland. Even if you're just shopping at some strip mall, coming out of the store to see the big sky and the coniferous forests on the horizon can be breathtaking.

Pilvax: How in this day of constricting publishing industry did you get a book of poetry published?

David Hill
: I read in a writers' newsletter that this publisher was open to queries from writers. I sent in a resume and a work sample, they liked it, and we took it from there. To put that in context, though, I work in writing and publishing all the time (journalism as well as entertainment/arts things). I don't do anything else. So I'm always sending out stuff and keeping my eye on different information sources for opportunities. Most things don't lead to anything. This one did.

: What else are you working on currently?

David Hill: I'm working with a composer in Portland on a piece for the Third Angle ensemble. The piece includes some narration, and I'm helping out with the text. It will be premiered early next year. I've been cooperating with the Hungarian band Little Cow since 2006. I translate their lyrics so they can record their songs in English for international release. There's an album in the works right now, which will be the third one I have worked on with them. Besides those projects, I have some ongoing gigs in online and print journalism.


Our names are on the headstones of our husbands,
Awaiting date of death. This warms our hearts.
Our friend's the man who makes the region's shop signs;
Our kids patrol their land in horse-drawn carts.

This spring the storks, fashionably untended,
With unkempt nests for nodding over brood,
Low-flying, halfway tame, wholly enchanted,
Did not home here. Nor did the frogs, their food.

First year I can remember when they didn't.
The lanes are filled with stork-news nonetheless,
White petals star-splayed, mimicking our village,
Whose spread arms pose as streets in our address.

Strange, changes. Now we're on a brand new railroad;
Vladivostok to Adriatic Sea;
At space-age white pavilions load and unload
One-car electric trains, infrequently.

Needing bridges

Each bridge defines a stretch of the flat town,
Lords over it; and makes its road continue
Deep into it; keeps taut its pulsing sinew—
But wartime photos show those bridges down,

And one ad-hoc bridge that was soon destroyed.
Plaques, pointing statues, tell the tale. It throws me.
I dream how this wet air might still enclose me,
Walking out on the flat face of that void...

The hilly town, sure in its bluff terrain,
Of course, has its own shape, is less in need.
This tram I'm in now, fastening the river,

That marbles with unnecessary rain,
Stanches the doubt. Up there we view, we read,
We live; a bridge would be how we deliver.


Despite being communists,
The leaders of Romania
Between World War Two and 1989
Were also nationalists.

Towns which had always
Borne Hungarian or German names
Were officially rebaptized
With Romanian ones.

My parents' village slipped through the net
And kept the same name
Throughout those atheist days.
Gottlob. Praise God.


I do find Transylvania congenial:
Haunting a forest or Saxon town.
The tourists love me, but it's all quite menial.
Moldavia is where I wore the crown.

A corner of first Rome's then Kiev's empire,
I stood for all things Caesar never tames.
Werewolf, vermicolacius, or vampire:
My legend, like my towns, had many names.

Hero of global culture, I grew slicker,
Perfected chilling smiles and licked my lips.
But long before fresh blood became my liquor,
I ate the sun and moon. I was eclipse.

Between the mouths of Dnister and of Duna
Is still where I return to rear my young.
I teach them somnul dulce, noapte bună:
Our vowel-rich Thraco-Latin mother-tongue.

Lying Still

After a few nights of
Going to sleep in the searing heat
Drunk on fine fruit spirits,
I found my sheets took on a strange smell:

A headier, purer,
Double-distilled potion filled my sweat.
Soon I'll be fermenting,
Be a reaction, be truly still.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

And Now A Word From Our Sponsor

pilvax magazineIt took some time, effort, and lots of patience, but Pilvax 6 is finally out. Lots of great writing here, including jazz-noir by up-and-coming Irish writer Billy O'Callaghan, a magic-realist take on Cold War radio by Pilvax designer Tom Bass, and a novel excerpt by Ferenc Barnás, whose novel The Ninth was recently released in English on Northwestern University Press in the US. But as a blog excerpt, I am going to turn you onto some found-poetry by Budapest expat and former Fastbacks’ drummer Nathan Johnson. I have always had a soft spot for found art, particularly found poetry, which I also used to assemble to pass the hours while temping in the vendor compliance department of Montgomery Wards in Chicago. Johnson’s poetry comes from chat rooms dedicated to drumming, and has a warmth and humor that really appealed to me personally and editorially. Enjoy!

The New Cymbalism

These poems are the result of exploring amusing threads on the Modern Drummer website, and then scrolling through reader feedback and cutting and pasting text as seen fit, more or less in chronological order.

While a literary experiment such as this is hardly an attempt at serious art, there is an extremely high level of truth present here. No matter how the selected texts are arranged, taken out of context, or juxtaposed, nearly everything was originally expressed in all sincerity; in other words, the poems are truly a distillation of a particular psychological and phenomenological universe: the mind and milieu of the modern drummer. Thus, in the immortal words of David St. Hubbins, they tread a “fine line between clever and stupid.”

Tiniest cymbal

I need the smallest possible cymbal
I want a tiny crash


With thimbled fingers
scratch my crashy itch
a 6-inch splash
a high-pitched, short-lived crash

What should I look for in a cymbal
if I want a tiny crash?


Sorry, I have a soapbox and a situation

I don’t want to go electronic
and I don’t want them stuffing foam and towels in my kit
Now they’re talking about putting things on my drums
Maybe they have a valid reason

We just have to end up biting our tongues
"I'm sorry I can no longer play drums
because I don't agree with these decisions."

Now I play in a church that was voted
the #2 place to hear a band in Salt Lake -
You're in a box, carpeted, veiled behind a curtain
The pastor gets to buy new gear and hopefully everyone is happy
You get to play your set (sort of)

I am morally opposed to drum machines

I suck at drums

It’s true
I tire out really quickly and then get super-sloppy and frustrated
My timing is all over the place
My feet are anything but consistent
I start having an "I suck" fit
I take my kit apart
I think this screws me up more than anything else
It's usually due to the height of my throne
I caught my jaw tightening up while playing
I have to constantly readjust myself
Throne issues might be the answer

I suck. You don’t
You definitely don’t suck
I sit down to play and it’s like I have palsy or something . . .
sweating like a pig . . .
Session ended with me whipping my stick
I sucked real bad last night

I do need to eat better
I've been trying to drink more juice and milk
Drumming requires all the muscles from your ass outwards

I'm ever so slowly learning to play
Rome wasn't burned in a day

It's ok to suck
Sucking is the natural state of mankind
Just realize that sucking is what people do, and be ok with that
It has thus been summarized

…ripped my blisters open...
Friction sucks

I want a 2-piece kit

Maybe a Yamaha kick and snare
or maybe Tama or Pearl
such a minimalist kit
the correct answer is
"full cocktail drumset"

More from Nathan Johnson's "New Cymbalism" can be found in Pilvax 6

For more on Johnson's handiwork on the drums, check him out here with original Hungarian Emo band Amber Smith

Saturday, June 20, 2009

American Itinerant

Posting is light this spring as I am on the road, essentially working itinerantly throughout Austria as a teacher. Speaking of which, on a late night binge not too long ago, I found myself laying into a fellow expat who had made the mistake of criticizing the profession of teaching English in front of me. His point was that it was beneath most creative types, unless is was simply a means to support their art. I hadn’t really thought about just how much teaching means to me until then, and only recently have I understood what a fulfilling profession it is, exclusive of any extra-curricular pursuits.

If you have ever worked in an office, you know that genuine and meaningful human interaction can be scarce. But people don’t typically work in offices to gratify any need for meaningful interaction. They work there for money, prestige, security, a sense of achievement, or, just as often, because they are willing to settle for a safe path. This was certainly the case for me when I worked in book publishing in New York. It is hard to match the feeling of receiving the first copies of a book you worked on, or seeing your name in acknowledgements, but these are rare enjoyments in a life of endless paperwork and corporate politics.

Teaching, on the other hand, is nothing but meaningful interaction. As one who spends a silly amount of time alone in front of a computer screen, the social aspect of teaching is not just gratifying, is sustaining. And it is one of the few jobs that makes demands on the entirety of your personality. You can even come away from classes with new friends, if you are open to that.

There is a long history of writers who make their living as teachers, from Robert Frost to Joyce Carol Oates, and James Joyce, to those that relied on it before they hit the big time like Stephen King, Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling. But even if I should be so lucky to have the most minimal success as a writer, I for one, would not give up classroom teaching. It is too emotionally stabilizing, and there is to much immediate gratification there. The classroom, any classroom, from Budapest to the far reaches of the Alps, feels like home. Teaching is not something to settle for, it is something to aspire to.

As this is the blog for a literary magazine, I am happy to include here a few modern haiku from a class I taught recent week in a Linz art school.

Maybe one day
I will understand the meaning
Of the decisions my Lovers make

—Sonja S.

(Dark) clouds gather fast
A light-elf is born to earth
(It’s) the first snowflake

—Luna R

Sleeping by the sea
Waves wake her up like lovers
In hot summer nights

—Christina S.

When he sings his song
I can’t say if it’s hot or cold
And my heart beats fast

—Teresa H.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Akara of Budapest

A short film by Mókus Patrol team member Nathan Kay.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Case for László Sárközi

Some day you will be able to talk about László Sárközi without having to mention that he is a Roma (and one of the very few Roma poets publishing in Hungary today). But now, for better or worse, he is burdened with that mantle and all the expectation and associations that come with being a gypsy writer in post-communist Central Europe.

Pilvax was lucky enough to be the first literary review to publish Sárközi in English. But getting Sárközi in print proved to be a challenge. For starters, he is not an easy man to find. I had to go through an intermediary, who kept promising me Sárközi, but whenever we were supposed to meet, the writer was indisposed. I finally did catch up with him, at a private writers’ canteen in Pest. He could only manage to make a scrawl on the publishing agreement as his writing hand was mostly unusable due to an incident that was either a bar fight or a slip on the pavement (the explanation was vague, as was about everything that came from Sárközi’s mouth). The second time I met him, he was in a hospital near Marczibányi Tér, where he was recovering from another mysterious accident, which left him slightly crippled. When offered cab fare to attend a reading of his work, he declined, preferring to take the tram. He did show up at the reading though, along with a gang of thuggish guys who tried the patience of just about everybody around them. Later I was informed that they were his former residents of the orphanage he was raised in.

There are many stories surrounding Sárközi and talking to him in person did little to distinguish the truth from the mythologizing. I know he was raised in an orphanage, and was discovered and mentored by the infamous Hungarian poet György Faludy. It is also said he was homeless (unlikely – there are relatively few homeless gypsies in Budapest – they tend to squat or live communally). What is for sure is that he is forever getting in accidents or otherwise injuring his body, his place of residence is constantly changing, and anybody seriously interested in contemporary Hungarian poetry knows his name. Sárközi may be obscure as a person, but his poetry blossoms in gorgeous imagery and is chiseled and rigorous in style. He is a genuine talent, and perhaps a genius. And, what he has made for himself in this life, he made through the craft of poetry, which is unlikely for a person of any race.

Below is a portion of László Sárközi’s Inner World: A Sonnet Wreath, expertly translated by Andrew Singer (the entire fifteen sonnet cycle was previously published in Pilvax Issue 3).

I. Night

I walk the valley of green and silent dreams
and still don’t know where I will be tomorrow;
my moods propel me, they drive me far,
anticipating night, craving respite.

Nightfall is a scaly wound, and then
night’s well holds the moon – a brave warrior’s fate
in shining armor; recoiling to die again.

Down endless streets, new streets run
and where this movement ends, I’ve no idea.
I straddle the border-stone, gazing at naught.

Cold flash, and yellow lamp regards me,
light glints off blue-musted cobblestones:
with ten thousand solitudes, the night caresses,
where a black moon renders every shadow brown.

II. Beggar’s Sonnet

Where a black moon renders every shadow brown,
from a dirty cardboard box a beggar coughs,
his dog poking him – “Leave me, it still hurts so…” –
and eying his master in a Faithful Zen Ring.
The dwarf shifts cannily; no one cares;
he is crawling now on backward-facing knees;
now he throws his cup pugnaciously down:
dawn’s anger recoils on marble walls.
So I wandered by with pocketed hands
and spat into the beggar’s jolting cup –
may the rest be veiled and then forgotten…
but neither of us turned lighter from it.
I’m wretched: good intention has died in me.
My twenty-nine years are just a giddy game.

III. Facing Eternity

My twenty-nine years are just a giddy game,
one day I am ornate; the next I’m plain,
an endless whirl of good and bad design.

My life is like a dream – it comes to naught,
realizing absurdly the weight of the grave –
nor is the stone’s perfume enjoyed in moss.

Whatever I build is in vain, for windmills
and dusty lips are rumbling from the past,
for all is fleeting that once was joy:
the once-shining diamond shall be as ash.

My light fades, morning falls to night –
Once you regaled the evergreen dark
Pandora: a box forever opened, as
I go on – shivering, wounded by light.

About the author: Matt Ellis is an author coach and manuscript editor at Word Pill Editing. Have a look here for an affordable Manuscript Critique.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

They Stank, We Stanker; or, What is the Sound of No Hands Clapping?

I will begin this post by giving credit where proper credit is due: for a more informed, and superbly written post regarding Hungarian punk band Büdösök, click here. I know the Little Black Egg is – at this very moment (!) – working hard on a Miskolc punk rock primer, so we all have that to look forward to.

I have to admit, by last summer I had all but given up hope on finding any Hungarian punk rock band worth getting the back of my hand branded with black ink by some brutish doorman for (if none of those stamps washed off I would look like one of those Looney Tunes suitcases that made its way around the world, stickers from each country). Question: can one balls-to-the-wall punk rock band revive my lowly opinion regarding Hungo-rock? Answer: no. Because Büdösök seem to be the exception that makes the rule. To wit: earlier in the winter I went to see a Hungarian ‘underground music’ festival and I am not going to name and shame here, but most of the evening was a hodge podge of pastiches of popular music from abroad, played by proficient, but not terribly committed musicians. That these bands were the first ones to jump on the trend bandwagon makes them ‘underground’ I guess. But damn if the club wasn’t packed with cute H & M-outfitted Hungarian hipsters, many from the crowd lingering until the early hours of the morning. Contrast that with the Büdösök show. The Büdösök faithful comprise three punks who can usually be seen panhandling in the Blaha Luiza underpass, some rightfully wary travelers from a nearby hostel, and a handful of hard-drinking middle age men (men who wear big metal belt buckles without irony and order their mugs of beer two at a time).

The show itself was in the tiny Kamra club in the Eight District. Büdösök were supposed to start at eight, but they didn’t make it on stage until around ten. By that time the lead singer was thoroughly wasted, spilled his drink on his keyboards, and would only address the audience in a really creepy baby voice. It was either going to be a fantastic show or a total loss of my eight-hundred forints. Turns out, it was a bit of both.

Kind of shockingly, the first thing I noticed was that two-thirds of Büdösök could have been stand-ins for actor playing Hitler in The Last Days. I am still not sure if it was intentional, or if people from Miskolc just kind of look like that. The bass player resembled a studious skin head, and throughout the first song alternated between jabbing at the strings like he was stabbing his instrument to death and strumming as though it was a rhythm guitar. That’s kind of what they are about: chaotic, childlike outbursts where the singer caterwauls like Nick Cave in one of his his most onomatopoeic Birthday Party fits, followed by abrupt silences, and vaguely catchy choruses. Oh, and there was a horn, which somehow fit just right. Büdösök offer a gristly cacophony that has been pounded with a tenderizer into something vaguely palatable. Some of the songs actually had hooks, and a least two of them made reference to Santa Claus.

Then things got strange. This is the only show I have ever attended where nobody clapped or cheered in between the songs. There was just an eerie tension. I mean, it was uncanny and seriously weird. The only time somebody dared to shout something (it sounded encouraging, but it was in Italian) the singer from Büdösök yelled back “küss!”, which roughly translates as ‘shut the fuck up!” But by the end of the show, I was totally invigorated. They had played for about an hour. There was no encore, nor was there a call for one.

Büdösök are confrontational in the perpetually adolescent way only punk rock can be. They have the mark of authenticity that is missing from about, well, every local band I have seen in the pop/punk genre. Indeed, the really great thing about Büdösök is that they exist on their own terms, and kowtow to nobody. They will never play main stage at the Sziget, they won’t even get a chance at an alt-minded Gumipop show: they must know all this by now, and most likely knew it from the get-go. They are bound to fail, and from the looks of it, failure was probably the only acceptable result. But isn’t that at least part of what punk rock is about? Remember when punk was for misfits and outcast? Anyway, I don’t want to get too deep into the psyche of Büdösök, it is a dark, no doubt labyrinthine place: a place where Chucky dolls go when they die (though, as we have learned, Chucky dolls NEVER die).

I don’t think I have heard a more unique Hungarian band than Büdösök. That said, I do not particularly want to be a Büdösök fan. It is a lonely assignment. It means you are the only one clapping in between songs, and will get told to shut the fuck up for doing so. Right now, I am only too happy to.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Where Expats Fear to Tread

Just because this winter is seemingly endless doesn’t mean you should stay in and pout. Nor should getting out cost a lot. If you ask me, most of the tried-and-true Budapest nightspots are pressing their luck: and the dwindling crowds at places like Ellátó and Szimpla confirm this. High prices, indifferent service, and lomtalanítás (street scavenged) seating do not scream “clean, well-lit place,” to this night owl. It is possible that community pressure, bureaucracy, and high prices are bringing Budapest’s famous beer-garden society to a close. But of course the death of one scene only heralds the (re)birth of another. I am talking about the gentrifying of the city’s késdobáló (dagger throwing) bars. Not long ago, most of these places opened at 5 in the morning to service the pensioners and homeless who whetted their whistles with 70 forint wine spritzers. These are curious, grungy places, attracting a disparate crowd, though almost exclusively Hungarian. But lately, the trend has been to stay open later rather than open earlier, due to the large amount of young folk looking for an inexpensive night out. Indeed, beer in these re-tooled dives can be half the price of boho bastions like Szimpla. Below are 5 favorites, at all of which a pint can be had for well under a euro, listed from most to least expensive.

5. Óbester Söröző: on Huszár near Keleti and down the block from expat owned Ba bar, Óbester had 250-forint home brew, called Brandecker. When the weather warms up, they have sidewalk space in this quiet, old-school part of the city.

4. Krúdy Söröző: on my old block, this dive has as much to do with Krúdy Gyula as Chef Boyardee has to do with Italian cooking, but nonetheless, this is a fine local pub with super cheap drink prices and a wide screen TV (if sports are your thing). 250 gets an Ászok pint.

3. Hordós Söröző: Üllői is the new Ráday. You could actually spend a whole night on a pub crawl up to Klinika and back. Lots of medical students from the nearby Semmelweis medical school pass the time at places like Hordós and my favorite, Corvin Söröző (currently closed for renovation). 220 forints get you a pint of Borsodi.

2. Not far from Hordós, Megálló is a new place. Sit at a picnic table and enjoy Borsodi of a mere 200 forints for a pint. I have yet to try this place, but it looked friendly and clean when I popped my head in.

1. Tett Hely. The ‘scene of the crime’, used to be the ‘scene of the grime’ but they have cleaned up their image. Still, this tiny pub on Kertész, makes Vittula look upscale. But at 200 forints for a pint of Ászok, there is a reason it is jam-packed with students, not to mention the odd expat like yours truly.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Buddha's Belly

Lisa+Steele+BudapestSitting on a train from Vienna to Budapest with a colleague who also dabbles in food writing I arrived at a revelation: it is much more mentally healthy to approach restaurant criticism in Budapest with a generous, if not naïve, spirit. You are bound to enjoy yourself and your meal more. My colleague’s attitude towards even some of the most odious, philistine establishments in the city was one of a Zen-like acceptance and appreciation. He was even quick to praise a late-night establishment that has a policy of charging 2,000 forints should you happen to vomit at your table (I guess this happens enough there that they actually need a policy). As a result, he is rarely upset or disappointed.

Unfortunately, I know too much about how restaurants operate to keep his level of sangfroid. For instance, I know that restaurateurs can recoup a bundle before the place even opens by taking under the table cash – in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars – just to sign on to sell a particular line of beer or tobacco. I know the shysterism management directs against their staff to either siphon off their tips or wages. But, ultimately, the buck stops with you, and wait staff, in some cases, are forced to cheat you if they want to make a living at their job. The list of tricks employed is long and varied, from watering drinks to reselling leftovers, to adding a gratuity charge without specifying it as such.

Further adding to my cynicism about dining in Budapest is the sloppy, erratic service. The examples of bizarre service have almost nothing to do with the exclusivity of the restaurant. For example, at Klassz, one of Budapest’s best, the waiter arrived after about twenty minutes, took my date’s order, then walked away as though I wasn’t even there. At a worker’s lunch canteen, the counter help literally yelled at me because I ordered a beet salad with a vegetable stew, two items that are traditionally not coupled, according to local eating traditions. Wary of that, the next night at Ellátó, I asked the bar staff what side went well with the entree I had ordered, only to be chewed out again because they are not “a fancy French restaurant where things like that matter.” Other dining slights have included being shortchanged 10,000 forints at Pata Negra, being denied a glass of water during the longest heat wave in recent Hungarian history at Bamboo Sziget, and having the waiter pour himself a glass of wine from my bottle of Pinot Noir at BORlaBOR. More endearingly, at a now-closed eatery, a waiter offered to pick the pork from my bean soup when reminded him I had asked for a vegetarian dish.

I am not sure how my colleague would have handled these situations. I tend to complain, shoot dirty looks, up and leave, then write nasty things on chew. Hence, the list of restaurants that I actually frequent is surprisingly low. It has gotten to the point where I am afraid to revisit a restaurant I actually like because service and quality of food are so erratic in this city. So, next time, instead of a date, mabe I will bring along my pocket-sized Buddha, to remind me that cynicism breeds cynicism, and it is also OK to come to a meal with an open mouth and mind.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Guitar Heroes

There is a line in Szomjas György’s film Kopaszkutya where the singer of a struggling rock band, in their dilemma as to how to reinvent themselves, asks “OK, but who should we sound like?” This seems to be the first and foremost question in the minds of local pop musicians. Old school band Bikini answered that question for themselves in late-eighties video for their single “Legyek jó” (Be Good): everybody in spandex and a mullet. So what you get, in this delightfully cheesy take on life behind the Iron Curtain, is an admixture of Outfield, Mr. Mister, and Duran Duran.

It is easy to mock Bikini (trench-coats with the sleeves rolled up is never a good look), but in reality, "Legyek jó" was a fairly bold video. Instead of the subtle coding that many musicians under Socialism used to express their disdain for the authoritarian government, Bikini went for a balls-to-the-wall representation of dark government forces keeping down the little guy (who is clearly ready to rock). You could make the case that this is a far more daring protest song than anything Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, or Rage Against the Machine put out, considering the freedoms those artists enjoyed and the monetary gain that resulted from their rebellion. What could Bikini hoped to have gained? Pretty much the same thing that the band in Kopaszkutya wanted: a following big enough to support themselves, and, most importantly, a public venue to play in. Kopaszkutya’s venue was a rock club in Kőbánya, Bikini’s was their own country, without fear of censorship or arrest. And by using the language of Western consumer culture (videos, rock music, fashion) to express themselves, it was a double affront to the reigning regime. True, Solidarity was well along in catalyzing Poland’s defiant stance towards the Soviet Union, and Hungary was always the most permissive of the regimes, but still, nobody knew for sure that Gorbachev would back down, and the freedom of the media was far from tested (if anybody can enlighten me as to how this video was broadcast or distributed, please do).

On a more atomic level, there are some wonderful details in "Legyek jó". First is the representation of the police as mini-skirt wearing, anti-Bond-girl vixens, constantly sharpening their long red fingernails. Apparat-chicks, anybody? It is not just Bikini that has pulled back the Iron Curtain to reveal a burlesque show: look to Elton John’s “Nikita” (made in the same time period) to see the sexy side of Socialist repression (Elton John looking no less silly than Bikini, something like Truman Capote in his fat phase, if Truman Capote was a swishy Bedouin). Also, there is a wonderful truth is the real enemy in "Legyek jó": bureaucracy. The video begins with the singer about to knock (police?) files down like dominoes, and ultimately, the authority figure drowns in his own paperwork. It is not a very sexy target, but telling and real to anybody who has had to navigate the preposterous amount of bureaucracy needed to accomplish almost anything legally even in post-bloc Hungary.

Ultimately, it seems Bikini has been lost to the ages, which is a shame. I wonder if local bands, who are still asking “Who should we sound like?” shouldn’t also ask, “Who should we emulate?” It would nice to see the pop world make good on at least some the daring of Bikini during that tumultuous period.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Top 5 Expat Traps

5. Relationships. Hungary may seem like a bachelor’s paradise at first blush, but the reality is much more complicated. It is true that any number of long-term relationships and marriages spring up between expats and locals, but there also seems to be a disproportionate amount of break-ups, infidelity, and co-dependence. When so much around you is foreign, it is really easy to cling to somebody who can navigate that web. The real test of the relationship’s value seems to be in the dynamic change that occurs outside the context of this country.

4. Cadism. The sleazy cousin to the above. Despite the sad-sack expats lined up at the bar of certain local establishments, is relatively easy to carouse in Budapest, so much so that it becomes a viable pastime for those with any talent for it. But this ultimately turns into a hollow pursuit, even for the most lascivious of us.

3. Cynicism. With so much corruption and negativity around, it is easy to become infected by lowered standards and expectations. But dreams never get downsized, no matter where you escape to, and if you are not going to make it as a writer or artist in the West, it is equally unlikely that you will make it here. The result is a blaming of the crass commercial forces that dictate to whom the spoils are granted, rather than honest self-appraisal.

2. Alcoholism. “When the morning comes twice a day or not at all.” That Uncle Tupelo line rings harrowingly true if you have ever seen the sun rise from inside a kért for a few consecutive mornings. It is always easiest to look at the next guy and say he is worse off, because there is always somebody worse off hereabouts. Lots of factors conspire to make alcoholism particularly easy to fall into in Budapest. First, drinking is an acceptable part of the social culture of Hungarians. But equally dangerous is the lack of real diverse English-language entertainment. Film, theater options remain limited. Bars are just the most convenient, cheapest form of play-time activity.

1. Stasis. What day is today? If you can’t answer that question then you probably need to check yourself. Most boho expats fall prey to this condition at one point or another. Stasis enables all the above, which is why it is number one. I know people who are repeating word for word the same grandiose plans they had when they arrived to Budapest so many years ago, without having taken few, if any, steps to accomplish them. It is just simpler, and probably less psychically damaging, to talk. And because you can create a bubble around yourself here so easily, you can live in a state of suspended animation, without having much meaningful contact with your native community. Unfortunately, time does not stop, and when you come up for air, friends have started families, bought houses, made something of themselves. Then again, there are those who travel here precisely not to make anything of themselves. And in this success-driven, globalized culture, that goal is at least a little applaudable.

-Matt Ellis is a free-lance editor for Word Pill, a service for writers of fiction and non-fiction.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.