Gamechanger – Dóra Maurer: Kalah

“If I am unexpectedly questioned: “what is experimental film?”
– my first reaction is defense. I take the question as provocation
and cannot think of anything. Because, for lack of a better term,
what they call experimental filmmaking is for me the most natural
way of filmmaking, filmmaking itself – in a mainly ignorant,
limited and offensive environment.”
/Dóra Maurer/ [1]

In the 1970s Balázs Bála Studio, owing to the efforts of Gábor Bódy,  gave artists from different artistic backgrounds the opportunity to experiment with filmmaking. It was the time when visual artist (trained as a graphic artist and a painter) Dóra Maurer started collaborating with BBS members (János Gulyás, Zoltán Jeney), resulting in ten short experimental pieces made over the course of ten years. Throughout her artistic career Maurer was highly interested in documenting movement and displacement, specifically with regard to systematics and structurality. When she began making films she was at the stage of her artistic career when she wanted to let go of the “methaphorical and emotional artistical practice” which she found inauthentic. Instead of working with the approximate she was looking for more exact systems.  She soon found inspiration in Anton Webern’s writings on serial music and started looking for certain elements of reality that : can be understood using serial structuring. Her 1980 short film, Kalah is a direct result of this artistic quest.

Kalah is a 10 minute long film shot on 35mm and was meant to be projected in cinemascope. According to László Beke “the film is not [even]suitable for the traditional cinema […] it should be projected onto a hemispherical screen as visual environment. Viewers can lie down in front of it and watch the film from there.”[2] Maurer herself even questions whether this piece should be labelled as film.  “Watching Kalah could only be an experience if the viewer quickly realizes how to watch the film […] how to let go of her viewing routines focusing on finding a meaning – which in this case does not work at all. Actually this film which greatly differs from the usual film form – including even the more general types of experimental film – is not even a film. The role of filmstrip is only to record the color-forms and sounds and allow them to be (repeatedly) performed in perfect synchronicity.”[3] Yet later in the same discussion Maurer once again reflects on her critical note regarding the term “experimental” when – disguised in a form of a question – she suggests that this might actually be the most “fundamental” and most “natural” role of the filmstrip.[4]

Maurer concludes with an interesting parenthetical in which she acknowledges Conrad’s The Flicker (1966) and Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer (1960) as related works. With this note Maurer places her own work very thoughtfully on the avant-garde film landscape. Both of these filmmakers belong to the first generation of the new formal aspect of avant-garde film. These two films are textbook examples of perceptual film (often referred to as flicker film), an area of “cinema [which]attempts to examine, or create experience through devices which work on the autonomic nervous system. [Just like in Maurer’s case] in these films kinetic aspects of interior motion are replaced by large-scale change of whole areas of the screen.” [6]  These experiments were guidelines for Maurer[7] whose conceptual and minimalist work was rooted in the exploration of human perception and its responses to processes and permutations within complex systems. The rules of Kalah, an ancient mathematical game, provided a unique model situation to test her new methodology.

The origins of the game are still unclear despite decades of research. By now many modern variations exist. I borrow a description from Haggerties’ 1964 article which neatly summarizes the rules Maurer and Jeney follow in their Kalah matches:

“Two players sit behind the two ranks of six pits on the board between them. Each pit contains three (for beginners) or [as in Maurer’s case]six “pebbles” (which may be anything from matches to diamonds). Purpose of the game is to accumulate as many pebbles as possible in the larger bin (kalah) to his right. Each player in turn picks up all the pebbles in any one of his own six pits and sows them, one by one, in each pit around the board to the right, including, if there are enough, his own kalah, and onto his opponent’s PITS (but not his kalah). If the player’s last counter lands in his own kalah, he gets another turn, and if it lands in an empty pit on his own side, [only]he captures all his opponent’s counters in the opposite pit and puts them in his kalah together with the capturing pebble. The game is over when all six pits on one side or another are empty. It is not always an advantage for a player to go “out”, since all the pebbles in the pits on the opposite side go into the opponent’s kalah. The score is determined by who has the most pebbles.“[8]

In her essay discussing structural film in general and her personal experience with the trend, Maurer gives a detailed description of the film, from its birth to a brief suggestion for its reception. The following paragraphs are translations of Maurer’s own take on Kalah:

“I used to play Kalah a lot. I was interested in tracking and creating minimal quantitative changes. […] If we play the game with unmarked pebbles we are pushing anonymous sets. When I was looking for a system of simultaneous running combinations of sounds and colors, and thinking about using the record of a Kalah game as a script, I numbered the 72 pebbles. During the course of the game Zoltán Jeney, fellow filmmaker Kalah-player and I paid attention to always place the individualized pebbles in the pits in order of their arrival. From all the recorded games we picked one ending in a draw for the film. It was a symbolic gesture as according to our idea Jeney was supposed to interpret the data as sound elements and I would transform them into color-forms. We wanted to demonstrate the autonomy of visual material and sound in film. We wanted to create and confront two independently valid works that have the same structure and stem from the same root. We didn’t want the music to just accompany the images as it usually does, nor did we aim to follow in the footsteps of the abstract films of the twenties which created visual music.”

“Jeney used a 72 interval chromatic scale for the combinations starting from bass to high notes. I used a 12 tone color circle. Every color appears in six different sizes in relation to the frame [screen]: the first element is the smallest, the sixth one takes over the whole screen. The color-circle starts with red and ends with purple. After a few tests we agreed on a 12 element per second rate. We recorded the whole course of the game, we illustrated the empty pits with silence and the color black. […] At first Jeney wanted to play the piece on the piano but it turned out that because of the high speed and the it would be impossible to sync naturally formed sounds with the images. We did not have the opportunity to use computer sound design, so we used an electronic organ to create audio tapes with sustained notes and three different dynamics which I later cut into pieces and glued together following the set script. I recorded the film’s visual material from painted cels. “[9]

“In accordance with the starting position of the game, the film begins with the sound rising on a musical scale made up of equal intervals and from warm to cold colors pulsating toward the viewer from the middle of the screen. In the very beginning of the game we see elements expressed by warm colors and deep tones disperse. The smooth running of the musical and color scales are rhythmically interrupted by deeper notes mixing with high ones, and reds mingling among oranges and yellows. The latter ones disturb the pulsating rhythm primarily with their sizes. In this and the following few cycles the color forms and the sounds still strengthen each other’s presence. Later on they separate from each other and they only influence each other at certain points. The images recolor each other, they create a vibration which seems disturbing because of the rapid change in their sizes but which sooner or later shows a recognizable structure.”

“The central structure changes into shifted quasi-images, some colors disappear. The sound-dynamic which signals the changes helps with orientation, this is what connects the sound and the visual material. The sound material reacts to the playing speed resulting in the high, middle and low sounds joining into phrases. Following a chaotic stage during the second third of the film, the scale order transforms into two corresponding blocks. They represent the kalahs of the game which are gradually filling. After viewing and listening to them multiple times these blocks become recognizable as there are less and less changes in the cycles.”

“The length of the film was determined by the length of the game, the number of turns and the repositioning of the elements. It is a ruthless film which does not leave room for apperception. It nails the viewer to the chair, who has to endure the process without an opportunity to relax or recover. Therefore I view this process recorded on a filmstrip more as an environment rather than a film image.“[10]

From all Hungarian non-narrative films[11] made in the Balázs Béla Studio, Maurer’s is the only true representative of – what LeGrice calls – perceptual film. It pushes the viewer to be more aware of his own relation to what he sees and the changes in the modes of his own response. However opinions vary regarding the possibilities of decoding the film. According to Beke the film “becomes incomprehensible after the first twelve to eighteen seconds as the rapidly changing images bombard the viewer,”[12] while Maurer – as she stated above – believes that the structure of Kalah could be interpreted as the patterns are possible to identify.

Written by Dorottya Szalay
The original Hungarian text was translated by Dorottya Szalay
English proofreader: Johannes Wachs

[1] Maurer, Dóra (1991) “A strukturális filmezésről általában és egészen közelről.” in. Peternák, Miklós (1991) F.I.L.M. A magyar avantgárd film története és dokumentumai. Budapest, Képzővészeti Kiadó, p.
[2] Beke László (2005) “The Aesthetic of Chance” in. ed. Weibel, Peter (2005) Beyond Art: A Third Culture. A contemporary study in cultures art and science in 20th century Austria and Hungary. New York, Vienna: Springer, p. 397.
[3] Maurer, 1991, p. 290.

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