Lessons learnt from Deborah Pearson

John Bailey

Until recently I wasn’t aware that the glaring gaps in my worldly education included the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the cinema genre of football comedy and the family history of Canadian-born artist Deborah Pearson. But in the lead up to her performance lecture History History History I realised just that. Review praise and strong word-of-mouth won me over despite a lack of anchor points, and I now have both a working knowledge of all three subjects and a fine appreciation of Pearson’s very considered practice.

For those who haven’t seen it, a primer: one night in October of 1956 a black-and-white football comedy due for a screening in a Budapest cinema was cancelled due to revolution. Local students and, later, much of the remaining population rose up against USSR rule, and one early base of resistance was in the Corvin movie house, whose curved architecture made it an ideal place for defence against siege. The resulting civil conflict led to one of the century’s largest refugee crises, and among those who fled the country was Pearson’s own grandfather — who, coincidentally, was the star of that very same football comedy. Or not so coincidentally. History History History is a remarkable and nuanced meditation on connection and chaos, how history is both constructed and out of our control, both ever-present and irretrievable.

Deborah Pearson, History, History, History, photo Paul Blakemore

Pearson spends the duration behind a small desk with minimal props, while behind her the screwball caper The Wonder Striker (Márton Keleti, 1956) plays in its entirety. Pearson explains the story as it unfolds, but since she speaks no Hungarian the subtitles are provided by her mother. It isn’t long before our trust in the faithfulness of the onscreen translation is made to falter, as Pearson’s mother’s voice arrives in the audio mix, stumbling over a particular phrase and trying to find the best way to render it in English. Pearson’s pre-recorded words appear in the mix, too, and when The Wonder Striker disappears from the large screen (though it continues to play out on a smaller monitor) the film is replaced by documentary footage and archival images that tease out the movie’s context in both public and personal ways.

The Wonder Striker is a precious example of the precarious situation of popular entertainment under oppressive regimes — like most cultural work produced in such situations, it doesn’t fit into the dichotomy of propaganda versus sedition, but is somewhere in between. It was created during one of the thaws that saw Soviet censorship somewhat relaxed, but even so its outright political content is a surprise. It follows a bumbling low-level grifter (Pearson’s grandfather) as he travels to a soccer-mad South American republic that has just experienced a coup. He’s mistaken for a real-life Hungarian football star and press-ganged into playing during a match whose sidelines prove to be the stage upon which the political future of the country will be decided.

Deborah Pearson, History, History, History, photo Paul Blakemore

That this goofy work of Billy Wilder-esque comedy itself preceded real world revolution is fascinating enough, but its star’s life is just as compelling. An earlier, minor role as a character named Swing Tony had been an unexpected hit with the public and elevated him to national attention, but such attention isn’t so desirable when the cultural and political landscape is undergoing seismic upheaval. After fleeing as a refugee, he frequently returned to Hungary over the years but never seemed to resolve his own relationship with it. Pearson herself met him only on a few occasions, too, so there is a distinct sense that he is both a central figure in her family mythology while remaining as elusive and untouchable as the figure projected on the screen.

Whether it began as such I don’t know, but finally this is a work about translation, as hinted at early on by Pearson’s mother. As the film progresses, the subtitles begin to reflect contemporary reality, or fictions invented by Pearson, or take on a performative aspect that calls into question the whole work. This could seem an entertaining cop-out — the historian giving up on the task of inquiry — if it wasn’t such a strong reflection of how different kinds of history are themselves formed. Pearson doesn’t need to put too much overt emphasis on the fact that her mother and grandmother’s recollections of both The Wonder Striker and the man at its centre will never be purely objective, and that this part of her own history will always be seen through a distorted lens. So too will the circumstances of a cultural artefact’s original context be approachable only to a limited extent — this doesn’t invalidate the historian’s project, or make history purely subjective, but it’s a reminder that there’s no definite version of personal history, a “time that is frozen and moving,” as she puts it. Why should capital-H history be any different?

History History History, writer, performer Deborah Pearson, dramaturg Daniel Kitson, producer Greg Akehurst; The Substation, Newport, Melbourne, 19-23 Sept

Top image credit: Deborah Pearson, History, History, History, photo Paul Blakemore

10 October 2017