Psychedelia came late to the Soviet Bloc. Marcell Jankovics’s Son of the White Mare (aka Fehérlófia) didn’t come out till 1981, at which point in the West long hair was out and short hair was in, weed had been traded for speed and nothing seemed quite as old hat as self-indulgent, soft-edged hippie-infused visuals.
Way out east, however, the Communist regime remained steadfastly against anything that was soft, western, bourgeois, non-practical, non-utilitarian or non-propagandistic. With its decorative, non-logical looks, psychedelia’s message was in itself dissident and political and its counter-cultural impact was strong.
On the other hand the regime did like folk art. Pop art bad, folk art good ran the mantra of the Marxists, who kept folk art traditions alive (sometimes on life support) in the sort of government-sponsored programs that Western folk practitioners could only envy. Canny artists took advantage of this officially sanctioned avenue, using “folk” as a cloak, a way of saying things that could otherwise not be said. In 1967 in the USSR Konstantin Ershov and his collaborators managed to sneak out Viy, a horror movie (the USSR’s only one) disguised as a folk story. Later, in 1988’s Ashik Kerib, Sergei Parjanov managed to create a madly decadent critique of socialist realism, again disguised as a folk tale. And Jankovics was doing something similar here earlier in the decade, passing off a trip into the realm of the psychedelic as a new take on old European folk stories.
After a dedication to “all nomadic peoples” which specifically connects Son of the White Mare up with ancient (and therefore pre-political) European tribes, Jankovics gets his epic underway. It’s a foundational myth, a Romulus and Remus/Jesus/Buddha-style story of a child born from a horse’s breath (itself born from the bowels of a seven-rooted, seven-branched tree) who journeys into the underworld to save three princesses kidnapped by dragons. Along the way Treeshaker – our spangly hero – is joined by two brothers, Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer, though ultimately this is a challenge he must face alone.
Metamorphosis is the key feature of psychedelia. Things are always threatening to mutate, borders lose their ability to containerise, colours do not remain stable, reality itself is up for grabs. Jankovics takes a look that might be described as trad-psychedelic – something like the well mannered Yellow Submarine – and pushes it hard, with vivid colours that pulse and switch and shapes constantly shifting into other shapes. A tree becomes a horse becomes a baby becomes a man. The soundtrack, meanwhile, is a hellscape of crashing synths, white noise generators being punished for some misdeed.
It’s a children’s story told in an adult way. “Adult” here not as a euphemism for “porn”, though there are breasts on the princesses and dangling testicles on the dragons, and Treeshaker’s sword more than once takes on a phallic aspect. Adult in the sense of perspectives that shift wildly, references to abstract expressionism, pop art, expressionism and impressionism, with Matisse, Kandinsky and the popping, fizzing, jazztastic lines of the Canadian animator Norman McLaren clear influences. Over it all there’s a veneer of the Celtic tradition, enough to make Son of the White Mare look almost like a work of folk art, though Gilbert Shelton’s Furry Freak Brothers also seem to be coming through strong in the relationship of the three brothers, who tend to truck when they walk.
The film is spectacular to look at but less spectacular as a drama. Partly that’s a problem common to all psychedelia, which in its rejection of traditional storytelling often throws out the baby with the bathwater. Audiences didn’t go a bundle, not even in its native Hungary – is it for adults or kids seemed to be the main complaint. And regime-friendly critics weren’t convinced it was “folk” enough to qualify. Black borders, or their lack, around people and things seemed to be one particular bugbear.
Looked at now, as an artwork, it’s obvious it’s remarkable, triumphant, spectacular, a journey into the psychedelic realm that continues to exert an influence – on the work of Tomm Moore (in Song of the Sea for example). It’s particularly worth seeking out the 4K restoration which was done in 2019 and which is the basis of all the hi-def releases (Eureka’s Masters of Cinema is a good example).
Whether Son of the White Mare succeeds in the way Jankovics intended is more up for debate. It is intensely psychedelic, disorientating, trippy, but it’s the psychedlia of the bad trip, the sort that makes the viewer anxious or queasy. “The greatest psychedelic animated movie ever made,” Indiewire called it. True, true. But in a field of how many?
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