Tomorrow night the writer and filmmaker George Csicsery, an undersung Oakland-based stalwart of the Bay Area cinema scene, returns to the Roxie for a screening and discussion of his most recent film. And if anything can fill out a perfect double-bill with Sprout Wings and Fly, local legend Les Blank's half-hour documentary appreciation of Appalachian fiddler Tommy Jarrell, it has to be Csicsery's Songs Along a Stony Road.
A German native born to Hungarian parents, Csicsery came to the U.S. in 1951 and has been cranking out films according less to commercial fashion than to his own curiosities since the late 1960s. Over the years his unpretentious cultural chronicles, mostly in the documentary mode, have introduced viewers to unionized hookers, false accusers, romance writers, Black Panthers (and the cops who clashed with them), eccentric mathematicians, and many other highly authentic human figures.
His latest, made with co-producer Chris Teerink, spends an hour with Transylvanian ethnomusicologist Zoltán Kallós gathering music and folklore from throughout the villages and hills and misty fields of a hauntingly medieval-sounding Romania. As becomes aurally apparent, Kallós' project is not unlike a similar one long ago undertaken by the Hungarian master Béla Bartók, whose radically proto-modern orchestral compositions surged with the vitality of Eastern European folk music.
Csicsery has said he intended this film partly as preservation of "a vanishing heritage," and that much becomes poignantly clear as he and Kallós come upon people well past what we'd call retirement age -- fiddlers, flutists, farmers -- with faces like features of their ancient rural landscapes and music flowing through their lives as naturally and as fleetingly as breath. Singing mournful tales to themselves and each other over strenuous manual labor, sipping shots of homemade brandy with shaky hands, they seem gravely accustomed to displacement -- as if at peace with an impending return to the well-toiled earth, and with being gone from tomorrow's world.
"Things are better than they were in Ceausescu's days," Kallós says with conviction but also wistfulness; since having deposed its dictator in 1989, and opened itself to European integration, Romania obviously has not been and never will be the same. The gift of Songs Along a Stony Road is its way of letting us hear the rhythmic difference between history's march and a rueful, tuneful roam.
Sprout Wings and Fly and Songs Along a Stony Road screen on Thursday, July 12, 2012, with directors Les Blank and George Csicsery in person, at the Roxie in San Francisco. For tickets and more information, visit roxie.com.