Friday, May 05, 2006

Bela Tarr

The Hungarian Bela Tarr has made just three films in the last twenty years—Damnation (1987), Satantango (1994), and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)—and his huge reputation rests predominantly on them. They also happen to be the only Tarr films I’ve seen.

I caught up with Damnation this week; the film’s style strongly prefigures its two successors. The story is wonderfully—ridiculously—minimal, banal even, in its archetypal contours. A man loves a married woman, and plots to have the husband sent away on a smuggling assignment so that he can spend time with her. That’s pretty much all there is to the story—a skeletal abstraction from a familiar noir template.

But it is the form of this film that is truly revelatory. It’s made in black-and-white—as are the other two Tarr films I mentioned above—and it uses long, hypnotic takes. (The film runs about two hours and contains just 50 shots.) But the camera is often not stationary. It tracks, with delicious slowness, revealing, reframing, and often surprising. I was (perhaps absurdly) reminded of the black-and-white alt-comics of Jaime Hernandez, who structures his panels such that as your eye travels from left to right and top to bottom within a panel, a quiet little dramatic arc results, accompanied by small, nearly imperceptible pops of surprise.

The choreography of the camera is astonishing but its impact is multiplied by Tarr’s sense of place. The Hungarian mining town is forever gray, drenched with torrential rain, the ground caked with swamp-like mud. Curiously, looking long and intently at this decomposing, godforsaken place draws it nearer to you—it mesmerizes you with its concreteness. You start to pay attention to every small detail in the frame because you have the time to. In trying to make sense of this, I ask myself: is it (1) the physical, topographical set of characteristics of the places and people’s faces, or (2) the manner in which Tarr looks at them, that makes them mesmerizing? How is it that he can spellbind us with a long-held shot of a decrepit wall with peeling plaster? I am utterly engrossed by it in a Tarr film, but would I be so in real life? If not, why not?

Gus Van Sant’s recent films have been hugely influenced by Tarr. He has said perceptively about Tarr:

Cinema started as simple, single-shot, full-length proscenium compositions resembling theater, the only thing it could find to reference to commercialize itself. By the next twenty years, there was a new vocabulary. The closeup, montage, and parallel storytelling fragmented the continuity of the previous proscenium-encased static-frame full-figure images. Separate fragments were now placed together to form meaning; the director could play with time and cinematic space. It was exciting. Was this an inevitable direction or just one road cinema chose to take?....Somehow Bela has gotten himself back there psychically and learned things all over again as if modern cinema had never happened.

So Tarr makes you feel like you are refocusing your attention on the real and ordinary details of the world. But the world in his films is not quite the real world. It is a visionary world, made by Tarr with a conscious awareness of artifice. He has often pointed out the elements of this artifice: sets and entire buildings are constructed; the ever-blowing wind is manufactured by wind machines; the wild dogs in the street are carefully released into the frame at the right time. Even the horrific “cat scene” in Satantango is one that was carefully staged; the cat was drugged and a vet was present on the set. Using black-and-white, he has said, is another step in moving away from naturalism.

Tarr’s first three films—Family Nest (1977), The Outsider (1980) and The Prefab People (1982)—were described by Jonathan Rosenbaum as “socialist realist cries of rage, much of their style influenced by John Cassavetes.” Tarr admires Cassavetes but denies the influence (“This is [Rosenbaum’s] mania…”). After a TV version of Macbeth (1982), which Rosenbaum considers a transitional work (Tarr disagrees: “I have to tell you, for me, no turning point…no break.”), he made Almanac Of Fall (1984), which inaugurates the second and more momentous phase of Tarr’s career. Interestingly, one of his first champions in the West was Susan Sontag, who called him one of the world’s leading filmmakers in the original version of her essay “The Decay Of Cinema” in 1996. Rosenbaum points out something curious: when the essay was published in the New York Times, the original version was altered to drop Tarr’s name (and also that of some other international filmmakers) and add Coppola and Schrader, perhaps "to mainstream" the essay.

Now comes news from Facets that arriving on DVD—following the recent releases of Damnation and Werckmeister Hamonies—is Tarr’s seven-hour Satantango. I have mixed feelings about this. Satantango is one of the cinema events of recent times, a theatrical experience like no other. I remember the appropriately gray and drizzly day around Thanksgiving five years ago when I saw it with thirty or forty others at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. I’m glad the film will be on DVD but I’m not sure I’ll rush to see it in this format anytime soon. It might be fun to take a road trip to revisit it “live” somewhere, though I have a feeling that the chances of theatrical exhibition will likely diminish now that it'll be widely available on DVD. (From a few months ago: Zach has a typically eloquent post on the matter here.)


Blogger girish said...

New issue of Senses Of Cinema.

May 05, 2006 5:05 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Filmbrain: Tribeca--The Misses.

May 05, 2006 5:06 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Sasha Frere-Jones on his excursion to hear Joan Didion.

May 05, 2006 5:07 PM  
Blogger girish said...

There is another Tarr film listed in his filmography called Journey On The Plain (1995). I wonder if it's a feature or a short. I had never heard of it before.

May 05, 2006 5:09 PM  
Anonymous Marina said...

It is actually a 35-minute film.
The info comes from wikipedia:

May 05, 2006 5:24 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Aha. Thanks, Marina.

I wonder how similar/different his earlier features are to his last three ones...(if anyone has seen them)?

May 05, 2006 5:44 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Much as I'd love to see Satantango on the big screen (I missed my chance, backi n Hong Kong, 1995 or 96), I'd settle for the film on DVD.

I've got a Filipino filmmaker who has Tarr beat, lengthwise at least: Lav Diaz's Batang West Side (his masterpiece, I think) clocks in at 5 hours. His Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino is roughly ten hours long.

His latest, Heremias, is 8 1/2 hours long, but it isn't finished; he has to add forty extra minutes which he plans to do this June or July.

And that's only part 1.

May 05, 2006 6:33 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Noel, my friend Rob Davis of Paste magazine caught the Lav Diaz film when we were in Toronto a couple of years back and liked it. I eyed it on the schedule too but couldn't pass up three other films in its place...

May 06, 2006 8:06 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Via Andy Horbal.
In the Guardian: "Nothing - not even Brokeback Mountain - can bring the western back to life. Alex Cox explains how cowboy movies were killed by the film-makers who loved them the most."

May 06, 2006 8:09 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Two "Best of the Best Pictures" survey responses I just came across:
The Siren.
Eric Henderson.

May 06, 2006 8:12 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Peter on "faith in film."

May 06, 2006 8:14 AM  
Blogger phyrephox said...

I've been dying to see Wreckmeister and Damnation for ages, and especially after catching Satantango on film last January, but I'm scared by the reports of horrendous DVD quality of the home video releases.

May 06, 2006 11:23 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Given the dubious quality of past Facets DVD transfers, the transfer for Damnation was surprisingly good. I'd comfortably recommend it.
I saw Werckmeister on the big screen, but haven't seen the DVDs (R2 Artificial Eye and R1 Facets), so I can't say if the same is true there.

May 06, 2006 11:46 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Nick Rombes:
"I’ve been re-reading Robert Ray’s excellent book How a Film Theory Got Lost, and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies (2001), and thinking about institutional forces that make it difficult to imagine the production of knowledge as experimental, or risky, or even avant-garde. Ray quotes from the philosopher Paul Feyerabend, whose 1975 book Against Method is a terrific and inspiring example of risky thinking: “there is only one principle that can be defended under all circumstances and in all stages of human development. It is the principle: anything goes” (47).
Maybe it should be no surprise that the freest, most experimental film/media studies writing today appears rarely in the traditional print journals, but rather on the internet. As Ray (and others) have noted, film and media studies in its early days was wildly inventive and interdisciplinary, pillaging disciplines like English, Communication Studies, Philosophy, History, etc. for its ideas and methods. It was a bastard field, with nothing to lose."

May 06, 2006 6:28 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Just discovered this blog: Dr. Mabuse's Kaleido-Scope.

May 06, 2006 6:31 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

These are the same 3 I saw too, Girish.

"How is it that he can spellbind us with a long-held shot of a decrepit wall with peeling plaster? I am utterly engrossed by it in a Tarr film, but would I be so in real life? If not, why not?"

I ask myself the same question. And I'd like to know the answer... At what point "boring" becomes "great"?
The second question is what differenciate art from reality : dramaturgy (in its noble sense).

Gus Van Sant is imitating formally but it's not quite the spirit IMHO.
Actually I'd argue Tarr is better at it than Tarkovsky, because he doesn't rely as much on high-brow narration to fill the frame with a hint of meaning and yet manages to give it a greater intrinsic personality from the cinematography alone. I admire this tremendously.

So what cinema consists of when the frame is stripped bare of any action/narration/character/film vocabulary/symbols...?

May 06, 2006 6:39 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Girish, I've wondered similar things about long takes. Bergman's fascinate me and Kiarostami's do as well but (and this is sacrilege, I know) Renoir's bore me for some reason. I don't know what the difference is. I wonder if it's in the closeness to the object.

I've noticed that I favor wide angle lenses in photography, but recently I've been wondering if they're not a bit disingenuous--not for the typical reasons like perspective distortion or the "pillowing" of straight lines--but just because I tend to use them for closeups of objects, which always lends an air of importance, even to the most inconsequential things.

Maybe that's why Renoir doesn't quite work for me--he trusts his audience to have the intelligence to pick the relevant bits from the images and, well, sometimes I can't.

May 06, 2006 10:21 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

"Noel, my friend Rob Davis of Paste magazine caught the Lav Diaz film when we were in Toronto a couple of years back and liked it. I eyed it on the schedule too but couldn't pass up three other films in its place..."

That was the reason I skipped Satantango back in 1996 or 97, to my regret. Can't say which is the better work, (though Batang West Side is really worth catching, and since the producer's sitting on the print and refusing to show it, it's really hard to see), and I have reservations about Ebolusyon.
Heremias I'd like to see.

May 07, 2006 2:27 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

Any idea why the Batang West Side producer is being stingy with the print, Noel? I haven't been able to see any Lav Diaz films, but would like to very much. I recently saw a Filipino film by a young filmmaker named Raya Martin who apparantly counts Diaz as a major influence.

May 07, 2006 6:40 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Good questions, Harry.
There were a few stray moments of "highbrow" (as you say) dialogue in "Damnation," and even those few lines seemed unnecessary (and "literary"). "Satantango" dispensed with those too, as I recall.

Tuwa, interesting point about Renoir, who is actually one of my favorite filmmakers. I need to think about how Renoir's long takes are different from others'. For one, they seem a bit less calculated, a bit looser and more organic than say Tarr's...and Renoir's frames are indeed "busier", with more flux in them....

Noel and Brian--You've got me curious about Batang West Side.

May 07, 2006 9:34 AM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Regarding HT's comment on Tarr vs. Tarkovsky's style, I think the dark humor in Tarr's films is a big part of it. Even though his films are quite sophisticated conceptually and thematically, he never loses sight of the absurdity of the situation. Visually, Tarr shoots relative motion, like Miklós Jancsó, so there's always at least three "movements" in his film: two between subjects (like the planetary orbit of Werckmeister Harmonies or the leaves rushing past Irimiás and Petrina as they walk in Sátántangó), and the camera acts as a third. His films are spatial and not just planar in that sense.

May 07, 2006 11:29 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Maybe dark humor and absurdity is what please me in Tarr's films.
The "relative motion" is an interesting note, I need to rewatch them with this in mind.
What clashes with conventional filmmaking is that camera and cast have each their autonomous motion, sometimes synchronous, sometimes divergent. which creates a sense of frustration when the character we look at disappears and we wait for the camera to complete its path to cath it again in frame (the circular pan for instance).

Maybe like in a "reality show" the attention isn't piloted by an apparent plot-driven suspens (that plays on the intellectual anticipatory guess from the audience), but on the impression of being the fly-on-a-wall witness/voyeur. Anything can happen. The presence of the audience in the scene is more intimate with the drama, and less abstracted by the intellectual conventions of the academic language.

May 07, 2006 12:57 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Whoa. Nice points there: absurdism & humor...
And relative motion, spatial not planar...
(I get the feeling the speaker has taken a physics course or two...!) :-)

May 07, 2006 1:14 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

"Any idea why the Batang West Side producer is being stingy with the print, Noel?"

Email me and I'll tell you. Have a few stories like that about hard-to-find but great Filipino films. Make your hair turn white--or grey, if you like.

I think Batang West Side is a great film, girish. Ekran, the Slovenian magazine, devoted a special section on Lav Diaz (the people there think Ebolusyon is his masterpiee, and this is where I part ways with Ekran); Olaf Moller among others have been championing his films.

May 08, 2006 2:59 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Noel, I'll keep my eyes peeled for Batang West Side.

May 08, 2006 7:36 AM  
Anonymous jrobert said...


I know that the Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago is tentatively planning to show Satantango in November. And at Rosenbaum's urging are also considering showing his other works and possibly having Tarr fly in. I'm not sure if this is just the Film Center or if they're doing it in conjunction with other places like the Cinematheque in Toronto and the PFA. As I get more info, I'll pass it along.

May 09, 2006 3:16 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hi there, J. Robert!
Good to hear from you...

Thanks for the info; I hadn't heard that before...

Look forward to seeing you and hanging out at Toronto in the fall.

May 09, 2006 6:45 AM  
Blogger Joshua said...

Sontag named "Satantango" the sixth best film of the 90s in ArtForum: "Devastating, enthralling for every minute of its seven hours. I'd be glad to see it every year for the rest of my life." [her list is dominated by Kiarostami, Aleksandr Sokurov and Hou Hsiao-hsien, each of whom appears twice -- but most delightfully so does Mike Leigh's "Naked" -- and the Rosenbaum article you pointed to chides her for not mentioning Hou and Kiarostami in her essay, though he admits she may just not admire them all that much. In fact, though this list appeared later than her essay or his own, she admired them a great deal.]

May 10, 2006 1:37 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for that, Joshua.
I haven't seen that list. I should hunt it down.

May 10, 2006 5:05 PM  
Blogger Joshua said...

The link is here, she's a bit of a way's down, the second full list.

May 11, 2006 5:58 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Joshua. Dynamite list!
Shall link to it in my next post.

May 11, 2006 8:16 AM  

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