Thursday, 8 May 2008

Jeonju Film Festival IV: Bela Tarr

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The major retrospective at the Jeonju festival this year was devoted to Bela Tarr (previous years included Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Chantal Akerman, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Glauber Rocha, Somai Shinji, Ritwik Ghatak, and Peter Watkins). I was able to see Tarr's 1984 film Almanac of Fall (one of his two films in color) as well as his 435 minute Satantango, which was shown over eight hours with two intermissions. Following Satantango, Tarr was present for an hour long Q&A.

Almanac of Fall had moments of visual inventiveness in its treatment of a constricted space, but overall felt derivative. The story deals with an older woman and the various characters in her life, including her son and her nurse, who are battling for her trust in order to secure her money. The film felt like Fassbinder, particularly Chinese Roulette (1976), crossed with a Bergmanesque interest in close-ups. Tarr seemed restricted by the theatricality of these bourgeois characters, who he clearly detests (there's a little Michael Haneke here as well). Also, as Tarr has admitted, he does not have much interest in color, much preferring black and white. Although he tries to use color to expressive effect, it comes off as overly schematic. Still, Tarr's visual flair is apparent, especially with one shot that takes place underneath a floor.

Satantango, however, is an entirely original piece, not only in its length but in its ability to capture the materiality of life. The only other filmmaker who even comes to mind is Andrei Tarkovsky, especially Andrei Rublev. During the Q&A, someone asked Tarr about his influences. He stated that he is more inspired by music than other directors, reasoning that if he liked another filmmaker enough he would have no need to film himself. I asked him about Tarkovsky directly, and he stated that although he had seen and admired Andrei Rublev, he did not see the similarity. In addition to arguing that the camerawork is very different (which is true), he noted that Tarkovsky was different in that he believed in God, and that in Andrei Rublev the rain is cleansing as opposed to oppressive. I would qualify these comments by stating that Tarkovsky, like Bresson, was both a spiritual director and a very physical one. Additionally, the rain and nature in Satantango may be oppressive, but not nearly as much as the scenes of character interaction indoors. Because of the aesthetic intensity and at times beauty of the outdoor scenes (see Figure 1 particularly), not only visually but aurally, there is a majestic, almost spiritual, quality to these sequences. We should also not forget that the film is called Satantango, implying a dark inversion of Tarkovsky's view of God rather than a complete rejection. In fact, I feel the whole film offers a dark variation on Tarkovsky, including a sequence towards the conclusion that involves the ringing of a church tower bell.

Satantango is an adaptation of a novel by Laszlo Krasznahorkai and tells the story of a number of characters living on a collective farm. Tarr's view of humanity is completely lacking in sentiment, and the characters are shown in all of their physical and emotional ugliness (Figure 11 is representative). But unlike Almanac of Fall, Tarr does not hate these people, and we as an audience do not as well. Before the screening, Tarr introduced the work by stating: "Try not to hate them. Love them and understand them." Part of how Tarr achieves this is the immense running time, which gives us a closeness to the world and rhythms of the people that we would not ordinarily have. Tarr claimed that he could have told this story in about 30 minutes if all he wanted to do was give us the plot. What he achieves through the concentration on the physical world (which he devotes as much or more screen time than the characters) is an anti-humanist work in the sense that humans are placed in perspective to their natural surroundings. Humans are not privileged. Paradoxically, this lack of concentration on these people allow us a greater empathy with their plight and situation.

The length of the film allows Tarr to create a number of repetitions and variations without these shots seeming as formal as they would in a more concentrated narrative. Figure 3 is the opening shot, while Figure 4 takes place over six hours later. The variation is striking (cows on the farm and in the mud, horses on the pavement in the town) but not immediately apparent (the similarity of Figures 5 and 6 is more obvious, but again the time gap in the shots gives them a naturalism they would not otherwise have). My favorite variation occurs with Figures 7 and 8. The later occurs near the end of the film, where we see the character Futaki leave for the last time. Without giving this character any especially redeeming traits, Tarr nevertheless allows for a certain admiration for this man. Part of this is through the parallel with the earlier shot. No longer on the farm, Futaki is heading onto the horizon of our modern world, not unlike ourselves.

Along with the extreme length, Satantango employs a radical long take style. The average shot length is 145 seconds, the longest currently on record at the Cinemetrics database (you can view the shot breakdown here). There is a certain perversity in these shots at times, such as near the conclusion when two bureaucrats are typing a document about all the characters and stop halfway through to have a quick snack, all of which Tarr continues to film. In any case, the style is not simply serving the story (a notion Tarr showed open contempt for in the Q&A; in modernist fashion, it is present for its own purpose and to create its own effect. Figures 9 and 10 are the opening and closing of an over two minute shot that slowly shows us a close-up of an owl. It is one of the most memorable images in the film, but cannot be clearly linked to anything in the story. At most, one can say it has some supernatural or mythic connotations (the same can be said for Figure 2). The film ends with a character who is mainly outside the main plot machinations. The character of the doctor has been left behind on the abandoned farm, and proceeds to board himself in, until all light vanishes from the screen. It is with this bleak image that Tarr ends his epic. Afterwards, when asked about the future, Tarr admitted he was frightened, while at the same time being uplifted that an audience can still enjoy this film.

Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum is one of Tarr's biggest supporters and has certainly influenced my thinking and writing in this entry. There are links to two of his articles on Tarr below. In a Best of 1994 article, Rosenbaum wrote the following on Satantango:

"The film played here only once, at the film festival, with Tarr in attendance, and it says something about the involvement of the audience (most of whom stayed the film’s duration) that the subsequent question-and-answer session lasted about an hour."

Almost 15 years later and on the other side of the globe, I could describe the experience at Jeonju as being almost identical. During the second intermission, my impression of the film was one of admiration but also slight disappointment. I did not feel it was the masterpiece many had claimed. Over the last three hours, my entire experience was transformed. Most of what stands out in my memory comes from the last half, but only has the resonance it does because of the power of the whole. This may be the greatest experience I have had in a theatre, and indeed this film more than any other needs to be seen in the cinema. The DVD, valuable as it is, works best as a recalling of the original's power, not as a duplication of it.

Rosenbaum's Satantango review
Rosenbaum's career overview


roujin said...

I would love, love, love to see this film in the theater. So far my only exposure to Tarr has been with the Werckmeister Harmonies dvd and I wish I seen that in theaters.

Marc Raymond said...

Well, hopefully it will continue to circulate and more people can catch up with it. Tarr stated that the film has already played in many places all over the world and continues to be screened in new locations every year.