(Also see Part 1.)

The story is always a part of the image. In my vocabulary, story doesn’t mean the same thing it means in American film language. There are human stories, natural stories, all kinds of stories. The question lies in where you put the emphasis on what’s most important. There are everyday tidbits that are very important. For instance, in DAMNATION, we leave the story and look at a close-up of beer mugs. But for me, that’s also an important story. This is what I mean when I say that I’m trying to look at things from a cosmic dimension. If I could describe a film fully by telling you the narrative, I wouldn’t want to make the film. It’s time that film frees itself from the shackles of linearity. It drives me crazy that everyone thinks film must equal linear narrative.

Bela Tarr in interview

The story of Satantango is stretched, almost absurdly so, and this may account for why the movie defies articulate enthusiasm. I’ve read many articles on Tarr in the last few days for research, and none of them have adequately made a case for the aesthetics or the meaning of Satantango. The usually articulate Jonathan Rosenbaum has little substantive to say about Tarr. Part of the difficulty is in the evident fact that Tarr is not a cinematic philosopher in the way that Godard or Herzog is. He presents an experience, and an elliptical one at that. Is it too much a leap to compare Satantango to Morton Feldman’s super-long late works, which similarly resist abstraction?

Leaving aside the plot for now, let’s see how Tarr’s style portrays the scenario. I’ve already discussed Tarr’s emphasis on tableaux and close-ups, and the depersonalized camera drift that he shares with Antonioni. The drift is the most telling. Tarr rarely moves the frame with the characters. He remains static while the characters move, or the frame moves while the characters remain still, or both move unsynchronized. Admittedly, he sometimes chases after characters with a steadicam as they walk away from us towards the horizon, but this hardly qualifies as traditional either.  Antonioni is a much more polemical filmmaker than Tarr, but he achieves a similar effect: by ignoring the traditional layering of characters on top of backgrounds, Antonioni flattens the scenes, so that we get the impression that the people are part of a scenic whole. Like Tarr, Antonioni makes his characters shallow and superficial so that we perceive their surfaces and are not drawn to any hypothetical interior aspects. Tarr’s shot of a fly buzzing around in a bar while all else is still is so close to Antonioni (see L’Avventura and, if you must, Zabriskie Point) that I took it as an homage. (It probably isn’t.)

Antonioni uses these techniques in portraying the bourgeois (early-60s) and the hip (late-60s and early-70s) to make overt yet vague statements about the horrors of capitalist culture. (See also Lindsay Anderson in if… and O Lucky Man!.) Tarr works with a more primordial brew of the exploiters and the exploited. I like him more than Antonioni, partly because he avoids the use of flashy visuals, which always smacked to me of hypocrisy in Antonioni’s films. But Tarr’s approach, like Antonioni’s, give a sense of finality and closure, a sense that this is all there is. Anything more, it is implied, would be false, a point that Tarr has explicitly made in interviews. Psychology? Not in this world. Character development? Such a thing does not belong here. Traditional narrative montage? Wholly extraneous. It’s not that I agree with Tarr’s exclusion of these things, but Tarr is adept at enveloping you in his version of reality, with all its exclusions, and this I believe is his greatest strength. The collective effect of Tarr’s flattening, his close-ups, his tableaux, his severe black and white visuals, is to compel the viewer, steamroller-style, to see the whole world in his terms, and only his terms.

It can be thrilling to be so overwhelmed, and I think that this may account for a lot of the raw enthusiasm that greets Satantango. It’s a visceral experience, but one that doesn’t seem manipulative, because Tarr takes such care to avoid all flash.

To be continued…