David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: bela tarr (page 2 of 3)

Attila Bartis: Tranquility

This book just won the Three Percent Best Translation of 2008 prize, and while I can’t speak to the translation (though I have it on good authority that it’s excellent–thanks GJ), I was happy to have it win, being a booster of Hungarian lit in general (and Laszlo Krasznahorkai in particular). Jeff Waxman describes a not-uncommon worldview of Hungarian literature when he says, “Tranquility is a book of unfathomable realism—by which, of course, I mean endless cruelty, depthless pain and emotional deadness.” Hungarian director Bela Tarr said it even better:

And back then I thought “Okay, we have some social problems in this political system – maybe we’ll just deal with the social question.” And afterwards when we made a second movie and a third we knew better that there are not only social problems. We have some ontological problems and now I think a whole pile of shit is coming from the cosmos. And there’s the reason. You know how we open out step by step, film by film. It’s very difficult to speak about the metaphysical and that. No. It’s just always listening to life. And we are thinking about what is happening around us…I just think about the quality of human life and when I say ‘shit’ I think I’m very close to it.

And it’s fair to say Bartis subscribes to something on the order of this view. What he brings to Tranquility that is very much his own is hysteria, at a level that is rarely encountered at such sustained length. Bernhard is a good contrast: while Bernhard’s narrators are obsessive, ranting, and irate, they are very rarely hysterical. Bartis’s breathless portrayal of unrelenting stress and compression owes the most, I’d say, to Celine and his spiritual disciple E.M Cioran, with a bit of Portnoy’s Complaint (namely, the end) mixed in.

And with a book that is pitched so consistently at the level of hysteria, Bartis has to keep the changes coming so that the tone does not become monotonous. The story of Andor, a middle-aged man, and his exceedingly unhealthy realationship with his mother and only slightly healthier relationships with several women careens around just as Andor careens between the three women in his life (and the one absent one, his sister), never settling in one place long enough to set up a sustained narrative. This is evidently intentional, as the plot necessarily cannot get started with such a tone at work. Any concession to traditional narrative dynamics would wreck the effect, and this book is all about effect.

Such a sustained howl can become numbing or exhausting; at times Bartis piles on so much pain that the book risks becoming a shaggy-dog story. It’s ultimately Andor’s relationship with his mother, and the sheer acuity and inexorability of it, that holds it all together. The other women are sweet relief in comparison. For Bartis, it seems that that level of hysteria, that sheer limit at which there is no appeal to reason and no possible escape, is fundamentally fostered in the mother-son bond.

Bela Tarr: Satantango [3]

(Also see Part 1 and Part 2.)

I just think about the quality of human life and when I say ‘shit’ I think I’m very close to it.

Bela Tarr in interview

Last time, I said that Tarr’s cinematic style deprivileged the characters humans from the center of the frame and put them with equal weight with the gray, surrounding scenery. Ultimately, I believe this makes Tarr’s style extremely compelling in the most physical sense of the word. But what does he say with it?

The plot of Satantango is very simple. Shocked by the suicide of a young girl, a group of townspeople in an impoverished Hungarian village choose to follow the manipulative “prophet” Irimias who, with promises of a bright new collective beginning, takes their money, leads them to an abandoned mansion, and then disperses them and sends them off to menial labor. This last task puts him right with the local authorities, who have been harassing him for being a petty criminal. With one slight exception, the townspeople are mostly sheep throughout the movie, something Tarr underscores in his long shots of cattle wandering through the streets early on in the film. Irimias too has contempt for them, though he is not above a bit of quasi-religious experience himself.

The center of the film is those two individuals, the girl and Irimias. The girl tortures her cat before poisoning it and herself. The obvious interpretation is that on the great ladder of being, she is taking out her frustration and impotence on the one creature lower than her. (She was earlier robbed by an older boy.) I’m not so certain. In one of the few points where Tarr quotes extensively from the novel, the narrator intones that the girl knows that even in death, she is still incontrovertibly connected to the entire town around her and its people. (Tarr’s shots of spiderwebs echo these words.) It is presented in a neutral manner, but one shouldn’t confuse neutral with benign. These people live together, act together, and are damned together. Irimias manipulates them as a whole, and ultimately there is little to distinguish them. I prefer to see the girl’s actions as a testing of the barriers between herself and an animal, as she wonders what other kinds of relations are even possible between beings. She poisons both the cat and herself alike, and does so, I think, in solidarity with the experience of “shit” of which Tarr speaks.

For Irimias, it’s best to consider another Tarr/Krasznahorkai creation: the Prince of The Melancholy of Resistance (book) and The Werckmeister Harmonies. The Prince is a creature of pure chaos who speaks in an unintelligible language interpreted by his “agent,” and accumulates a mass of followers that, at his command, go berserk and tear up the town, leading to martial law being imposed and a new regime. In contrast, Irimias does what the existing regime wants, but his own imprint is on the way in which he rips apart the community, thus proving the girl ultimately wrong.

Politically, the film is bleaker than Werckmeister. What I saw as a Burkean influence on that work shifts to the more absolutist perpsective of Hobbes in Satantango. Irimias serves as the sovereign: divested of their cattle and their happiness, they place their trust, their money, and their futures in Irimias’s hands. He offers them nothing in return but their lives, though here it is more metaphorical than in Hobbes. Their existing lives were poisoned and taken from them with the girl’s death, and in sending them on their way, Irimias does give them back some direction. It’s shit, of course, but the townspeople are not observably worse off at the end of the film, post-Irimias, than they were at the start. Like the Prince, Irimias is a chaotic force of change, shoving out the old and heralding the (no better) new.

I say absolute because Hobbes saw the power interchange between the people and the sovereign as the best possible choice to avoid a violent end. The liberal hope, from Locke to Rawls and onward, has been that better options can be created. Tarr’s position in Satantango is that such hopes are entirely false. (The Werckmeister Harmonies is more ambivalent and holds out the possibility of ephemeral beauty.) Beyond that, Tarr portrays this state of affairs as primoridally ontological: there is little sense given of how Irimias came to be or the inner minds of any of the characters. They act out their roles in the same way that the cattle, the spiders, and the scenery do theirs.

The overall effect is brutally powerful, but monochromatic. Tarr has put a grim Hobbesian view of the world on display in as visceral a manner as Godard and Antonioni used with their Marxism. Godard’s films succeed where Antonioni’s fail because Godard’s restless and relentless creativity causes the films to escape from their ideological straitjacket. Tarr is somewhere in between. In The Werckmeister Harmonies, the added element of fantasy provides a gateway out of the narrow political dynamics. The more mundane material of Satantango makes for a film that, for all its intensity and sheer length, cannot seem larger than the world in which it exists.

Bela Tarr: Satantango [2]

(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…


Bela Tarr: Satantango

The doctor sat sourly beside the window, his shoulders and back resting against the cold and damp wall, and he did not even have to turn is head to be able to look out onto the squalid run-down group of houses through the gap between the rotting window-sash and the filthy sprigged curtains come down to him from his mother; he had only to look up from his book, a single glance sufficed to note the slightest change and though every once in a while it did chance to happen that something escaped his attention–either he was deep in thought or because he was abiding in a more distant part of the premises–even on such occasions his excellent hearing always came to his aid: but he was rarely, if ever, deep in thought and left his arm-chair padded wth blankets and his fur coat, even more rarely, the position of which had been determined by the accumulated experience of everyday activities–for he had succeeded in reducing the incidents forcing him to forsake his look-out post beside the window to the barest minimum. This was of course by no means an easy task of the sort that can be accomplished overnight. On the contrary: he had had to amass and arrange, in the most serviceable positions possible, the objects indispensable for eating, drinking, smoking, diary-writing, reading and countless other trifling tasks, and even had to renounce allowing the occasional error to go unpunished out of self-indulgence pure and simple.

Laszlo Krasznahorkai, “Knowing Something,” Satantango

Tarr’s movie adheres to the action of this chapter faithfully: the doctor sketches the scene from his window, drinks until he runs out, then goes to find more booze, visiting some prostitutes along the way. He runs into a little village girl who has a nasty fate in store for her, and eventually collapses out in the woods for the evening. Like much of Krasznahorkai’s fiction, it is narrated in this hyper-discursive, half-interior and half-omniscient style, with physical and verbal action buried amongst ever-burgeoning context. The film replaces this baroque style–it does not approximate it–with extremely long takes, often statically framed, of the objective action and little else. In this segment, one of the more unfilmable, few of the doctor’s thoughts are made public; instead we are treated to the doctor drinking, sketching, drinking, looking, tersely writing down what he sees through the window, drinking, walking, drinking, talking (though the conversation is greatly truncated and simplified from that of the book), drinking, and collapsing.

In Tarr’s subsequent film The Werckmeister Harmonies, based on Krasznahorkai’s brilliant The Melancholy of Resistance, the socio-political philosophical arguments simply never made it into the film. (A friend who had not read the book was at a loss to discern any political statement from Werckmeister.) The loss isn’t quite so drastic here because the action is on a smaller scale, but given that Krasznahorkai collaborated with Tarr on the screenplays for both movies, Krasznahorkai does significant violence to his own original statements. Krasznahorkai’s style and content is in no way approximated by Tarr’s techniques or the film’s stunning length (7.5 hours); Tarr replaces them with a cinematic language that is as unique to its medium as Krasznahorkai’s language is to his. The passage above gives no indication of the utter slowness of the corresponding scene in the film, nor of how long Tarr is willing to focus on a tableau of a man drinking at a window (or walking, or sketching) before anything happens. Nor does the text communicate the impact of the pervasive rain in the film.

The basics of the film are adequately covered in two other articles, “And Then There Was Darkness” and “The Melancholy of Resistance”. The film’s simultaneous fullness and emptiness makes it daunting to discuss, as it’s easy to abandon the fairly simple plot to focus on the details and eccentricities of visual technique, framing, chronology, and the like, since they are so prominent. It is too easy to say that the ten-minute shots of nothing (or one thing) and longueurs are “a different way of seeing,” or that they force us to look more closely and understand more about the characters. For one, they don’t: Tarr creates a unique mood and tempo, but he is ultimately as focused on surfaces as Bresson. The characters of The Werckmeister Harmonies are more fleshed out after thirty minutes than many of Santantango’s characters ever are. And it bespeaks an indulgence granted to those who are audacious enough to make a visually beautiful seven-hour film to begin with. I want to look at how the visual language and the film’s structure do or do not reflect on the thematic content of the film, and that means that no quarter must be given for the innate appealing (or boring) otherness of Tarr’s style alone.

First, some antecedents. Tarr is too often compared to Tarkovksy, when the two are almost polar opposites, and not just in their view of humanity. Tarkovsky continually is attempting to bring out aspects of his landscapes, while Tarr burrows deeper into it. Tarkovsky will film a clump of underwater reeds in an uncommonly beautiful way, and awe is usually one of his goals. Tarr does not give us the extraordinary; he overdoses on the ordinary. Static shots of rusty stoves reinforce their decrepitude; rain and empty fields overflow the film. Tarr has more in common with his fellow Hungarian Miklos Jancso, but aside from lacking Jancso’s brilliant sense of physical space, Tarr is not as aggressively artificial as Jancso, where the camera is as much an actor as anyone. The stylistic heritage is there, but I think it’s a mistake to make too much of a connection.

Tarr’s visual style is ultimately simpler than either of these two, and it relies primarily on two techniques. The first is the static tableau. Tarr often uses slow tracking across these tableaux, but he just as often stays absolutely stationary on a noticeably composed shot. People may drift in and out of the frame, or they may be as fixed in it, or they may caterwaul within it, but the camera almost never follows a character in the normal way. Likewise, the second technique is the extreme close-up of a person’s face while they talk: their face is not contained within the frame, and the viewer is sometimes unsure of their placement in the environment or the placement of others.

There is a bit of Bresson in the tableaux, but the influence of (late) Carl Dreyer is more apparent in their lack of flash. Like Dreyer, Tarr sticks with basics and avoids the ornate; like Dreyer, he uses shots that are almost stage-like in their geometric construction, most notably in the tavern sequence in the middle of the film. But the decentralization of the people from these scenes comes from another source entirely: Antonioni. Godard has used such destabilized scenes, but Antonioni made depersonalized camera drift his specialty. And while they work in very different moods and milieux, Antonioni’s relation of form to theme is extremely helpful in deciphering Tarr’s more oblique constructions.

To be continued…

[Satantango is playing at MOMA until next week. One dead body. Tons of drinking. Cat torture. Waggish says check it out.]

[Also see Zach Campbell’s incisive commentary.]

Kira Muratova: The Asthenic Syndrome

To begin with a tangent: one of the things that I love about the Times Literary Supplement is how dutiful they are about getting experts to review books in their fields, so that instead of, for example, hearing praise for the wonderfully informative, picturesque prose of Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, as happened in countless American publications, you get to hear how badly Menand’s book misrepresented the pragmatic philosophical tradition, as Bruce Wilshire discussed at length, concluding:

Menand’s failure to grasp the purport and consequences of distinctively philosophical ideas becomes damagingly clear. What is the meaning of truth, persons, groups, reality, matter, mind, the meaning of meaning itself, the meaning of “pragmatism” itself? James’s pragmatic theories of meaning and truth depend on his metaphysics of radical empiricism or pure experience, but references to this metaphysics are absent in Menand, and so James’s pragmatism cannot be grasped. Neither can Dewey’s, nor Peirce’s.

It would be nice to say that The Metaphysical Club is on balance worth having. Menand provides interesting and valuable historical knowledge often overlooked by “pure” philosophers, touching on important thinkers such as Chauncey Wright, Horace Kallen, Alain Locke, Randolph Bourne, W. E. B. Du Bois, Arthur Bentley, Edward Ross, Learned Hand and many others. But I cannot say this nice thing. Menand’s valuable information about the circumstances surrounding the emergence of ideas will badly mislead unless one already knows quite a bit about the ideas themselves. It is not safe to assume that even many learned, educated, or inquiring people possess this knowledge and discipline.

Right on, Mr. Wilshire. (Sorry, the article is not publicly available, but it’s in the subscriber archive of the TLS.) More recently, Stephen Greenblatt picked a fight with Alastair Fowler, who had slammed Will in the World, over seventeenth century European population statistics, and Fowler came out the more knowledgeable winner.

The point is that there is often a real difference between presenting one’s experience of a work and critiquing the work itself, and often people present themselves as qualified to do both when they can actually only do the first. So I fess up: I don’t know enough about life in the Soviet Union during perestroika to claim that I truly understand Kira Muratova‘s The Asthenic Syndrome. But then, I’m not sure that Jonathan Rosenbaum does, either. He describes the first forty-five minutes of the film in detail, then throws up his hands, declaring:

Doubtless there are other details referring specifically to aspects of everyday postcommunist Russian life that are too local to register with much clarity to outsiders like me. Truthfully, I found the movie a lot easier to follow when I saw it a second time and knew not to look for too much plot continuity, though I can’t claim there weren’t parts that still baffled me. The movie’s a treasure chest, and if we get to see it more, more will surely become clear.

Nevertheless, the fundamental aspects of The Asthenic Syndrome come across loud and clear–and you certainly don’t have to be Russian or postcommunist to recognize them as central philosophical as well as behavioral strains in our public life.

(Now I don’t have to feel so bad about discussing the film.) I disagree with Rosenbaum; the movie has a very specific context and makes allusions within it, and speaking to some Russian friends after the movie, it was clear that they were both essential to the film and presented only by allusion. The film is bereft of political (or even markedly cultural) references, yet unlike Alexander Kluge’s The Blind Director or the work of Bela Tarr, which also deal in elusive allegories, Muratova’s film exists within a very definite time and space, that of Gorbachev-era perestroika in the Soviet Union.

If you don’t know that perestroika is seen as the source of millions of deaths stemming from deregulation, corruption, and crime, the melancholy and despair that fill The Asthentic Syndrome seem disconnected from a particular cause: what is Muratova critiquing, exactly? Rosenbaum sees it as a general critique of politics and systems, but that is to deny its overwhelming sense of specificity. Muratova made a film for Soviets, and to reduce it to a series of abstract statements, as Rosenbaum does, sells it severely short. Without the context, the film is simply an ugly, abstract meditation on nothing in particular, one that can be used in assorted political contexts, but which lacks much innate value. Knowing the context reveals the emotion behind the puzzling surface.

The film proceeds for its first segment as Rosenbaum describes: a washed-out, black and white portrait of a woman, Natasha, grieving after her husband has died. But the actress playing Natasha is so hysterically over-the-top, and so unrealistic and disconnected in her mood swings as to be off-putting. So it comes as a relief forty-five minutes in when, with absolutely no prior indication, the camera pulls back to reveal that the film so far has been a film within a film. Everything is now in color, and an audience is bored with this art-house movie, not bothering to question the actress who played Natasha, who is the special guest. Eventually only one man is left in the theater, our hero Nikolai, who has fallen asleep.

Nikolai, it turns out, has some kind of (highly symbolic) narcolepsy, and spends much of the film asleep. He teaches, but rarely displays any emotion beyond resignation and exhaustion. He is clearly the opposite of Natasha, almost comically so. He wanders in a world filled with unpleasant people throwing decadent parties where the party game of the hour is to pose two nude people to make a scene depicting “love.” Nikolai repositions himself and a woman to, pace Kafka, appear to be lying next to each other in a coffin.

So it proceeds. The visuals are mostly drab and underplayed, and the extras in particular make a point of not intruding with much visible emotion. This is, evidently, a portrait of society in despair, a society which has lost a principle of order, albeit a cruel, totalitarian one, and is lost. Historically speaking, given the popularity of Putin’s return-to-authoritarianism regime, Muratova’s vision seems quite prescient.

Yet the relation of the two parts puzzles me. The film-within-a-film, never named, is so artificial as to even be considered a “bad film,” and thus something being rejected; certainly it seems to have no resonance for any of the “real” characters. But the balance of the opposites–lack of affect vs. hysteria–makes it out to be something more complicated. My tentative conclusion is that the film-within-the-film is intentionally designed to have an alienating effect, to be so extreme as to push the audience into the corner of the narcoleptic who is the film’s true protagonist. The old violent extremes, Muratova seems to say, have vanished and are no longer relevant, but that means that there is no revenge to be had, no purgation of anger for the descendents of the victims of Stalin. Rather, the rug has just been pulled out from under them, and they are left in an unregulated void.

I was intrigued by The Asthenic Syndrome, but often confused, sometimes bored, and rarely moved. (An anomalous, memorable sequence of a unlikable old matron ineptly playing the trumpet is a notable exception.) But this film was not made for me. It is a portrait of a unique situation that I never experienced, and it does not go out of its way to generalize or polemicize, though it has its strong opinions. It is of its time in a way that Tarr’s The Werckmeister Harmonies is not, yet that gives it a strength that allows it to easily best Angelopoulos’s tepid, feeble Ulysses’ Gaze, which is more concerned with making a pompous statement than capturing life.

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