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.)