Archive for the 'Directors: Tarr' Category
Late Autumn (Ozu Yasujiro, 1960).
Manohla Dargis of the New York Times has just written a piece that refers to some ideas that have appeared on this site. If you see the article online, you’ll find the links to appropriate entries, but if you’ve come here after reading the paper edition of the Times, you can find the Tim Smith essay she cites here. It is a remarkable piece of work, and it’s gratifying that Dargis has called attention to it. (Tim’s video experiments have received many hundreds of thousands of downloads already.) My table-setting entry, on task-driven looking, is here.
The backstory is simple. On this site in 2008, I took a slow, unemphatic scene from There Will Be Blood as an example of how a director can subtly guide our attention without cutting, camera movement, or auditory underlining. My analysis was guided by recognition of my own responses and some knowledge of traditions of cinematic staging. Tim, in his turn, used the tools of modern perceptual research to show that we can gain firmer knowledge of directorial craft. By tracking viewers’ eye-scanning, Tim demonstrates vividly that filmmakers can shape our experience of the action on a second-by-second basis. This not only helps us understand how we grasp images. It shows that humanistic inquiry and psychological research can collaborate.
Why so unserious?
Late Spring (Ozu Yasujiro, 1949).
Those who navigate Internet eddies and flows know that dozens of responses have swirled around Dan Kois’ “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables.” Kois wants to like long, slow movies, but after trying for years, he has found that he just can’t enjoy many of them. He can mimic, even anticipate, the judgments of those who do, but in his heart he finds most of the celebrated films boring. He’s now decided to give in to his impulse and declare that he needn’t pretend to enjoy Tarkovsky or Hou Hsiao-hsien:
As I get older, I find I’m suffering from a kind of culture fatigue and have less interest in eating my cultural vegetables, no matter how good they may be for me.
As one man’s confession of guilt and fatigue, this is doubtless sincere, although its sideswiping putdowns of viewers who praise such movies suggest more calculation than humility. Still, this cry from the heart has broader implications, as many Net writers have discussed. Kois’ complaint elicited not one but two responses from the New York Times film critics A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis. For one thing, Kois’ essay seems to offer aid and comfort to people who are afraid to try something different. Indeed, it lets them feel superior to the phonies who claim to like such films. Moreover, Kois justifies the most superficial response a moviegoer can make. Simply shrugging off a film by saying, “It’s boring!” is about as uninformative a response as saying, “It’s interesting!” And one should always be suspicious of somebody, in the name of debunkery, telling us that we shouldn’t bother to know something.
Kois’ piece exploits the special status that film enjoys in today’s culture. High and low mingle. Because movies are so accessible, and Hollywood movies are so eager to give us what somebody has decided that we want, coterie tastes are dismissed as snobbism. Things seem different in other arts. Would the Times publish a piece in which someone confessed to finding Tarkovsky’s contemporary, the Soviet composer Sofia Gubaidulina, boring? No, because to talk about her is already to enter a restricted and high-level conversation. It goes without saying that a great many listeners would be bored by her music, but who cares what non-experts think about a modern composer? Film, however, is a free-fire zone; anybody’s opinion is worth a public hearing.
I’ve kept out of the fracas because I thought Kois’ piece was silly-season fluff. Of course I wrote my own replies in my head, such as We used to have a name for this: Philistinism. I also thought that the essay operated in bad faith. Kois wasn’t as apologetic as he tried to seem. He claims humility (he “yearns…to experience culture at a more elevated level”) when really disdaining this area of cinema and considering the people who claim to enjoy it mere poseurs. The exaggerations show, I think, that this is not a serious piece:
Surely there are die-hard Hou Hsiao-hsien fans out there who grit their teeth every time a new Pixar movie comes out.
Still, Kois’ complaint touches on something important about film history. We have a polarized film culture: fast, aggressive cinema for the mass market and slow, more austere cinema for festivals and arthouses. That’s not to say that every foreign film is the seven-and-a-half hour Sátántangó, only that demanding works like Tarr’s find their homes in museums, cinematheques, and other specialized venues. Interestingly for Kois’ case, many of the most valuable movies in this vein don’t get any commercial distribution. The major works of Hou, Tarr, and others didn’t play the US theatre market. Sátántangó is just coming out on DVD here, nearly twenty years after its original appearance. Most of us can’t get access to the most vitamin-rich cultural vegetables, and they’re in no danger of overrunning our diet.
The race is to the slowest
City of Sadness (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1989).
For the historian, the polarization between fast pop movies and slow festival films asks to be explained. My take goes roughly this way.
From the 1940s through the 1960s, certain directors developed a new approach to telling stories. Antonioni, Dreyer, Bergman, and a few others opted for a style that relied on slower pacing and even “dead moments” that seemed to halt the narrative altogether. “Dedramatization,” it was sometimes called, and many rightly considered it a powerful innovation in the history of film as an art. But these films did get a purchase on the international movie market, often for other reasons (sex in Antonioni and Bergman, religiosity in Dreyer). They also came along at a time when there was a niche audience eager to have new cinematic experiences. (On this period see Tino Balio’s Foreign Film Renaissance on American Screens.)
But artists being artists, competition grew up. The long take, for instance, got longer and more virtuosic. Miklós Jancsó, shamefully ignored today, made a series of pageants of Hungarian history in superbly sustained, intricate camera movements; some of his films have only twelve shots. But his films are sumptuous compared to what we found elsewhere. From the late 1960s through the 1970s, it seems, a new generation of filmmakers competed to make ever more austere films. They often kept the camera fixed, framed the action at a distance, and sustained the shot for many minutes. The works of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet are the high-water marks of this trend, but there were also Chantal Akerman, Theo Angelopoulos, and even Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Katzelmacher) and Wim Wenders (Kings of the Road). Werner Herzog’s successful career as a documentarist has perhaps let people forget that he once made very slow and demanding films like Fata Morgana; his Heart of Glass, screened in US arthouses in the 1970s, would surely not find a distributor today.
From a marketing standpoint, the avant-garde overplayed its hand. The new austerity came along just when Spielberg and Lucas were reinventing Hollywood. As movies got faster and louder, long-take minimalism looked perversely ascetic. Some of the directors, like Straub and Huillet, remained loyal to their project; others crossed over. It is quite a shift from Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), a 201-minute film mostly about housework, to the musical The Golden Eighties (1986) and A Couch in New York (1996). Likewise with Wenders’ Summer in the City (1970) and Wings of Desire (1987). I happen to admire both strains in these directors’ works, but there’s no doubt which is the more audience-friendly.
Today, directors who persist in long-take, slowly-paced storytelling are aiming chiefly at the festival market, which means that most of their films will be shown theatrically only, to be blunt, in France. But some of the greatest directors of our time, notably Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, and Abbas Kiarostami, have done their best work in this mode. The US arthouse market has taken decades to discover them, through more accessible works like Flight of the Red Balloon, Yi Yi, and Certified Copy. Kois confesses to loving Yi Yi, so I’d urge him to look at Yang’s Terrorizers and A Brighter Summer Day, more rigorous but no less gripping films, though they lack the traditional arthouse bait of a charming child. Hou’s Red Balloon also has a cute kid and refers back to an arthouse classic, while Kiarostami, not normally given to couples and romances, offers us in Certified Copy a pleasantly teasing take on Antonioni and Resnais.
Minimalism of the 1970s variety got revived by 1980s American indies, notably Jim Jarmusch, but with more entertainment value. In later years he too crossed over stylistically; however unpredictable the plot maneuvers of Ghost Dog and Broken Flowers, they lack the long takes and open-ended unfolding of time we find in Stranger than Paradise. Even Kelly Reichardt, one of Kois’ targets, doesn’t give us anything like the severity of the 1970s generation. That makes the “purer” films from overseas that persist in this tradition even more off-putting. If Kois can’t take Meek’s Cutoff, as he claims, he’d find Hong Sangsoo (Oki’s Movie) or Liu Jiayin (Oxhide and Oxhide II) cinematic chloroform.
So Kois may assume that “boring” films have persisted in today’s film culture because of snobbism, but there are deeper reasons. The competition among filmmakers to push an aesthetic horizon further, the narrowing of audience tastes, the search for a budget-appropriate niche that could stand in opposition to the visual spectacle of the New Hollywood–these seem to me important factors in making slow movies a ghetto for cinephiles.
Why shouldn’t people follow Kois in giving up their vegetables? No reason, except that they’re missing some worthwhile cinematic experiences. Not all austere movies are good, but viewers who want to expand their cinematic horizons should consider the possibility of learning to look at certain movies differently. Kois can’t see that; he thinks that people who like the movies that bore him are usually phonies. But I believe that some of those admirers have developed a repertory of viewing habits that adjust to different cinematic traditions. If you can like both Stravinsky and rock and roll, why can’t you like Hou and Spielberg?
Look again, closer
Voyage to Cythera (Theo Angelopoulos, 1984).
This is the prospect opened up by Dargis’ latest article. She suggests that Kois’ response isn’t wholly based on taste. It may stem from literally not knowing how to look at certain kinds of movies.
Kois’ article treats most defenses of slow films as a matter of hand-waving and you-see-it-or-you-don’t attitudinizing. Again, he has a point: Those reactions are common, I think. The fact that cinephiles must face is that this sort of film is very difficult to talk about. We can point out the creative choices in Hollywood because narrative in some degree drives everything we see and hear. But when narrative relaxes, most viewers don’t know what to look or listen for.
The problem has haunted me for decades, ever since the 1970s when I took an interest in Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, and Mizoguchi–all filmmakers felt, at the time, to be slow. I failed to come to grips with the problem in my 1981 book on Dreyer; I even anticipated Kois in calling Gertrud (another item that would never grace theatre screens today) boring–but I took that to be a good thing, as a challenge to conventional viewing habits.
What can I say? I was young. Since then, I think I’ve come up with better ways of talking about the other directors I mentioned, as well as some in their camp, such as Angelopoulos and Hou and Tarr. A lot of my answer comes down to the way, pace Dargis and Smith, they structure our attention.
My arguments are set out in the places I mention in the tailpiece of this entry. In brief, these filmmakers become engaging, even entertaining, when we realize that they are to some extent shifting our involvement from characters and situations to the manner of presentation. Not narrative but narration is what engages us. And we need, as Dargis points out, some schemas for grasping these alternative patterns. We have robust and refined schemas for following a story, but grasping the dynamics of narration, the how as well as the what, takes more practice, and perhaps some instruction from critics.
The process is like taking in an opera on two levels: following the stage action but also registering the patterns, the emotional highs and lows, of the music that accompanies–and sometimes overwhelms–it. Let Papagena and Papageno stammer each one’s name again and again. The repetition isn’t needed for the drama, but it’s thrilling on sheerly musical grounds.
Now imagine that sort of development transposed to cinema, in which we can appreciate, at one and the same time, not only the story’s unfolding but the patterns that present it. The supreme master of this possibility, I think, is Ozu, perhaps cinema’s Mozart. But you can find the same qualities in more somber key elsewhere. For example, in watching Angelpoulos’ Voyage to Cythera, I think that you have to be prepared to see the arrival of track workers in yellow slickers, visible through the speckled window pane in the shot above, as a kind of visual epiphany, the quiet equivalent of a stunt in a summer tentpole picture.
Given a narrative mandate, we’re on the lookout for pictorial factors that affect the dramatic situation. But when narrative slows, other things, maybe not of narrative moment, pop out, like the yellow-garbed train workers on their handcar. At such moments, it’s not that our eyes roam around aimlessly; it’s that the director guides us in a different way, toward a visual search that isn’t wholly driven by plot considerations. Here’s a shot from Ozu’s End of Summer (1961).
The principal action is a party of young people singing. But the faces are no more important than the gleaming drinks on the table, a little suite of colors and shapes that become fascinating in themselves. (For instance, several of the liquids and bottle labels sit along the same horizon line, regardless of how far the drinks are from us.) You don’t discover this half-gag, half-still-life by groping: Ozu has lit it and composed it so that you’re invited to discover it. He has found a way to activate what in most movies would be filler material. And if you think that noticing colors and shapes on the tabletop is just trivial, consider that we enjoy staring at the same sorts of patterns in an abstract Kandinsky. Or is he cultural roughage too?
In an Ozu film, even though he cuts rather fast, we’re given time to see everything. But this isn’t random rummaging. It’s visual exploration guided by Ozu’s decisions about composition, lighting, and color. Something similar, I think, is going on with Tarr, although there it’s more a matter of texture and tactile qualities. His people shamble through mud, oily puddles, dusty corners, and tearing winds. In one shot of Damnation, a rain-soaked wall shrivels to match a wrinkled topcoat.
The story is still going forward, but by turning his protagonist from us and aligning him with the wall, Tarr has given his shot an extra layer of sensuous appeal. Try to remember the way any wall looked in Transformers 3, before it got blasted to rubble.
Slow movies let us look around, and good slow-movie makers give us something to see when we do. But what do we do when these accessory appeals don’t just accompany the narrative but swamp it? What if we lose track of the characters? The film may steer us to pictorial or auditory qualities that take over our perception.
The authorities are looking for a man in the family in Hou’s City of Sadness, but you have to rely almost solely on dialogue to identify what’s going on and who’s speaking.
The sheer pictorial beauty of the shot becomes a sort of anti-narrative pretext. But if you’re alert, you won’t take the plot off the table, because at one crucial moment a figure flashes through the far left background, more or less fully lit, who may be the suspect the cops are seeking.
Sometimes you have to destroy narrative in order to save it.
Hou asks that we engage with his distant, fixed images in a complex way, being patient but vigilant, enjoying abstract geometry while also sustaining old-fashioned suspense. It’s this dynamic between story and style, fastening on plot elements but also discovering accessory pleasures and patterns, that I think constitutes one delight of the sort of films that Kois finds boring.
Add Bresson, Mizoguchi, Dreyer, Tarkovsky, and others to my list of directors whose very different styles invite us to explore what the rapid pace of most narrative cinema refuses to dwell upon. These filmmakers invite us to grasp the space and time of a scene in a fresh way. The details and dimensions of a world surge forward, not simply as a backdrop for characters hurtling toward a goal, but as something valuable in their own right. For some viewers, me included, they do more. They also ask you to transfer those viewing skills to life outside the theatre. They encourage you to find a new way to look at our world.
Not all slow, minimalist movies are good. That’s why I think critics are obliged to rebut Kois with careful analysis, not the gaseous generalities about sublimity and eternal mystery to which we too often resort. Digging deeper, we can not only answer skeptics but expand our understanding of how cinema works. These films have opened windows for many of us. Why should we keep them to ourselves?
First, thanks to Manohla Dargis for enjoyable correspondence about these issues.
Tim Smith’s blog, Continuity Boy, is a good way to keep up with his energetic and expanding research program.
Kristin has written on comparable matters in Tati; she even wrote an essay on M. Hulot’s Holiday called “Boredom on the Beach.” (It and an essay on Play Time are in her book Breaking the Glass Armor.) Tati’s films, in their spasmodic pauses and shamelessly repeated or sustained gags, could also count as part of the postwar dedramatization trend.
My initial arguments about different registers of viewer perception and cognition were made in Narration in the Fiction Film (1985). My case for Ozu is in Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, available online. More recently, I’ve become interested in cinematic staging and have concentrated on challenging directors like Mizoguchi, Angelopoulos, and Hou; see On the History of Film Style (1998) and Figures Traced in Light (2005). All of these “slow” filmmakers ask us to be sensitive to unusual sorts of narrative patterning, and some purely non-narrative patterning. More thoughts on these matters can be found in The Way Hollywood Tells It (20006) and Poetics of Cinema (20007).
On this site, you can find similar lines of argument, especially about Béla Tarr, Mizoguchi Kenji, and silent directors like Louis Feuillade, Victor Sjöström and some Danish creators. See director entries for Hong Sangsoo, Liu Jiayin, and others mentioned above. Later this month I hope to post a bit more about how directors guide our attention without recourse to fast-paced editing–before editing was really invented.
Sátántangó (Béla Tarr, 1994).
DB here at the Hong Kong Film Festival:
Above, a tourist pic, the view from one of several escalators in the towering mall in Langham Place. Its flamboyance makes a sharp contrast with the movie I saw in the mall’s cinema, the minimalist Turin Horse. (See below.) The very end of this entry presents another view from the heights of Langham.
Righting wrongs, with new wrongs
Most Hong Kong thrillers and action pictures use revenge as their mainspring. It’s fairly uncommon, however, for a film to try to convey the cost that vengeance exacts on the avenger. Punished, directed by Law Wing-chong and produced by Johnnie To, makes an effort in this direction. A mogul’s spoiled daughter is kidnapped, and his refusal to bend to the captors’ will leads one, in a moment of pique, to kill her. After learning of her death, the mogul contracts with his chauffeur, a man who knows the underworld, to track down the gang.
The tycoon, played by Anthony Wong, goes through some agonizing as he must hide his daughter’s death from the girl’s stepmother. In turn, the chauffeur, Richie Jen (whose skilful performance dominates the movie), must abandon his son after executing the boss’s revenge. The men’s lives dissolve in their quest for payback, and the fact that the daughter, a brattish cocaine addict, is completely unsympathetic only makes the whole thing bleaker. An obvious parallel is the Eurothriller Taken, which presents a rash but innocent daughter rescued by a father who remorselessly cuts down everything in his path. Well-mounted, with perhaps too many flashbacks, Punished is that unusual Hong Kong film that insists that every effort to assuage male pride takes a toll in male pain as well.
But for a film that really investigates the cost of settling accounts you have to turn to Heaven’s Story. Here Zeze Takahisa, known mostly for erotic films, traces out the consequences of three killings. The cop Kaijima impulsively shoots a suspect. The locksmith Tomoki’s wife and child are brutally murdered by a teenager, Mitsuo. And elsewhere the little girl Sato is the only survivor of another family homicide.
The stories link up. Sato, in numb grief, sees Tomoki on television vowing to kill Mitsuo when he leaves prison. Because the man who killed her family has committed suicide, Sato embraces Tomoki’s reckless vendetta. She grows up hoping to help him kill Mitsuo. At the same time, Kaijima’s son develops a sidelong relation with her….
I really haven’t given away much, because the film traces these characters and several more across the space of—yes!—four and a half hours. As in a novel, the motives and connections among characters emerge slowly. Zeze’s plot maintains a balance between suspense about what comes next and curiosity about the past. And as in most network narratives, part of the pleasure is wondering how the new characters we meet will tie into the ramifying web of relationships.
Zeze splits the film into two “acts,” with intermission, at a bold spot: ending the first part on a pitch of suspense and starting the second with a new set of characters, making us wait for the developments set up at the end of act one. Working on a broad canvas allows the film to shift majestically, in large blocks, from one person to another. The same goes for the ending: After the main drama is resolved, Zeze allows a long epilogue in which many of the film’s motifs are gently set to rest.
That drama and those motifs, unsurprisingly, bear on the power of unspeakable acts to ignite our desire for revenge. Every character, even those unaware of the savage deaths in the past, is altered by the central killings. An amateur rock singer, a young woman almost defiantly self-centered, becomes a devoted mother, which seems to yield some hope; but her family is eventually shattered by echoes of Mitsuo’s crime.
Those more directly affected by the killings face more severe tests. Kaijima, for instance, tries to compensate for his impulsive shooting by giving monthly money to the victim’s wife and daughter. (The irony is that the money comes from his sideline, moonlighting as a paid killer.) The daughter grows up expecting Kaijima’s payments as her due and tries to extract more money from him, as if he were her surrogate father. This daughter, along with Mitsuo the teen murderer and the older woman who takes him in, come to unexpected prominence as the film unwinds a tale of sorry lives and compromised choices.
Mostly shot in rough-edged, somewhat bumpy shots, Heaven’s Story at first made me fret: 278 minutes of this? I needn’t have worried. The pace is steady, even relentless, but I didn’t find it monotonous, and a more polished presentation might have lacked the distressed urgency of what we get. Incidentally, the framing bits, showing a sinister puppet play with Shinto overtones, are filmed with smooth care. The contrasts in technique suggest that a more serene supernatural domain exists alongside the anxious sphere of human desires, where people persist in trying to redress old sins by committing new ones.
The obscurity of the everyday
A horse is feverishly hauling a cart, the camera riding low underneath the beast’s plunging head. The wheezing repetitive score rises to a scraping whine, then it’s replaced by the sound of fiercely whipping wind. The old driver pulls the cart up at a farmhouse, where he’s met wordlessly by a younger woman. As the wind tears at them, they take the horse to the barn, the cracked leather harness left on the cart. Inside the cottage, the woman helps the man change his clothes. The woman boils a pair of potatoes. She says: “It’s ready.” It’s the first line of dialogue, and it comes nineteen minutes into the film.
Thus begins the festival film that has exhilarated me most so far, The Turin Horse. With this movie, Béla Tarr, a favorite of mine (especially here, but also here and here), has given us his most spare entry yet. Almost nothing dramatic happens during its 140 minutes, and what does take place is opaque and enigmatic. The film refuses traditional exposition, forcing us to observe bits of behavior and speculate on why things unfold this way.
At one level, it’s the heritage of Neorealism paying off. In Umberto D’s scene of the housemaid preparing breakfast, we had an early example of sheer dailiness used to characterize a person and a milieu, as well as to absorb us in what we might call mundane beauty. But something different, more abstract and disturbing, happens when a film is nearly all routine. In the farmhouse, the old man and his daughter eat their steaming potatoes barehanded, squeezing and mushing them. He wraps himself in a blanket and stares out the window while she does household chores. Next day they arise, dress, and hurl themselves again into the blasting wind. (The wind ripping along the wet streets in Sátántangó is nothing compared to this gale.) In all, cramped settings observed with Tarr’s usual tactile detail, rendered gorgeous in black and white, become as obscurely allegorical as the magical tabletop in Tarkovsky’s Stalker.
Other characters show up eventually. An hour in, a talkative friend arrives and provides a monologue cursing the ignoble forces that have driven intelligence from the world. Later some travelers appear outside at the well, with malevolent results. And the horse refuses to be fed. Perhaps at bottom the “story arc” is that light simply goes out of this world. Having dwelt on gestures (hands pouring out alcohol or struggling to harness the horse) and textures (the ripples of woodgrain on the stable door), the film slides into darkness. The motif is announced in the cryptic trailer for the movie.
From Tarr’s comments we learn that the man is a carter and the woman is his daughter. The film’s voice-over prologue invokes an episode from the life of Nietzsche, who once tried to stop a driver from mercilessly whipping his horse. The incident purportedly led to Nietzsche’s descent into insanity. Tarr has said that the film, based on a short story by László Krasznahorkai (who also wrote the novel Sátántangó), tries to imagine what happened to the horse after the incident.
Yet the horse is less important in the film than the carter and his daughter. It’s not hard to see them living a post-Nietzschean world, and the visitor’s rant about universal debasement may offer support for this interpretation. It’s another exercise in what an earlier entry called Tarr’s “postlude” vein, presenting what remains of life after history has more or less ended. Yet these are no stick figures in a metaphysical meditation. Virtually without psychology, father and daughter are defined through their sheer physical weight and movements. They confront the blasted landscape when they pass outside and the wind tears at them, but once inside they shift to the window to watch. The image of an observer trying to understand a harsh, senseless world beyond the walls is one we’ve seen in the opening of Perdition, and in the scene in which the obese doctor in Sátántangó planted at his desk tries to write down everything he sees happening outside.
Not that the cottage is any more welcoming. Splendidly filmed from a constrained variety of angles, the cottage seems bare of love, meaning, and what we normally consider drama. Tarr’s camera movements and the solemn rhythms of his shots (I counted only 37, including intertitles) are coordinated with the pace of the characters. Perhaps not since Dreyer’s Ordet has the lumbering pace of country life, the trudging gaits and reluctant effort to rise after sleeping, been rendered so expressively. Here, however, nothing is touched by grace
Tarr makes his inhospitable world spellbinding. I’m ready to watch the The Turin Horse again, even, or especially, if it proves to be Tarr’s last film.
For a detailed, less sympathetic review of Heaven’s Story, see Peter Debruge’s piece in Variety. Suggesting that The Turin Horse will be his final film, Béla Tarr discusses it here. At The MUBI Notebook, David Hudson has provided very informative coverage of the controversy around Tarr’s place in Hungarian cultural politics. For an interview with Tarr’s cinematographer, as well as a sensitive appreciation of the film, see Robert Koehler’s piece in the new Cinema Scope.
A view from Langham Place shopping mall, Mongkok.
Drizzle every day can’t dampen audiences’ enthusiasm.
More dispatches from the Vancouver International Film Festival.
“Be pleased, then, you living one, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe’s ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot.” As a tram destination, Lethe makes a brief appearance in the Swedish film You, the Living, Roy Andersson’s latest comedy of trivial miseries. The line from Goethe is apt. After ninety minutes of drab apartments and Balthus-like figures, all bathed in sickly greenish light, you’re ready to stay in bed forever.
As in Songs from the Second Floor, Andersson gives us a loose network narrative, with barely characterized figures threading their way through urban locales. Long-shot, single-take scenes turn clinics and dining rooms into monumentally desolate spaces. Humans, either bulbous or emaciated, trudge through torrential rain and peer out from distant windows. The bodies may be distorted and careworn, but the spaces are even more so. We get a sort of dystopian Tati, in which gags, near-gags, and anti-gags are swallowed up in the cavities we call home and workplace. A carpet store stretches off into the distance, and a cloakroom seems like a basketball court.
In You, the Living, Andersson’s characters recount their dreams, and these open onto areas only a step beyond our world in their lumpish crowds and eerie vacancy. Judges at a trial are served beer as they condemn the accused. Spectators at an electrocution snack on popcorn from supersized buckets. How can I not like a filmmaker so committed to moving his actors around diagonal spaces, even if the frame is either sparse or uniformly packed, and though he does treat his people like sacks of coal? Don’t look for hope here, only a sardonic eye attracted by banality and pointlessness, images made all the bleaker by an occasional song.
I’m drawn to directors who create a powerful visual and auditory world more or less out of phase with reality as we usually see it (in life and in movies). Andersson is one such director; Jiang Wen is another, whose audacious The Sun Also Rises is one of my favorites of the festival so far. Not doing so well with Mainland Chinese audiences, according to the International Herald Tribune, it hasn’t warmed up a lot of Western critics either. Amazingly, it was declined for competition at Cannes.
It seems impossible to discuss The Sun Also Rises without using the word “magic,” as in magic realism, but I saw it as more of a fairy tale or fable. Set in the Cultural Revolution, it tells two stories in the first two sections. A young boy’s mother goes a little mad on a labor farm; in another village, a teacher is compromised by the passionate love of a nurse and an accusation of sexual misconduct. The two stories intersect in a third section, which leads to a jubilant, if disconcerting, final stretch.
At the center of each plot stands a vivacious, passionate woman who unleashes a cascade of unhappy events. Yet the tone of the film is cheerful, almost giddy, thanks not only to Joe Hisaishi’s buoyant score (he may now be the Nino Rota of Asian cinema) but to Jiang’s fresh, assured technique. The movie starts with tight close-ups—the fish-design shoes the mother wants, her feet and hands, her son’s hands at the abacus—edited at a cracking pace. Staccato movements in and out of the frame give the whole passage a visual snap that launches the movie. Characters lunge through the shots, running this way and that without catching breath, and Jiang’s camera follows them without pausing for the sort of stately scene-setting that audiences may expect. Likewise, the second story opens with hands at play and work, the teacher stroking his guitar strings and a bevy of woman kneading bread dough.
The exuberance of the characters and the style contrasts with the usual presentation of this cruel era of PRC history. Jiang finds real pleasure in Cultural Revolution kitsch, and he links a snapshot of the missing father to an iconic image from The Red Detachment of Women. It’s another knot joining the two plot strands; in the second section, villagers watch a screening of that film. Jiang makes the event a real festivity, with couples courting, the teacher humming along with the tunes, and an old lady feeding fish in a pond. Jiang dares to suggest that the force-fed popular culture of Maoism, so scoffed at now, gave genuine enjoyment
The fairy-tale atmosphere is conjured up by little mysteries, such as a talking bird and the possibility of taking dictation on an abacus, and bigger ones about fatherhood, a stone hut in the forest, and a shadowy figure named Alyosha, whose identity is more or less revealed in the film’s final long sequence. Variety‘s Derek Elley found The Sun Also Rises both rushed and dawdling, but you could say that about 8 ½ too. Like Fellini’s film, Jiang’s shows a filmmaker at the top of his powers inviting us to savor the exhilarating attractions of imagination.
Another world, another vision. The camera frames a rope descending into black water and tilts slowly, really slowly, up to reveal the ship’s prow and the deck, swathed in darkness. Two silhouettes are visible, and one says, “Don’t follow me too soon.” Soon we’re following the transfer of a small suitcase, the disembarking of passengers making their way to a train. This nearly thirteen-minute shot (!) gives way to another long take, in which we see, in the distance, a murder on the quay.
Béla Tarr has called The Man from London a film noir, and he explained that to me by saying, “Not an American film noir. They were done by bad directors. More like the original French film noirs.” Indeed, the opening shot, with its mists and murky waterfront, suggests Quai des brumes. But here the plot action is slight, presented at a distance, and opaque in its motives; 10 % story, we might say, but 90 % atmosphere. The camera coasts across the waterfront town with the same grave deliberation we see in Damnation, Sátántangó, and Werckmeister Harmonies, swallowing up the Simenon situation in Tarr’s fluid way of seeing, a scanning of ever-shifting surfaces and vistas.
With fewer than thirty shots across about 133 minutes, The Man from London is another exercise in long-take virtuosity, but I thought I noticed some fresh departures. For one thing, there are few characters and relatively few locales, and situations are brought out with unusual explicitness (for Tarr). Instead, it seemed to me that Tarr was exploring new possibilities in one of his pet techniques, the over-the-shoulder long shot I mentioned in an earlier entry.
The opening shot, at first an apparently objective survey of the moored ship, turns out to be a view from the tower manned by Maloin. In shooting the wharf, the camera is forever oscillating, within a single shot, between what we can see outside, at a distance, from a high angle, and glimpses of Maloin at his post, his head or shoulder sliding into the foreground. Imagine Rear Window without the reverse shots of Jimmy Stewart watching.
In earlier films, Tarr tended to be quite clear when his foreground character was noticing something in the distance; his chief interest lay in suppressing the character’s reaction. What we get here can be seen as a refinement of the opening shot of Damnation, with its awesome landscape gradually reframed by Karrer looking out his window, or of passages of the doctor at his window in Sótántangó. Several of the tower scenes in The Man from London, are elaborations of that image scheme, but with more ambiguity. The camera, slipping from long-shot background and close-up foreground, coasts along without telling us whether Maloin has seen exactly what we’ve seen. The result is a suspenseful uncertainty not only about what’s happening in the noir plot but also about what Maloin knows.
There are many other points of interest in the new film, and after one viewing I can’t claim to have a grip on them. But I do think critics have overlooked its sheer visual beauty and Tarr’s efforts to turn his style toward a fluid pictorial suspense.
Altogether less flamboyant than any of these was Suo Masayuki’s I Just Didn’t Do It (Japan), which I’d been looking forward to since my February entry. It’s definitely a change of pace for a director known for comedies that satirize youth culture and middle-aged boredom. A young man is accused of groping a schoolgirl on a crowded traincar. The police advise him to confess and pay a fine, but he insists on his innocence. This decision drops him into a judicial mill that grinds slow and altogether too fine.
The script carpentry seems to me excellent. The presentation of each phase of the boy’s case could have been dry, but Suo makes each step hinge on a detail of fact or inference, so small questions keep popping up—including questions about whether the boy really might have done it. The finale, which recalls Kurosawa’s Ikiru in its methodical summing up of everything we have seen, becomes grueling, but in a salutary way. In Japan, the film is a trailblazing critique of the criminal justice system, where most people arrested confess in order to avoid the almost inevitable guilty verdict in a trial. Eliminating a jury, barring defense counsel’s discovery of prosecution evidence, and capriciously replacing one judge by another midway through a case, the system encourages cynical submission.
Suo avoids stylistic pyrotechnics. He plays down his signature mugshot framings (the publicity still above is an exception) and has recourse to handheld camerawork simply to distinguish the train scenes from the rest of the film. Still, his shooting displays a quiet agility. The high point is probably the testimony of the schoolgirl, her identity protected by screens set up around her. Suo finds a remarkable variety of camera setups here, each well-judged to impart a particular piece of information. (In its resourceful changes of viewpoint, the sequence reminded me of Mizoguchi’s courtroom scenes in Taki no Shiraito and Victory of Women.) The title suggests a strident social-problem film, but Suo’s calm plainness of handling yields a quality rare in the genre: tact.
Many more films to report on, including Johnnie To’s latest, but I must rush off to—what else?—another movie. I’ll try for a wrapup on Thursday, while I’m on that highway in the sky.
The critics line up: Bérénice Reynaud, Shelly Kraicer, Chuck Stephens, and Tony Rayns.
Last weekend, Facets MultiMedia in Chicago held a tribute to Béla Tarr. Milos Stehlik and his colleagues have been long-time champions of Tarr’s work, holding retrospectives and releasing nearly all his features on DVD (with Sátántangó soon to come). Tarr arrived on Saturday, but an emergency sent him back to Hungary sooner than he expected. So instead of discussing his work with a panel, he could only introduce the screening of Werckmeister Harmonies before running off to the airport.
The panel went ahead, with Jonathan Rosenbaum, Scott Foundas, and me chatting with Susan Doll of Facets. It wasn’t as pungent a session as it would have been with Tarr there, but I thought it was still pretty interesting. Jonathan, Scott, and Susan had thoughtful comments, and the questions from the audience were exceptionally good. The whole session was recorded for an online broadcast at some point, so you might want to watch out for that. And I have earlier blog entries on Sátántangó here and here.
In preparation for the panel I spent last week reconsidering Tarr’s work, so I offer a few notions about his films and how we might place them in the history of cinematic form and style. Some of these remarks build on things I said at the session.
Up close and personal
Some directors accommodate critics, accepting or at least tolerating writers’ efforts to probe the work. Not Tarr. Ask about his plots and characters, and he claims that he doesn’t tell stories. Point out what seem allegorical or symbolic touches, and he protests that he doesn’t make allegories and he hates symbols. Mention contemporary cinema, and the reply is abrupt: “For me, when I see something at the cinema it is always full of shit.” And if you tell him that his early films seem quite different from his more recent ones, he vehemently disagrees.
As Scott pointed out in our panel, though, it can be plausible to apply the concept of “period” to filmmakers’ work as we do to painters’ careers. Lars von Trier has been fairly explicit that after mastering a polished style for his work up through Zentropa/ Europa he wanted to try something new, and with The Kingdom he shifted toward a looser, on-the-fly style that pointed toward Dogme 95. Any viewer can be forgiven for thinking that Tarr has moved in the opposite direction of von Trier, from a pseudo-documentary approach toward something much more grave and majestic.
The first three theatrical features focus on the urban working class and their struggles to improve their lot. In Family Nest (1979), a family who can’t afford a flat of their own squeezes in with the husband’s parents. The tight quarters, the ceaseless complaints of the father-in-law, and the husband’s inertia force his wife and child to flee to the streets. The Outsider (1981) follows a young violinist as he drifts among jobs and into a passive marriage before being called up for military service. The family in The Prefab People (1982) has a flat and a decent job, but the wife finds the husband indifferent to her boring routines, and he looks for an escape in a job in another town. The concentration on ordinary people’s lives and the search for drama in the everyday dissatisfactions of city life put the films in the neorealist line of succession.
Stylistically, the films are stripped down in ways that also owe debts to modern traditions. Shot mostly handheld, adjusting the framing to the actors’ performances, they belong to a strain of films from the 1960s on that sought to suggest the immediacy of cinéma-vérité documentary. Unlike many such films, however, Tarr’s buy into a long-take aesthetic. Perhaps surprisingly, these movies’ shots run abnormally long: an average shot length of 32 seconds for Family Nest, 33.5 for The Outsider, 47 seconds for Prefab People. By comparison, Hollywood films of these years were consistently running between 4 and 8 seconds per shot, and comparatively few European and Asian films rely on shots as lengthy as Tarr’s.
Most scenes in these three films are dialogues, and the camera holds intently, if shakily, on faces. This concentration is enhanced by the general absence of establishing shots. A scene opens more or less in the middle of a conversation, and we get a character already challenging another. The visual pattern is that of shot/ reverse-shot, and in most scenes the first face is counterposed to a second one by either a cut or a pan. Shooting on location in cramped rooms, Tarr makes his framings tight; in Family Nest, the jammed frames give us and the characters almost no breathing space.
By relying on more or less isolated faces in close-ups, Tarr can absorb us in the intimate drama while sometimes catching us off guard. For instance, when we get a single character without an establishing shot, there is often a momentary uncertainty about where we are, or when the action is taking place. We also can’t be sure of who’s present besides the speaker, so the close view of him or her leaves us hanging: To whom is s/he talking? We’re pushed to pay close attention to what the character is saying, looking for any clues to the dramatic context. Tarr’s tactic also delays the reaction of the listener; he may withhold sight of the conversational partner until s/he speaks. The effect, heightened by the lengthy takes, is to turn many of these scenes into monologues, in which a character pours out his or her reaction to a situation, and we’re forced to take that in more or less pure form.
By the end of Family Nest, Tarr is shooting entire scenes concentrated on a single face, and because we don’t know if there is anyone else present, we have to take the talk as virtually a soliloquy.
It’s as if Tarr invoked the stylistic schema of shot/ reverse shot and simply postponed or suppressed the reverse shot, leaving only an inexpressive shoulder in the foreground, if that. I’ve discussed the delayed reverse-shot as a convention of European cinema in an earlier blog, and Tarr makes ingenious use of it.
Tarr builds these films out of conversational blocks, punctuated by undramatic routines. The result is that often major plot actions take place offscreen, or rather in between the dialogues. Exposition that other filmmakers would give us up front is long delayed, with bits of information sprinkled through the entire film. In Family Nest, the father claims that he’s seen Iren having an affair with another man. We can’t be sure he’s lying because we haven’t strayed enough out of the household to judge her activities. In The Outsider, one scene ends with the drifter Andras telling Kata, a woman he has recently met, that he has a child by another woman. The scene ends with him smiling in indifference, leaving his sentence unfinished. In the next scene, a band strikes up a tune: Andras and Kata are celebrating their marriage.
Most filmmakers would show us more of the courtship and a scene of proposal, but Tarr moves directly to the next block, suggesting Andras’ laid-back heedlessness. Agreeing to get married is no big deal. Further, by skipping over the most obviously dramatic incidents, Tarr’s storytelling joins that tradition of ellipsis celebrated by André Bazin in his essays on neorealism. No longer does the filmmaker have to show us every link in the causal chain, and no longer are some scenes peaks and others valleys. By deleting the obviously dramatic moments, the filmmaker forces us to concentrate on more mundane preambles and consequences.
This block construction yields an unusually objective narration. These films lack voice-overs, subjective flashbacks, dreams, and other tactics of psychological penetration. We have to watch the people from the outside, appraising them by what they say and do. It is a behavioral cinema. True, Prefab People opens with a flashback: The husband is packing to leave his wife, and the plot moves back to an anniversary dinner that ends badly. But the flashback to the earlier phase of the marriage isn’t framed as the wife’s memory. When the plot’s chronology brings us back to the moment of the husband’s departure, the replay of the opening allows us to watch the characters with more knowledge of what is driving them apart. Unsurprisingly if you know Tarr’s earlier films, that replay is followed by a long monologue showing the wife expressing her sorrow at his departure, without any visual cues about who, if anyone, is listening.
Then, without preparation, we see the couple back together, shopping in an appliance store. How did they reconcile? Have their attitudes changed, or are they simply reconciled to their old life? Like Antonioni and many other modern filmmakers, Tarr doesn’t tell us such things. He simply ends his film on a long take of husband and wife riding expressionless in the back of a truck, as much pieces of cargo as the washing machine beside them.
After the Fall
The second-phase films do look and feel rather different. Almanac of Fall (1984), a story of duplicity and spite among people sponging off a well-to-do older woman, offers a wholly elegant mise-en-scene. Characters are often framed from far back, surroundings take on much more importance, the framing is stable—often with windows, doors, and furnishings impeding our view of the action—and the camera moves smoothly, often in arcs around stationary figures. The takes are even longer, averaging just under a minute. The rococo lighting (patches of color seem to follow actors around) and atmosphere of strained upper-class narcissism seem like quite a break from the working-class films. If I had to find an analogy to Almanac of Fall, it would be Fassbinder’s Chinese Roulette (1976), with its camera arabesques and slightly decadent ostentation.
The overripe shots of Almanac of Fall signaled a shift toward a self-consciously formal cinema, but then Tarr stripped his settings and cinematography down. From Damnation (1988) onward, his films feature ruined exteriors, shabby interiors, elaborate chiaroscuro, rhythmic camera movement, and very long takes. (Damnation has an ASL of 2 minutes; Sátántangó, 2 minutes 33 seconds; Werckmeister Harmonies, 3 minutes 48 seconds).
Tarr insisted in conversation with me that there isn’t a sharp break between early and late styles. For one thing, his video piece Macbeth (1982) consists of only two shots across 63 minutes. It was made before The Prefab People, so his shift toward the ambulatory long take was already in the works. Moreover, The Outsider ends with a strained restaurant encounter captured in a virtuoso handheld shot running nearly seven minutes. A nightclub scene in The Prefab People likewise features some sidewinding long takes around a dance floor that wouldn’t be out of place, at least in their repetitive geometry, in Damnation.
If we’re inclined to look for other continuities, we can find them. In the films from Damnation onward, the deferred reverse shot has been put at the service of attached point of view, so that often when Tarr’s protagonists peer around a corner or out of a window, instead of optical pov cutting we have an over-the-shoulder view that conceals their facial reaction. One scene in Damnation starts as a typically Tarrian scrutiny of texture, with the wrinkling wall echoing Karrer’s topcoat. But then the camera arcs and refocuses, showing what Karrer is watching but not how he responds.
The blocklike construction of scenes in the early films carries on in the later work, but now Tarr minimizes the cuts within a scene, so that it becomes an even more massive hunk of space and time. Tarr refuses as well to use crosscutting, which would show us various characters pursuing their activities at roughly the same time—another strategy that keeps us fastened to one relentlessly unfolding chain of actions and, usually, one character’s range of knowledge. The avoidance of crosscutting will have major structural implications in Sátántangó, which overlaps characters’ individual points of view by replaying certain events and stretches of time.
The long-held facial shots of the early films don’t create a natural arc; the shot will go on as long as the character wants to talk. Similarly, many long takes in the later films don’t present a beginning-middle-end structure. We simply follow a character walking toward or away from us, pushing into a stretch of time whose end isn’t signaled in any way. This becomes especially clear in those extended long shots in which a character walks away toward the horizon and the camera stays put. Traditionally, that signals an end to the scene, but Tarr holds the image, forcing us to watch the character shrink in the distance, until you think that you’ll be waiting forever. Likewise, the diabolical dance shots of Sátántangó, built on a wheezing accordion melody that seems to loop endlessly, are exhausting because no visual rhetoric, such as a track in or out, signals how and when they might conclude. Early and late, Tarr won’t hold out the promise of a visual climax to the shot, as Angelopoulos does; time need not have a stop.
Nonetheless, I do agree with my fellow panelists that the later films have a significantly different look and feel, and it’s on them that Tarr’s place in world film history will chiefly rest. As I indicated at the end of Figures Traced in Light, he stands out as a distinctive creator in a contemporary tradition of ensemble staging. Like Tarkovsky, he shifts our attention from human action toward the touch and smells of the physical world. Like Antonioni and Angelopoulos, he employs “dead time” and landscapes to create a palpable sense of duration and distance. Like Sokurov in Whispering Pages (1993), he takes us into an eerie, Dostoevskian realm where characters are cruel, possessed, mesmerized, humiliated, and prey to false prophets.
Ties to tradition
Tarr, however, maintains that his work, early or late, owes little to cinema. He claims not to have been influenced by other directors, and he asserts that he gets his ideas from life, not from films. When pressed, he admits that he knew the films of Miklós Jancsó “and I liked them very much. But I think what he does is absolutely different from what we do.”
It’s not uncommon for strong creators to reject the idea of influence, and many feel that they may sap their originality if they’re exposed to other work. Still, nothing comes from nothing. Any artwork is linked to others through an expanding network of affinity and obligation. Often influence is like influenza; you catch it unawares, despite your efforts to ward it off. And sometimes artists on their own find strategies that other artists have already or simultaneously hit upon.
Whether or not Tarr consciously joined a tradition, his practices do link him to several trends. Tarr has rejected the idea, floated by Jonathan, that his early films are indebted to Cassavetes, but there seems little doubt that by 1979, when Family Nest was released, it contributed to the fictional-vérité tradition, regardless of his intent. Likewise, his late films’ reliance on long takes is part of a broader tendency in European cinema after World War II. The neorealists taught us that you could make a film about a character walking through a city (The Bicycle Thieves, Germany Year Zero), and other directors, such as Resnais in the second half of Hiroshima mon Amour, developed this device. With Antonioni, Dwight Macdonald noted, “the talkies became the walkies.” Jancsó took Antonioni further (acknowledging the influence) in the endless striding and circling figures of The Round-Up, Silence and Cry, and The Red and the White. So even if there wasn’t any direct influence, Antonioni and Jancsó paved the way for Tarr; they made such walkathons as Sátántangó and Werckmeister thinkable as legitimate cinema.
Still more broadly, as Hollywood cinema has become faster-paced, accelerating its action and cutting, art cinema in Asia and Europe has tended toward ever slower rhythms. Visit any festival today, as Scott mentioned in our panel, and you’ll see plenty of films with long takes and fairly static staging. I criticize this fashion a bit in Figures, but it’s undeniably a major option on today’s menu. It’s even been picked up in contemporary American indies, with Gus Van Sant’s work from Elephant on offering prominent examples. He, of course, has been crucially influenced by Tarr, but Hou, Tsai Ming-liang, Sokurov, and other directors haven’t. We seem to have a case of stylistic convergence, with Tarr choosing to explore the long take at the same time others were doing so.
Within recent Hungarian cinema, it would be fruitful to examine Tarr’s relation to his contemporaries. Janós Szasz’s Woyzeck (1994) takes place in a wasteland not unlike those of Damnation and Sátántangó. Even closer to Tarr is the work of György Fehér. I’ve seen only Passion (1998; right) and one scene from Twilight (1990). Here again we get very long takes with a supple camera, grungy settings, and down-at-heel characters wandering in rain and mist or dancing as if possessed by demons. Fehér has worked with Tarr as producer, dialogue writer, and “consultant.” We could also explore Tarr and Fehér’s affinities with Benedek Flieghauf, the younger director of The Forest (2003) and Dealer (2004). Fleghauf builds these films around extensive long takes, and the remarkable Forest carries the idea of the suppressed reverse-shot to an eerie extreme, as characters study mysterious offscreen objects that may never be shown us.
More generally, and more speculatively, we could look to a wider movement in late and post-Soviet art toward mournfulness and lamentation in response to cultural collapse. Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia is one instance, but Larissa Shepitko’s The Ascent (1976) and Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985) point in this direction too. Vitaly Kanevsky’s Freeze, Die, Come to Life! (1989) offers a rusting, dilapidated world not far from Tarr’s. In the 1970s and 1980s, composers like Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki, Giya Kancheli, Vyacheslav Artyomov, and Valentin Silvestrov created austere, threnodic music that sometimes evokes spirituality but just as often suggests a bleak end to everything. The very titles—Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (Górecki), Symphony of Elegies (Artyomov), Postludium (Silvestrov)—evoke something more than the death rattle of Communism. The pieces can be heard as meditations on the ruins of modern history, asking what humankind has accomplished and what can come next. Tarr’s severe parables, grotesque and sarcastic in the manner of Kafka, don’t exude the religiosity we can find in some of this music or filmmaking, but, at least for me, they share the impulse to lament humans’ inability to transcend their brutish ways. “I just think about the quality of human life,” he remarks, “and when I say ‘shit’ I think I’m very close to it.”
I have more ideas about Tarr, especially on Sátántangó and Werckmeister, but I have to stop somewhere. I hope to see his new film The Man from London when I go to the Vancouver International Film Festival next week, and of course I’ll report on it here.
The best piece of writing I know on Tarr’s cinema is András Bálint Kovács’ “The World According to Tarr,” in the catalogue Béla Tarr (Budapest: Filmunio, 2001).
Béla mesmerizes Lola, Chicago 15 September 2007.
Thanks to Milos Stehlik, Susan Doll, Charles Coleman, and Megan Rafferty of Facets, to Béla Tarr for generous conversation, and to András Kovács for enlightening discussions over the years.
PS 20 September: The reports of Tarr’s earlier visit to Minneapolis are emerging; here’s a good link.