During a conversation with a friend recently, I found myself trying to describe Bela Tarr’s Sátántangó, which I ended up summarising as “seven hours of poor people walking through mud.” Remind me never to look for a job in marketing. This dour but droll, slow but gripping film is a hard sell, not least because its running time will put a big dent in your day and requires considerable investment. My attempt to encapsulate the greatness of Tarr’s film got me thinking about exactly why it exerts such fascination.
I’ve been pressed into thinking about it because I’ve been re-working a core module on film form, and we begin the course with three weeks on ‘Image and Editing’, looking at three pairs of films that illustrate different types of shots, composition and montage. One week, for instance pairs up Man with a Movie Camera with a Godard film which I haven’t fully decided on (Vivre sa Vie has served perfectly well in the past, but I fancy a change this year). It’s all a bit breakneck in its coverage, but the aim is to teach the basics of formal analysis across a range of film texts. In a slightly brave/foolish bit of scheduling, I’ve opted to couple The Bourne Ultimatum with Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies. I want students to be transfixed by it’s hypnotic sense of absorption and delay, but I know how they’ve kicked out against ‘difficult’ films such as Bresson’s L’Argent in the past, and I’m looking for a vocabulary that can offer a way into the pleasures of these films in order to reduce the impact that challenging films can have on new students. I hope that doesn’t sound patronising – they might be ready for a challenge, but I’ve stopped being shocked when introductees struggle to get a handle on films which cinephilic orthodoxy cherishes (I’m looking at you, Ozu). Rather than turn my nose up at the apathy of youthful viewers, I’d prefer to get them to feel inspired and flattered by the way ‘difficult’ films can reward committed spectatorship. It’s easy to tell people what to watch, harder to tell them what to see. If I can turn them onto Tarr, I will have done my good turn for cinema this year.
Sátántangó begins with one of the most extraordinary shots imaginable. Nine whole minutes of some cows. Doesn’t sound riveting. After all, if you live near some cows, you can probably go and look at them for as long as you like. Perhaps you could even treat yourself to ten minutes of bovine gawking if you really want to push the boat out. Working out just what makes this opening sequence so hypnotic, so unforgettable, is key to understanding the appeal of the whole film.
Sátántangó follows a group of characters in an agrarian collective that is failing at the end of Communist rule in Hungary. They await the return of the charismatic figure of Irimias, who has already defrauded them once and will likely do so again, and they cling doggedly to the belief that he will turn out to be their salvation. The slight story is a pretext for an extended portrait of the disenfranchised townsfolk who find themselves at the blunt, dull end of communism’s collapse. The shot of the cows doesn’t introduce any of these characters, offers no dialogue, and we don’t return to the cows later to see how they’re getting on.
The start of the shot is an empty yard, establishing a dramatic space, a vacant stage for some action. The cows mooch out of the barn and into the mud in their inimitable cowish manner. One of them attempts a frisky mounting. The camera pans to the left slightly, but otherwise remains static. One cow approaches the camera, but it’s unlikely that this is in preparation for an explanatory, scene-setting monologue.
Let’s face it. There’s something a bit silly about cows. Despite being similarly-sized quadripeds, they have none of the elegance and inscrutability of horses. They look kind of stupid, and their over-laden, meat-bearing frames make them unnaturally awkward when trying to go anywhere in a hurry. They’re surely easier to direct than chickens however, and pretty soon their casual milling about becomes a more organised movement off to the left. The camera tracks laterally to follow them, picking up a steady speed. All the time, a deep rumbling noise, non-diegetic but seemingly machinic adds an indefinable sense of … is it menace?
Much of the drama, if I can call it that, seems to derive from this dynamic coincidence of the camera’s very deliberate, pre-destined motion and the more random excursion of the herd. The cows seem to know where they’re headed, and their journey is allied with that of the camera (one might also suspect that it is the camera which is compelling them to head off); maybe it is this vague sense of pre-destination that leads critics to assign a cosmic significance to Tarr’s mise-en-scene in this film, but it certainly creates a gripping union between the shot and its contents – to what extent is the movement “motivated”? What does it contribute to our understanding of the scene? The ambiguity, the sense that this might be significant, stems from the powerfully assured camera movement that converts it from an observed scene to one which has been transformed by the intervention of the cinematic apparatus.
One of the things I like about Tarr is his refusal to engage in the hermeneutic exercises his films provoke in their awed viewers. He’s an irrascible interviewee. In response to a question about the existential terror and chaos of his Werckmeister Harmonies (2004), he said: “I just wanted to make a movie about this guy who is walking up and down the village and has seen this whale.” This is not to invalidate the kinds of interpretive filler you might want to stuff into the wide open spaces of Tarr’s long takes and sparse frames, but it does remind you that interpretation is your job, not a simple following of a crumb-trail of signifiers towards a logical conclusion.
There’s a more practical consideration that always interests me when talking to other viewers of Sátántangó – how do you watch it? First of all, how do you find the time to watch a seven-hour film from start to finish? Does it hurt? How do you sit? Don’t your eyes wander from time to time? Is that OK? Granted, I’ve known people who don’t think twice about marathon viewings of favourite TV shows such as 24, so it’s probably not a physical impossibility for a lot of people, but that kind of episodic narrative, with its evenly placed climaxes, cliff-hangers, hooks and action scenes is altogether less demanding on the attention span – however fiendish the plot of Lost might get, you quickly get comfortable and familiar with the formulaic structure of flashbacks, character profiles and multiple narrative threads, and you usually know how to interpret the information contained in each frame. Tarr’s cows are a conundrum.
OK, the explanation for the shot may be this simple: it’s an establishing shot that expresses the dour tenor of the place where the rest of the story will take place. The discomfited cows leaving the yard and trotting into the distance represent metonymically the failure of the farm and its subsequent dissolution. Simple. There are other ways to do this – with a dialogue over a gate between a couple of farmers, for instance – but Tarr’s approach is to hold the shot. Initially, and I’m analysing my personal response here, the shot holds the attention because it has a privileged position at the start of the film – something must be about to happen. As with so many of the shots in Sátántangó, though, this immediate sense of anticipation gives way to a very different experience of cinematic time that provides few cues about how long a shot will last. The average shot length of this film is 2.5 minutes. For comparison, Michael Bay’s Transformers has an ASL of 0.25 seconds (alright, I’m exaggerating, but you get the point). In most narrative films, a shot will last for as long as it takes a character to deliver a line of dialogue that moves the story a few more paces along the path to resolution. Here, the temporal cues are lacking, and the effect seems to be to force an engagement with the space and place that is being presented, and to upset the standard patterns of editing and narration. Now, it’s probably reductive to imply that Tarr is defining his aesthetic against the codes of fast-cut mass cultural entertainment cinema as a reactionary strike at hegemonic Hollywood: unless the director is being entirely disingenuous in interviews, he couldn’t care less what is going on in other movies. But I find it hard to avoid noticing that one of the exciting things about watching a film like Sátántangó is the realisation that years of honing my visual acuity on Georges Méliès, Shaw Brothers and Robert Altman have not fully equipped me for grasping the significance of a herd of cows getting spooked and wandering off.
I don’t want to sound glib – make no mistake, Sátántangó is one of the most extraordinary experiences you can have with a film. And I mean “experience”. Watching it takes time – it will knock out a whole day, and then haunt you for several more. It will make the films you watch in its wake seem frivolous and tepid. Maybe the point of the long takes is that they will lodge in your memory like light on long-exposure daguerreotypes. But the demand for contemplation, the deferral of gratification, the ambiguity about the form that gratification should take, and the sense of weighted time that infuses films like this make for a particular viewing experience that takes a while to appreciate. I came to that appreciation as an undergraduate, tentatively raiding the library for films I had been told were important and baffling myself in the process of trying to connect that supposed importance to my own responses. I found myself watching them through the clutter of other critics’ analyses and the sheer force of their canonical freight. I probably forgot to enjoy them or to really let them speak to me directly; the confidence to do so took some time. Hopefully, my own students will find that Tarr’s films cut through that resistance by their restful, enveloping pace that is harder to intellectualise and instead urges a surrender to the image. You have no choice but to watch and wait. Keep watching the cows.