I remember the first time I saw The Evil Dead. I was an undergraduate, and it was loaned to me on a 3rd or 4th generation VHS copy, so it was fuzzy as hell and fitted with one of those wobbly soundtracks that you only get on movies that have been duped on home machines and passed from grubby hand to grubby hand. Younger readers might be surprised to hear of “the old days”, when plenty of films were not available for download or freely available on shiny DVDs, which lose none of their detail from one copy to the next. The Evil Dead was still fairly notorious, since it featured prominently on the BBFC‘s list of “video nasties”, films targeted by moral commentators in the UK media, resulting in the Video Recordings Act of 1984, which attempted to regulate the content of VHS tapes. It led to the withdrawal of many titles from the shelves of rental stores, and Sam Raimi’s directorial debut survived only on illicit copies salvaged from the purge. In those days (typing those words makes me feel so old), you couldn’t just go online and order a copy from abroad. In restrospect, I’m quite nostalgic for my old taped copy – I made my own (5th generation?), and I still have it somewhere in my office, complete with homemade sleeve. But today I’m working from a DVD version, which was finally released uncut in the UK in 2001.
39 minutes. 18 killings. 3 lines of dialogue. Alan Clarke’s Elephant is shark-simple in its relentless depiction of sectarian assassinations in Northern Ireland. It’s Bresson with guns, as a monotonous procession of shootings takes place with rhythmic repetition. A few shots establish a location into which a man will walk. He seeks out another man and shoots him. Then leaves. He doesn’t flee the scene: the drama of the murders produces no changes of pace or fluctuations of facial expression. We linger on a sullen corpse for a few seconds, then the process repeats again with a different shooter and a different victim. Occasionally the man we see turns out to be the victim, not the assassin. Occasionally, there is a second victim at a single scene. On one occasion there is a brief, mundane exchange of words. But for the most part, the formula stays the same throughout the film. Little attempt is made to exploit the format for a wide variety of murder methods – guns do the trick efficiently enough, thankyou.
The killings are covered predominantly with wide-angle lenses on a Steadicam. This gives the shooters a purposeful, inexorable force, and as superior field of vision, as they carry out their task. Gus Van Sant used a similar technique for his massacre-based Elephant, which takes its title from Clarke’s film, but there it expressed ineluctible lines of fate that would converge devastatingly at the conclusion. Clarke’s tracking shots are heat-seekers, zeroing in on a target with no meandering, accident or deflection. And there is no connection between them, no sense of a conspiracy being rooted out, or a ring being smashed, just a string of squalid slayings. You want to scour people’s faces for signs of remorse, conflict, fear or other emotional nuances, but these attempts will always be frustrated, either because figures have their backs to the camera, or because their faces are sternly illegible. This is as easy as getting out of a car. And then getting back in again. The victims are benign and ordinary in their shirts and woolly jumpers. Almost all die immediately, barely having chance to register more than a dumb recognition that there’s some guy at the door. They slump or fall like the overpacked shopping bags you put down when you get home.
Dennis Lim’s DVD review from the Village Voice puts it quite nicely, and uses most of the adjectives I wrote down in my notebook while watching:
Almost wordless and purposefully numbing, the film alternates between queasy motion (someone walks, walks, walks, and the Steadicam follows) and sickening stillness (someone is shot, and the camera likewise stops dead in its tracks). Clarke’s masterpiece, Elephant is detached and diagrammatic to the point of abstraction—it pares a cycle of senseless violence down to cruel, anonymous geometry.
Aside from the obvious shock value of seeing a set of killings that never coalesce into a narrative, there’s also a palpable sense of being kicked hard in the genres. Ouch. Isn’t TV drama, especially when its broadcast by the BBC, supposed to be a public forum for talking about political problems, current affairs and historical events? Isn’t it a way of making the news seem a bit more manageable, to situate it within a pleasingly contained, story-shaped vessel? Where is the context, the background, the psychological, character-developed, method-acted, micro-for-the-macro-allegorised, self-importantly-hyphenated drama of it all? That title comes from Bernard McLaverty’s description of “the Troubles” (itself an evasive, palliative descriptor) as “the elephant in the living room”, the enormous issue that people get used to and stop acknowledging. Well, elephant looks like the offcuts of a sanitised news archive, the deleted scenes of a war made to look like it wasn’t a war. It sounds like a trite concept, to show the human cost of conflict by excising everything else, but as a confrontational viewing experience it is a peerless pachyderm let loose in the lounge, refusing to play by genre rules: its perfect home, then, was on TV, becoming a cyclical installation piece in the corner of your front room.
You can download a PDF version of this post here. In the PDF version, the layout and images are a little more carefully formatted and stable.
[This post is intended for readers who’ve already seen Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now: it contains major spoilers, and assumes knowledge of the plot. If you need a reminder of the story, try here. I wrote most of this while re-watching the film (trying to practice typing without looking at the keys!), so apologies if some of the prose is a bit scrappy. I’ve polished up some of it, but thought I’d leave most of it intact.]
Don’t Look Now is, when taken from one particular angle, a film about imperfect vision. It shows us a story of eyes deceived, beliefs challenged by visual evidence, even as the film itself conducts its own experiments in superhuman looking by conjoining separate spaces through graphic matches that suggest a world ordered not by random chance but by the interconnectedness of disparate phenomena. The tension between these two kinds of vision, the one flawed, partial and human, the other selective and authoritative, is one of the things that makes the film work and helps to structure its ambiguous play with superstition and clairvoyance.
It might seem like a film about mystery, but it’s all signposted from the first scene, where the kids play outside while the parents read and talk indoors. Various cinematic techniques are used to introduce the question of vision, and to make affective links between characters who might not otherwise be spatially connected. Above, you can see a pair of consecutive shots in which Laura (Julie Christie) puts her hand to her mouth, followed immediately by a cut to her daughter doing the same. In another example, little Christine throws a ball, and the next shot shows her mother catching a packet of cigarettes:
Matches-on-action are usually used to imply spatio-temporal continuity between separate shots of the same activity , but here the matches are between distinct locations. These seem like superficial matches to show the prelapsarian unity of the family, but the graphic matches are used at several points in the film to draw connections between various phenomena. The visual similarity of the red forms of spillage on the photograph and the drowned child’s coat (the red zones occupy roughly the same areas of the frame) sets up a portentous link between the two moments, a clue which John (Donald Sutherland) will spend the rest of the film refusing to acknowledge:
But if the connection between the church and Venice and the death of the child is meant to serve as a warning, then why is it built on similarity? The dwarf and the child are not the same, and it is a confusion between the two which will ultimately lead John into mortal danger. If the supernatural world is sending messages, then they are not clearly legible ones. Elsewhere, vision is portrayed as untrustworthy, partial and fragmented, with faces obscured or ambiguous figures glimpsed:
Julie Christie meets the two English women when one of them gets something in her eye (the other is blind): mirrored images in the bathroom fragment vision. This film is fascinated by the tricks eyes can play, or the beauty of certain effects: light playing on the canal connects to the rain falling on the pond, igniting a memory of the aftermath of Christine’s death. Through the figure of a blind psychic, the film entertains the possibility of a superior mode of sight that comes from sense experiences beyond the eyes.
Does the film want us to conclude that the woman really is psychic and having visions of death and the dead, and thus that it is Sutherland’s incomplete vision, his disbelief in the fact that his daughter is not there in Venice with them that leads him to be killed? Or does it let the viewers decide for themselves whether the premonitions are real? Actually, I suspect it makes it fairly clear that faith in biological sight is misplaced.
The pile-up of blurred lines between memory, premonition and present experience is the organising principle of the justly famous sex scene. Notable amongst movie sex for being a regenerative moment between a married couple as opposed to an inevitable plotpoint for a male hero and his designated shag, it also fits perfectly with the film’s visionary aesthetic. Beginning with tender foreplay, as the lovemaking escalates, it is intercut with flashforwards to shots of the couple dressing and remembering the sex. As the forward-looking shots become more frequent, they might be seen to take over, making the present action into flashbacks, or at least overlapping the temporal spaces and endowing each image with multiple indentities as present moments, memories or predictions and working them into an affective whole of conflated experiences. Perhaps this scene suggests a moment of closeness between the couple by allowing them a privileged, unified experience where the moment, its aniticipation and its memory all come together: it’s a shame that subsequently, they will judge these multi-temporal visions very differently.
If you’ve ever been to Venice and walked around without a map, you’ll know how perfectly cast it is as the backdrop for this story. Any stroll through the backstreets, particularly at night, can turn into a fiendish, circular journey where landmarks will seem to repeat in random order, canals will seem to move their position or reverse their direction. It’s eerie how easily Venetian pathways can mess with your sense of direction, your faith in your remembrances of space, place and time. Out of the holiday season, it’s a mournful, even morbid place, and the film exploits these qualities to the full by making it an architectural analogue of the characters’ mental and visual indecisions. The blind psychic, on the other hand, can navigate it with ease because the sounds are so acute, the echoes so instructive. It is vision, often the most trusted of the senses, that is portrayed as unreliable.
It’s a film about grief, but grieving doesn’t mean sitting around crying – for this couple it means considering and modifying their beliefs about death, time and memory. Laura hides her medication, favouring the clarity of natural vision over medically regulated perspective. John sees his wife’s supernatural beliefs as irrational; he describes her to the authorities as “not a well woman”, and it is this refusal to attribute visual evidence to something other than physical presence that leads him into danger: seeing something that looks like his daughter, he cannot connect the little figure in the red coat whose appearance has been previsualised and warned against. Ultimately, then, the film is reliant on John’s misperception, building up to a shock ending that is foreshadowed heavily in the opening scene and in every other glimpse of his killer-to-be.
The collage of momentous fragments of the opening scene is matched by the death-throes montage that unlocks its significances at the end: all the pieces of the puzzle find their connections to one another in a final spatio-temporal flurry of overlapping times and places, signs and omens. The visual trope of the graphic match, where dwarf and child are made to appear similar, coded by the vivid red macs they wear, even repeating the shot of each figure reflected in the surface of the water, tricks John into accepting that his daughter might be alive before his eyes. But these cannot be John’s vision, because he wasn’t there to see Christine reflected in the water – the film is repeating its own imagery, and giving equal significance to this kind of visual inference and to witnessed sightings, ensuring that seeing something firsthand is not given precedence over other kinds of knowledge and belief. John and has wife have shared similar experiences and interpreted them in very different ways. He sees a premonition of his own funeral but can’t believe that it isn’t evidence of Laura’s physical presence, and can’t accept that his senses might have deceived him. She blithely accepts the evidence of second sight, while he ignores all of the portents, and is punished for trying to believe his senses in the face of other forms of evidence.
You can download a PDF version of this post here. In the PDF version, the layout and images are a little more carefully formatted and stable.
- Review by Bryant Frazer at Deep-focus.com.
- Review by Sameer Padania at Kamera.
- Review, production stills and posters at Screenonline.
- Review by Damian Cannon.
- Brief Synopsis at Britmovie.
- Review at The Terror Trap.
- Brendan Dawes’ interesting experiment with distorting every frame of the film. Difficult to explain, good to look at.
- Review from The Observer by Philip French.
- A review, comparing the film to Donnie Darko, by Jon Ware at Warwick blogs.
- DVD discussion at DVD Times.
- Images of the original locations for the shoot from Reel Streets.
- More locations from Movie Locations.
- Nicolas Roeg talks to Channel 4 about the film.
- The Telegraph’s Must-have movies.
- Penguin study notes for Daphne du Maurier’s story. [PDF]
- Review at Antagony & Ecstasy.
- A planned remake was announced in 2005, but there hasn’t been much development, so hopefully it’s dropped off the slate altogether.
- Screenplay review at The Script Factory.
- Don’t Look Now in the BFI’s Top 100 Films chart.
- Biography of Nicolas Roeg at Screenonline.
- Member reviews at Green Cine.
- Extensive review at Pajiba by Ranylt Richildis.
- Donkey Punch director Olly Blackburn meets Nicolas Roeg for Time Out.
- Nicolas Roeg Interview at Screenonline.
- Interview with Roeg from SFX magazine, 1999.
[You can now download a version of this post as a podcast here.]
First of all a disclaimer. Despite the title of this post, I don’t want to suggest that what follows is a “correct” reading of Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), or to foreclose individual responses to it: it’s an enigmatic film, and no critical commentary can seal it up or explain it away. I’ve put it on an introductory film module for my second-year students and, while I myself perceive greatness in it, I understand why many viewers, thrown into a screening room on a Monday morning, might find it a bit of a struggle, so I want to give a few preparatory remarks that might give them a way in to its marvels, or at least to its workings: students don’t have the same options as regular cinemagoers – they can’t just walk out if they find it dull, dour, opaque and frustrating, because they know I’ll be asking them questions about it and expecting some considered responses. You don’t have to like this film, you just have to think about it, but I hope that it can be more than an intellectual exercise, but rather an emotionally enveloping experience.
Why does it have a reputation as a difficult film? Well, it’s quite long, slow, and it doesn’t tell its story in a familiar way. Rather than subsuming all of the stylistic and formal elements of the film to the all important narrative, Tarr’s camera will often linger on incidental details and minor characters, and it isn’t always clear what relevance they have to the film. Sometimes he will hold a shot for longer than seems necessary – but that just assumes that the length of a shot is “necessarily” defined by its function as a unit of narrative information. Tarr’s shots sometimes go on for so long that you have time to concentrate on their other aspects. Some people find this style to be ponderously slow and boring, a failure to get to the point and tell the story succinctly. You can approach the film from this angle, comparing and contrasting it with Classical narrative cinema, films that economise on their shot lengths and deliver the narrative in a series of swift, contained scenes. Alternatively, you can consider Werckmeister Harmonies on its own terms, and suspend the expectations that you usually bring to the cinema. Once you stop expecting the story to unfold at customary, commercial speed, it should make a lot more sense: shots will last long enough for you to appreciate their graphic elements, their composition, their ritualistic build up to a crescendo or anti-climax, and you can take in the scenery: every shot is composed in a stately manner, and the speed of the tracking rarely changes. Even sequences of violence and destruction do not deflect the camera from its steady movement through space.
I can summarise the plot quite quickly: in an unnamed Hungarian town, a circus act arrives, consisting of a giant whale and special guest ‘The Prince’. With it comes an ever-increasing, indefinable sense of impending disaster, as if it exerts a hidden power over the townsfolk and eventually compels them to a futile, destructive uprising. One man, János Valuska, observes the mounting tension as the whale attracts people from neighbouring towns, while others seek to take advantage of the situation to attempt a seizure of power: Tünde Eszter blackmails her estranged husband György into using his influence to gain support for her plot to restore “order and cleanliness” to the town, and János finds himself a helpless outsider to the ensuing chaos.
With its underlying aura of evil, social dissolution and masses motivated by abstract forces, it seems obvious to ascribe to the film a political allegory. After World War II, Hungary had been made a Communist state, ruled remotely by the Soviet Union, who maintained a military presence and enforced Stalinist principles of collectivisation. Following a popular revolt in 1956 against the repressive regime of Communist leader Mátyás Rákosi (which the Soviet Union put down with brutal military force), Hungarian socialism developed as a mixed ideology, a greatly liberalised approach to communism that held fast until 1989, when the collapse of communist control in Central Europe allowed a shift to a democratic government and a capitalistic market economy. If we see this as a film set at the close of one enveloping political ideology but prior to the establishment of another, it might be easy to find parallels in its depiction of an aimless populace primed for orders by a charismatic demagogue. But it might not be that easy to map an allegory onto the history. As Jonathan Romney suggests:
The film is dominated by a brooding atmosphere of apocalyptic unrest, though it is implied that the cosmic ‘evil’ pervading the town is the product of bourgeois paranoia. Tempting as it may be to relate the story to political changes in Hungary in the last days of Communism (Krasznahorkai’s novel was published in 1989), Tarr has insisted that his films contain no allegory. Yet the narrative is certainly one of anxiety about the breakdown of an old, enfeebled order and the explosive release of repressed popular energies.
It’s not easy to pin down such an allegory, even if we want to impose one, because the causes of the rising violence in the town are not easily identifiable. As Romney continues:
From the very start rumours are rife about the universal disruption heralded by the anticipated eclipse. But is any of it really caused by the arrival of the whale, or is the huge dead creature, with its glassy eye, simply the impotent witness to human destructiveness? Is the supposedly demonic demagogue Prince anything more than an impotent, robotic-voiced homunculus? The one truly identifiable centre of malevolence is Tünde, a reactionary opportunist exploiting superstition to gain power in the name of order. It may even be that her musicologist ex-husband Eszter, obsessed with the theories of 17th-century German composer Werckmeister, has himself contributed to disturbing the harmonic order of things by withdrawing from any active involvement; at the very least he is a representative of an enfeebled intelligentsia, vainly fiddling with abstractions while the world burns.
Tünde is having an affair with the chief of police, a stupefied, gun-waving drunk whose children we see enacting a disturbing scene of gleeful dictatorship: probably too much even for Supernanny, these two don’t just refuse to go to bed; they threaten Janos with violent reprisals if he interrupts their bed-bouncing, militaristic reverie. So, Tarr subtly indicates the connections between characters without trumpeting their symbolic function or their direct influence over events. Most elusive of all is the Prince, a phantomic presence who is never directly seen onscreen. We are told that his speeches are inciting the population to acts of rebellious vandalism, but we only hear him once, seeing a pictorial silhouette of his face cast in shadow on a wall as he spouts what sound like vague, pre-programmed slogans.
Nevertheless, András Bálint Kovács has made a very convincing attempt at outlining the socio-political significance of Tarr’s recent films:
The significance of Béla Tarr’s films in the 1990s—beyond their stylistic and aesthetic values—is that they offer the most powerful and complex vision of the historical situation in the Eastern European region over the last decade. His films reach but few viewers; still, it would be hard to deny that he speaks for hundreds of millions of ordinary European people in his universal and ruthless language, people who feel cheated and disappointed for wasting all the values of their previous lives in a matter of seconds, who fall prey to petty intrigues, who are led by petty, mean promise-mongers that talk of high ideals but follow their selfish power and financial interests. This feeling is born not only from the past, but also from the present experience; although the setting and certain characters may have changed, the same petty fights and intrigue still rule our lives; other ideologies are quoted, while the misery remains or even deteriorates in the former Soviet Union, Romania, or Yugoslavia. We cannot trust anyone; we cannot believe in anything, for all high ideals are but tools to abuse the helpless. We, Eastern-Europeans, are the tenants of the blocks of flats in Satantango and we desperately cling to all the promises of the promise-mongers who only take our money. We are the hopeless drunkards; our leaders are the alcoholic policeman, the clever smuggler, and the mafia-man inn-keeper. And we are Valushka, as well, who serves all above him with endless humility and looks the whale in the eye with terror, hoping for Mother Nature’s help. And we are the mob, too. In our helplessness we would like to break the windows of all luxury shops where they sell articles, of which we can only dream, and we would like to turn our anger against those who are even weaker and more helpless. All of this, of course, is an exaggeration—the exaggeration of great art.
Perhaps we can ask the director himself for his opinion on all this. Does he have any comments on what this film is about? Is it a metaphysical excursus on the nature of being?:
I just wanted to make a movie about this guy who is walking up and down the village and has seen this whale. And, you know when we are working we don’t talk about any theoretical things. We only ever have practical problems. And it’s the same with the writer. Mostly we just talk about life. How it’s going on the street. We never talk about theoretical things. We never talk about Chaos or existential things. We just talk about someone coming into the room and he wants something and the other guy who is sitting there doesn’t want these things. That’s all.
Thanks. That helps. Care to elaborate on the cosmic significance of your work, which many critics have tried to ascribe to it?
You know how it happens, when we started we had a big social responsibility which I think still exists now. 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. […] Everything is much bigger than us. I think the human is just a little part of the cosmos.
And what about the diffuse forces of evil that seem to lurk in this film? Does that come from the cosmos?
No. I think human responsibility is great, enormous. Maybe the biggest factor. You know, I don’t believe in God. This is my problem. If I think about God, okay, he has a responsibility for the whole thing, but I don’t know. You know, if you listen to any Mass, it looks like two dogs when they are starting to fight. And always, I just try to think about what is happening now.
[The above quotations come from an interview with Béla Tarr conducted by Fergus Daly and Maximilian Le Cain in 2001. I take no credit for asking those questions. You can read more of it here.]
I’m not sure that makes things much clearer. In other interviews, Tarr is more accommodating, as when he gave Eric Schlosser his summative aspirations for Werckmeister Harmonies:
I have a hope, if you watch this film and you understand something about our life, about what is happening in middle Europe, how we are living there, in a kind of edge of the world. That’s all. After you see the film, I think you know a bit better.
Tarr is fascinated by everyday details, the grooves, wrinkles and stubble of cold, sour faces and the roughness of every surface, but he doesn’t do this naturalistically or in the service of any other form of social realism. At least not entirely. The lengthy tracking shot of János walking through the town square, between the silent, hangdog faces of the men standing around reveals many expressions in turn, granting each an individuality that belies their position as part of an accumulating mass. They remain almost entirely voiceless throughout their progression from bystanders to destroyers, in contrast to the Prince, who remains a disembodied voice throughout the same period. We see the locations in a palpable, unvarnished form, and this provides a kind of insight into life in “middle Europe”, but those naturalistic elements are folded into an ineffable sense of something larger or something less concrete.
In another interview Tarr confirms his realist focus by once more refuting the allegorical complexity of his work and insisting that the film speaks for itself through its surface syntax:
If you are listening to the film, and simply watching, you will find there is little reason for speculation about the film’s meaning. This is why I have said: No allegories, no metaphors, no symbols, nothing…
It seems extraordinary for Tarr to claim that there is no higher purpose to his film, and I can’t help thinking that he relishes playing games with us. He must know that his films are enigmatic, never obvious in their storytelling. The lesson here may be that the director’s statements about a film, even the director’s intentions while making it, are not necessarily the most helpful pieces of information. Ultimately, you are alone with the film, and you will find things in it that might not occur to the person sitting next to you in the darkness. Even if Tarr might deny any intended allegory or metaphysics, many viewers seem to bring the weight of those ideas to the films for themselves, as if they, like János, are gazing at something that meets their gaze and holds it.
Let’s talk about shot length. The plot outlined above might sound like a great opportunity for a political thriller, with spies and intrigue and betrayal and riots, but Tarr slows the proceedings right down and allows the story to seep out of the setting and the characters rather than manouevring them into a tight sequence of storytelling elements. This is all signalled in the opening shot, a ten minute mini-masterpiece in which János uses the assembled downtrodden drinkers in a bar to orchestrate a celestial dance. Making each one represent a different heavily body, he demonstrates that “even simple folk like us can understand immortality” by explaining the workings of the upcoming solar eclipse, as if to forestall the superstitious doom-mongering that might be smuggled in on the back of cosmic phenomena. His attempt to give these men a sense of their own significance in the cosmos can be seen to have failed later on when they are seen submitting themselves to outbursts of senseless violence, unable to defy the inexorable march of a primed, prompted mob. This is a beautiful opening, with a magnificent incongruence between the grubby, sozzled men and the solar system they obligingly mime. It’s darkly comic but utterly beguiling with its insistent, repetitive rhythms, plaintive score and those graceful camera movements that iron out the stumbling awkwardness of its participants and turn them into a poised summary of a harmonised universe. Then they all get turfed out onto the street at closing time. Everything after this point is a departure from that order, and János is never again shown to have such omniscience, insight or influence. But we’re ten minutes in, and we still don’t know what’s going on? Hurry things along please, Mr. Tarr…
Why do we need to see very long takes of a figure walking down a road into a vanishing point? Surely we just need a brief shot of them walking away from the camera and, because we’re clever people, we can just assume that they’ll continue heading in that direction? Why do we need to see the marching crowd marching for so long? We get the point that they’re heading somewhere, and that they mean business, after just a few moments? What’s the point of extruding the shot for what seems like an unnatural and unnecessary duration? These are all good questions, to which there is no simple answer, unless we just turn them around and ask why we insist that shots must serve only a narrative function? But I’d rather you try to engage with these shots and think about what we’re supposed to do with them. Where do you look, and what are you to understand from the shots that you couldn’t understand if they were much shorter?
To use the example of the marching mob, this is a shot whose extended duration could be understood in realist terms: we see them marching for as long as it takes for them to reach their destination, as if to reinforce the inevitability of their mission, the undeflected solidarity of their group. The continuous rhythm of their stomping feet becomes an empathetic noise, conveying the mindless hypnotic state that seems to have gripped them. The next shot is of the mob’s ransacking of a hospital, a sequence of wordless violence (and all the more unsettling for not being backed up with slogans, chants, shouts or screams) that culminates in a moment of devastating poignancy, an image of individual frailty amidst the bludgeoning force of the crowd that turns things around in an instant. We could see these two tracking shots as the build-up to this pay-off, and it seems all the more powerful for the way it overrules in a matter of seconds the march that has lasted for so long. I won’t give away what happens for those who haven’t seen it yet, but if you try to imagine this sequence cut down to a fraction of its length, you could get the same story information from it, but not without depleting its poetic power.
That’s an easy example. Why, though, do we need to see so much walking, so much food preparation, so much standing around in the fog? David Bordwell addresses the question of long takes in Tarr’s later films, such as Werckmeister Harmonies and his seven-hours-plus masterpiece Sátántangó, arguing that they “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. […] Like Tarkovsky, he shifts our attention from human action toward the touch and smells of the physical world … [He] employs “dead time” and landscapes to create a palpable sense of duration and distance.
Tarr was also asked about the long takes by Eric Schlosser, and gave the following reply:
You know I like the continuity, because you have a special tension. Everybody is much more concentrated than when you have these short takes. And I like very much to build things, to conceive the scenes, how we can turn around somebody, you know, all the movements implied in these shots. It’s like a play, and how we can tell something, tell something about life… Because it’s very important to make the film a real psychological process…
I said at the beginning that I didn’t want to stop you having your own personal responses to this film, but that shouldn’t really need saying. At the risk of sounding pretentious, it’s not a film from which you can just gather the plot details and leave it at that. In those long stretches where little seems to be happening, or the same thing just continues to happen in the same way, you have time to think and to feel, to marvel at the graphic beauty of a shot supremely achieved, or to immerse yourself in another time and place – by not haranguing you with the next piece of narrative information, Tarr pushes you into confronting the passage of time, to feel the weight of stasis as opposed to formulaic forward progression. Perhaps the question should not be “why is Werckmeister Harmonies so slow?” Rather we should ask ourselves some serious questions about our customary relationships with film, and why we expect it to move at a particular pace and provide packets of entertaining rewards at regular intervals: without ever resorting to cosmic or abstract imagery, Tarr has made a film about free will, evil, death, violence, and humanity’s place in a universe of imponderable patterns and structures (hence János’ urgent attempt to get his barfly planets to share, and thus master their trepidation about the scale of things around them, to see themselves as part of a a greater harmony). This may also give us a clue to the significance of György the musicologist’s musings about the musical/universal disjunctures caused by the work of Andreas Werckmeister, whose theories on counterpoint were connected to the arrangement of the planets in the Solar System (I’d appreciate any elaboration on this point from anyone who has the specialist knowledge to explain it to me…). Given all this, why on earth would you want it to hurry up? Did you have something more important to think about today?
More stuff to read:
- Good account of one blogger’s introduction to Bela Tarr at Fear of Death is Intransitive.
- Interview with Béla Tarr at Kinoeye.
- Interview with Béla Tarr at Senses of Cinema.
- “The Sarcastic Laments of Bela Tarr” by David Bordwell.
- Interview with Tarr by Eric Schlosser at Bright Lights Film Journal.
- Tarr interview at GreenCine.
- Review by Fred Camper at Chicago Reader.
- “The World According to Béla Tarr” at KinoKultura.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum on the films of Béla Tarr at Chicago Reader.
- Gabe Klinger’s analysis of the film at Senses of Cinema.
- Review at Movie Martyr.
- Jonathan Romney’s review from Sight and Sound.
- Grace Wang’s review at her blog Etherial Musings.