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Lateral Sculpture: Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó

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Lateral Sculpture: Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó

Time is relevant, yes? Art is a distillation of a moment or series of moments. Film art is a capture: the camera takes in light and stores it for future projection—the captured light is time. Film, as an art, is a means to represent the relative passage of time. The filmmaker’s job, then, is to assemble a work from the most essential building blocks of story/life/events; or to whittle it down, eliminating the excess. This is the crux of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film theory, which he famously defined in his book “Sculpting in Time”. The filmmaker is a sculptor, wielding his camera as a chisel. It’s a convincing study, and an appealing set of guidelines & edicts to follow in any art. Form must always reflect content, as conscientiously as possible: if the content is hollow, the form is irrelevant. If ever there was a brand of cinema that academia was meant to swallow whole, this is it.

Béla Tarr’s seven and a half hour opus Sátántangó (1994) practices many “Sculpting” maxims, first and foremost in the way it represents the slow and subjective passing of time. Despite their virtuoso control of image-music-text, both of these directors seek to understand our terrestrial conundrum through an aesthetic purity, rejecting—via a superficial minimalism—montage, standard coverage, a modern/typical score, etc. However, where Tarkovsky’s world is a blend of agnostic mysticism & honest self-doubt, Tarr’s world is a complex mix of sardonic humor and compassionate atheism.

What separates them further is how they move through their frames: Tarkovsky moves laterally, always panning or tracking from side to side, face to face, a kind of sideways stagnation. Tarr does something similar, but instead of focusing on his characters in a tracking shot, he pushes in and pulls out of scenes as a serpent, ever circling—his is a more active passivity of regard, searching around corners. The centerpiece to Sátántangó’s only eruptive montage (mentioned below) is an endless dolly shot coiling around a woman. You never doubt, in Tarkovsky’s films, that what is in front of you is exactly what needs to be seen at that specific moment, but in Sátántangó the viewer is tempted to scour the corners. And it works. Sátántangó is a skeptic’s diatribe, angry and unrelenting, whereas something like Mirror, Tarkovsky’s most active (& convoluted) film, is a precise distillation of memory, as if snatched straight from the brain and planted importunate—yet plaintive—onscreen.

About five hours into Sátántangó the screen splinters as we bear witness to what is, in essence, the film’s first and only montage. A baroque hymnal/dirge underscores several close-ups of the rain-weary peasants whom we’ve followed from a mud-caked commune to a decrepit, empty mansion. Like many sequences in the film, it’s an unfulfilled promise—the villagers were expecting a bountiful, hope-filled new life led by their “resurrected” neighbor and appointed leader, Irimias (Mihály Vig)—yet Tarr nonetheless exalts in and celebrates the faithful’s naïve devotion. Despite the interminable length of the takes that comprise this four-shot montage, the moment (which concludes with a sideswipe lateral track to a man pissing into a bare concrete corner) feels a brief respite. After experiencing these villagers’ lives, roughly and tangentially, through almost 300 minutes of parallel storytelling, we in the audience feel a part of their community. We’ve felt the incessant rain. We’ve danced all night on a bender. We’ve buried our youngest too early. Thus, we understand the hope illuminated by the tracking shot across their ravaged faces. Their illegitimate messiah has not met them at journey’s end, but for this moment vigilance rules out and hope springs eternal. For a time, we are allowed to bask in the film’s holy gaze at these wrecked, aimless people. But then they try to bed down and they can’t shut up: they’re too busy complaining. While they bicker and skeptically prognosticate off screen, we track down an endless hallway to a close-up of an owl who is neither impressed nor fazed by these simple humans. The owl is one of the many uninterested animals that populate the story; it shows a wide-ranging indifference for this ensemble that shrinks them inside the film’s Petri dish. The commune’s eventual demise and dispersal may be interpreted as a cautionary parable, but it remains in its own vacuum-tight space, imprisoned in a world prone to ignorance, myopia, greed, blind faith, alcoholism, rain and wind, and sealed off (as a tomb) by a hermit physician’s chilling final gesture.

Satantango’s iconic sequence, which features a possibly feebleminded—and definitely neglected—blank-faced girl named Estike (Erika Bók) torturing her cat, is a brutal piece of filmmaking, likely to make you wince, but the chapter-ending payoff is well worth the investment. Its repercussions ripple back on themselves and unwrap outwards to envelop—and color—the entire community (andthe film, and you). As the girl lays down one last time next to her poisoned cat, she imagines an angel watching over her, guiding her through to the beyond. Dramatically, the sequence works equally as a climax and an inciting incident, and given its placement at the heart of the narrative, just before the midway intermission, it’s hard not to see it as both. The film’s cyclical structure, within both halves, works as a mirror, much like the twelve-step tango itself: six steps forward mimicked and recast as six steps back. Thus, the audience is off kilter, reeling from either the repetitions of shot movements at crucial narrative intersections or the retelling of key interactions from oppositional points of view. It’s a risky strategy that tests the audience’s patience and ability to keep up, but it is this rigor that pays the richest dividends and keeps us coming back to the wellspring.

The first chapter post-intermission is entitled “Irimias Delivers a Speech.” Irimias was rumored dead for years and has now appeared (perhaps reborn?) to chastise his former neighbors, forcing them into submission. Irimias’s undercutting admonition at Estike’s wake is typical of Tarr’s subversive set-up & pay off strategy. Another memorable and hilarious example (aside from the pissing-in-a-corner capper mentioned above) comes when Irimias, awed by a fog hanging over the ruins where Estike’s dead body was found, drops reverently to his knees. After the cloud lifts and drifts away, as crumbling buildings reappear on the landscape, Irimias casually stands up to continue along the path. A few steps later his partner Petrina (Putyi Horváth) asks, “What? You’ve never seen fog before?”, effectively deflating Irimias and the audience’s reverie. It likewise reminds us of Estike’s devastating, naïve epiphany: the question implied, Is her guardian angel indeed gazing down from on high?

Sátántangó’s gloomy milieu may remind one of Underground, Emir Kusturica’s ludicrous/fantastic travelogue through Yugoslavian history. Both films follow a troupe of holy fools who blindly accept the spoon-fed empty promises of an unreliable communist messiah, a false prophet who exploits their faith in the system for dubious gains. To an extent, both films doubt and look down on this devotion, but they hardly fault their characters, whose shortcomings endear them to us, much like a wayward child inspires sympathy. (If only they knew better.) However, Kusturica’s film is the near-opposite of Sátántangó: instead of a decades-long three-ring circus satire, Tarr’s film is an ugly and indolent three-day hell ride. Underground is a zoo while Sátántangó is a prison.

So why in the world would we need to endure seven and a half hours of this? Well, for one, Tarr shares with Kusturica a cutting sense of humor; for another, like an epic tale rich in nuance and motivational back story (the film is, in fact, based on a lengthy Hungarian novel by its co-screenwriter, and Tarr’s frequent collaborator, Lázsló Krasznahorkai) Sátántangó uses its totemic length to better specify and explore its world. On the surface its foreignness appears impenetrable: as stated above, Tarr rejects many cinematic conventions, montage chief among them. David Bordwell has exhaustively detailed the film’s editing—there are only 172 cuts in 434 minutes for an average shot length of roughly two-and-a-half minutes. As Bordwell has noted, however, this is somewhat misleading, as certain scenes are played in one uninterrupted shot while others employ standard visual logic (e.g.: Estike is seen watching something through a window, then we cut to her view of a bar full of drunken adults). Yet, despite its endless dolly shots and cramped compositions—practically a narcoleptic claustrophobe’s worst nightmare—the film endures (& thrives) within its rigid framework. There are laughs in nearly every scene, even in the most dire, will-this-end? situations such as the Sisyphean sojourn of the heavyset, voyeuristic, alcoholic doctor (Peter Berling) to replenish his liquor supply, or the slowest marathon accordion dance sequence ever filmed.

American audiences are routinely berated for not embracing films identified as slow or dense or oblique or a tough nut to crack. The Reader’s Digest critical opinion is that popular homeland tastes veer towards earnest follies like Amélie or the snap-crackle-pop of Pedro Almodóvar’s primary color palate. This ignores, though, that ardent art-house fandom still exists, however minor the hold on the market. Contemplative, deliberate filmmaking has an audience in America—even outside New York or Los Angeles. Patience is a virtue… With the right marketing support, Army of Shadows became a bona-fide art house hit despite its surgical pace and bleak conceit. On the flip side, Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu enjoyed no support outside the glowing reviews it received and only made $80,000 in US theaters. More recently, David Lynch’s Inland Empire has broken house records at Manhattan’s IFC Theatre; but a lot of that can be attributed to the marquee American auteur—it was bound to make some dough. Sátántangó is far from broadly marketable, but its powers appeal to a bigger niche than any distributor would project. It won’t rival Inland Empire’s gross (it’s more than twice as long, limiting the number of possible screenings), but with relatively little rally spirit, the Northwest Film Forum sold over half the house when I saw it in Seattle last December. UC Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive has recently purchased a new 35mm print struck from the original negative, straight from Hungary, and has programmed its first Bay Area screening for Saturday, February 17th, 2007. Tickets are disappearing. For those with neither the time nor the patience for an all-day screening, Facets Video has released a Region 1 DVD, available for stop-and-go home viewing.


By now, in an era of audience-active phenomena such as Lost or even Pulp Fiction, non-linear narrative should not be too tough to handle. But when employed by a seven and a half hour Hungarian movie, such trickery can feel heavier than anvils. At times I felt an ant, forced to carry myself and my ideas and the film and its characters across the gulf from projection booth to screen to my eyes to my brain all by myself. That dance sequence is so long you won’t believe it. Honestly. You start to think it’s reaching a zenith when the camera starts to move the first time, but rest assured, if you have to pee—go pee. Yet I didn’t go pee. I watched the whole goddamn thing. And you know why? It made me laugh. A man balances a “cheese-stick” on his forehead and periodically crosses the dance floor. A bodacious woman fights her way through the dance with a desperate hanger-on, one minute smiling and twirling, the next punching and kicking. A drunk stumbles into the crowd and forces a few to move like him, jagged, before collapsing on a bench where he kicks, every now and then, at the continuing revelry. And then some more stuff happens. By the time the stuck-on-repeat klezmer quits and all on screen are staring stunned out at the audience you won’t know whether to clap, yell, guffaw, shake your head or some combination of all.

Nearly every scene in Sátántangó plays against the audience’s expectations, much like the narrative plays with the characters’ hopes, twisting them inside-out into obsolescence. Yet the elliptical construction chisels its way to a brilliant epiphany in its final chapter, when we see the pieces nailed together in a most poetic way. Tarkovsky, again: “When I speak of poetry I am not thinking of it as a genre. Poetry is an awareness of the world, a particlar way of relating to reality. So poetry becomes a philosophy to guide a man throughout his life.” Sátántangó has this awareness, despite the differences in approach/outlook to, say, Mirror. It brings together its disparate parts into a confounding collage of story, philosophy, and aesthetic criticism borne from the daily preposterous comedy called life. It’s jumbled up going from a to c to d to b to e, but it’s the perfect syllogism. Each sequence informs the next and reflects on the previous, notwithstanding the appearance of random-fire tangents. Sátántangó’s narration places it in past tense, but it is hardly a memory: you walk through its paces every minute, watching the circle distend & meander into an oval—until, finally, you witness it closing.

To approach Sátántangó merely as a test of wills only ensures displeasure, discomfort, and plain dissatisfaction. One must surrender to its rhythm from the get-go or the whole endeavor is lost. You may yet feel weighted down by the mind-numbing aspects—it’s a rough, lengthy road cleft with forks—but if you find yourself laughing at the opening scene of bulls and cows fleeing the village (ever slowly, all in one carefully executed & choreographed shot, with ample time for a mounting on the side), you’re no doubt in tune with Tarr. You can relax and let the film come to you. If not, you may want to skip the copperplate migratory storytelling and slug’s pacing for the above-mentioned Kusturica film, with its propulsive forward motion and breathless energy. If you stick with it, though, you will be delighted in parts, frustrated beyond belief in others (the dance sequence does end, don’t worry), dozing often, but ultimately fulfilled by the final reel when key mysteries are answered (though, much as you’d expect from a labyrinth, narrative dead-ends abound) and the whole thing is boarded up with finality like a hardback tome falling shut on its featherweight pages.

House Next Door contributor Ryland Walker Knight is the infrequent publisher of the blog Vinyl Is Heavy.