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Sátántangó (Hungary, 1994, Béla Tarr)

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Sátántangó (Hungary, 1994, Béla Tarr)

Ben Begins:

A couple of New Yorkers (yeah, Jewish guys) have been hearing about a particular restaurant for years, the best place for lunch in town, bar none. So, finally, after many failed attempts to make it happen, they make it happen. Well, you can imagine their excitement as they meet at the door, their expectation as the waiter takes their order and their total silence as they devote themselves to nothing but their meal. After the last crumb is gone and the check is paid, Morty says to Shlomo: “I can’t believe it. After all this time, listening to everyone go on and on about this place—the food is terrible!” “I know, I know,” says Shlomo, “and such small portions.”

With this film, the problem in that joke is inverted. The food is good but the portions are too large… way too large… ohmigod these portions are just too goddamn much! Let’s get this out of the way from the outset. More is not always better. If sometimes less is more, then sometimes more is less. Yadda yadda and all the rest of those clichés on behalf of minimalist restraint, judicious moderation, call it what you will. Sátántangó is too much. It’s just too much. Acknowledging this is a precondition for appreciating what is impressive about the film.

It’s not that I think the excessive length of Sátántangó is pretentious. I understand that the length of the film as a whole is to a large extent the result of the duration of each scene. And in turn, I understand that the duration of each scene is to a large extent the result of Tarr being a card-carrying member of the Tarkovsky party. Tarr understands what the old Germans listed as one of the main laws of dialectics, the transformation of quantity into quality; what the old Anglos called a change in degree to the point of being a change in kind. I respect this and for certain passages of the film I was completely captivated by it. Nevertheless, this very principle can turn yet again, can come around and undermine itself.

Tarr achieves an almost terrifying power but sometimes squanders it by hanging on too long. The prosaic and mundane image becomes poetic and philosophic…and then becomes boring and irritating. Sometimes, not in every scene, but sometimes. Often enough though. So the film in its entirety is, well, it’s just too much. Sorry to be so corny and conventional but it has to be said that there is not enough cut in this director’s cut. Even though Tarr obviously made his film in accordance with what is essentially an anti-editing cinematic paradigm, Sátántangó suffers from a serious lack of editing.

Dan Responds:

Tarr’s adoration of the long take is definitely all about slipping us out of film time and into real time. But before we make much of this and only this, consider that there might be something else at work here. I think you are off the mark for seeing Sátántangó as an anti-editing film. The scenes are not internally edited but they are edited together, with many of the story-lines overlapping in film time. Tarr’s use of this technique deserves our attention, particularly when you consider how audiences of this same year had their socks knocked off by Tarantino’s loopy narrative in Pulp Fiction.

Whereas other more conventional directors (and editors) cut back and forth between different scenes occurring at the same time, Tarr abjures such editorial choices. Instead he creates these exceptionally long, uncut scenes; consequently, he has to occasionally loop backward in time and revisit a moment or a scene from a different POV. This serves dual purposes. Tarr is able to create these—yes, painfully slow—cyclical rhythms, yet he is also able to show us these moments from slightly different perspectives within the narrative as a whole. This gives a complete picture of the villager’s reality that takes on cubist dimensions.

Back to Ben:

Perhaps. But the recursive tactic from an alternative angle in Sátántangó is used only sporadically. It’s not so much random as it is seldom. As far as I can see, it’s not consistent and organized enough to be cubist. I think what you are pointing to in spatial terms is a reflection of Tarr’s almost atemporal narrative approach. Sátántangó is mostly chronological, but it hardly matters because Tarr doesn’t really care that much about telling the story in a linear way. The plot just sorta sits there like a dead duck. The big exception is the thread featuring the little girl, but her (horrible!) events are not genuinely catalytic for the main tale. Over the course of the whole film, the editorial movement from one scene to the next does not convey any temporal orientation.

If I was going to speak of this in spatial terms, rather than three-dimensional cubism I would say that Sátántangó is fundamentally two-dimensional, square, a crushed box. It’s not just the sense of being trapped within a shot that makes for the nearly torturous feeling of duration. It is also the transitions from one shot to the next, because these cuts provide essentially no narrative continuity. Seems to me Sátántangó is all about stasis. And not just aesthetically, thematically too. Satan. Tango. To dance with the devil is to eternally walk along the edges of that crushed box.

Dan Again:

To say that a motion picture is all about stasis sounds like a back-handed compliment at best. Admittedly, there’s something to be said for merely surviving this film, simply watching the whole damn thing. But there’s something more to be said for allowing yourself to enter into the languorous rhythms of its box step and immersing yourself in Tarr’s dismal but oddly amusing world. Am I misguided to think that this is a pretty funny film? It’s got that same deadpan wit that fellow travelers like Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki have, only Tarr is darker and funnier; which is to say, he’s better, more deserving of comparison to Beckett.

You don’t think Sátántangó was edited by Picasso but I’m sure you’ll agree with me that inside every scene we are basically waiting for Godot. Lasting anywhere up to ten minutes without a cut, a given scene becomes sort of an endurance test. Even when there is something going on, hardly anything changes. The film time echoes real time to draw the audience beyond voyeurism into participation, only to have us participate in a lot of monotony. I think this gives the film a perverse charm. I also think a lot of the humor comes from Tarr’s decision to sit on certain shots long after they have served their purpose and cut away from other shots just as they’re about to get really interesting.

Then Ben:

 

Sátántangó

Maybe I’m a stick in the mud or maybe Sátántangó made you a tad tipsy, if you know what I mean; and hey, after seven-and-a-half hours—I wouldn’t hold it against you! Even so, I can’t say Tarr has “deadpan wit” or even a droll disposition. At least not with respect to form. On the content side, however, even though I can’t say I found much of anything to laugh about in Sátántangó, I did grasp that it was quite often ironic. I concede that there is a hardcore of black comedy to the film that indeed makes it reasonable to bring up Beckett.

The heavy-hitter I would like to bring to the plate though is Kafka. The characters in Sátántangó are in some fundamental way without psychological depth—they are almost non-personalities. We are pathetically into the worst existential facelessness, truncated communication and ennui. Hence, your valid Beckett comparison. But the specific flavor of full-blown hopelessness strikes me as more in keeping with Kafka than Beckett insofar as a political apparatus lurks in the background.

This association might seem weak at first glance given that the context of Sátántangó is mostly rural, remote and reeking of bad atavism rather than urban, technological and drenched in modern bureaucratic alienation. Upon closer inspection, however, the state is at the center of the picture. The fact that the government machinery in Sátántangó appears to be barely working, that the civil service is neither civil nor in service, this is Kafka coming on the scene after the revolution has failed. Kafka’s sensibility comes before any attempt at revolution; of course, the official machinery of mass society is working well, all too well, crushing the life out of the petit-bourgeois individual. In Sátántangó, alternately, it is the crushed cooperative community, the failed collective farm that is under the microscope of disillusionment. The village is fractured, competitive and regressive to the point of barbarism. This is but a local-scale reflection of the moribund communist regime in toto.

Back to Dan:

Cool Kafka call. You make a distinction between a pre-communist and a post-communist artistic estrangement from society. Since you branded Tarr a card-carrying member of the Tarkovsky party before, I have to point out that Tarkovsky’s artistic estrangement from his society was not after the fact of the Soviet Union but at the time. Sátántangó is more similar than perhaps you know. Tarr had wanted to make the film as early as 1985—the publication year of the book which the film is based on—but the censorship in Hungary was still too strong. (If reading the original book is anything like watching Tarr’s film, I’m thinking it’s not exactly a speedy page-turner.) But you didn’t compare Tarr to Tarkovsky to paint them with the same anti-communist brush. You were making an aesthetic and not an ideological comparison and I am following suit in my objection to it. Looking at their cinematography, I think it makes more sense to differentiate the two directors.

For Tarkovsky, this world is fascinating (sometimes horrifyingly so) requiring a close study. Hence, his camera gets right up in this world’s grill, seeking immersion in the glorious sensuality of the natural world. His reverence for past ways of life does not prevent him from embracing the present physical environment. He holds a shot for a long time in order to show some hidden beauty that welcomes us. Plus, Tarkovsky has great affection for the carefully chosen close-up, as in the human face he finds not only all the torments of existence, but also the longing for that transcendent moment.
Tarr is too jaded to buy into that. His world is bland, unappealing, something to be escaped or ignored. The terrain is a wasteland. He holds a shot for a much longer time than Tarkovsky in order to confirm inhospitable ugliness. Plus, he steers clear of the close-up, preferring the distant shot, literally cutting the characters down to size. They become small dots in a vast, indifferent landscape.

Sure, there is the surface similarity of reproducing real time via long, uncut shots and a keen eye for the sort of cinematic visuals that can be absolutely arresting. However, when you study the content and context of these striking visuals, you find a distinct separation in intention. I will offer just one illustration, the walls in the manor house in Sátántangó vs. the walls in the protagonist’s home in Stalker. The walls in the manor house are decrepit, weather-stripped structures giving the impression that the damage has already been done here. The walls in the stalker’s house positively throb with ongoing decay. Tarkovsky’s walls are a testament to the rottenness of life, but life continues nonetheless. The organic struggle is obvious. Tarr’s walls simply remind us that time, in its inertia, has passed and done its business. There’s nothing organic at work. Or if there is, the changes involved are of no consequence.

Add to this that for Tarkovsky there is a metaphysic underlying natural processes, whereas with Tarr we are firmly in the material world without any sort of vital principle. So his inertia is pretty much hopeless. Tarkovsky’s characters may be moving inexorably towards The End, but even in dying—perhaps especially in dying—they never stop reaching for that transcendent moment. Tarr’s characters walk in what appear to be straight lines that are actually circles going nowhere.

Ben Again:

Darn good technical insights. Because they are more than technical. You are right to side-step an ideological comparison with respect to anti-communist politics per se. But at the same time you are contrasting Tarkovsky and Tarr in a more general ideological way. For all his reactionary tendencies—medieval nostalgia, sexual repression, twisted religiosity—Tarkovsky is a beating-heart humanist, Dostoyevsky under the Soviet system. Sátántangó, on the other hand, might be just so much idiosyncratic aesthetics gone over to a fetish and ideological despair gone over to cynicism. Like you said, Tarr is jaded. And I hear you saying that his dead matter is dead for sure. Like I said, it’s all stasis.

But now I want to wear the hat you were wearing before. I am trying to explain to myself what it is about the film that made me stick with it. I want to give some positive spin to the grueling gradualism of it all. There is some sort of ultra-so-therefore-distorted realism to it that achieves its own special power.

Tarr keeps us in a scene for ten or more minutes and from the same point of view, too, in order to absolutely submerge us in the concrete. This crude phenomenological priority is not Tarkovsky’s. From a fully Tarkovskian position this is actually rather prosaic film-making which has not entered into The Image as a certain kind of poetic abstraction. Be this as it may, Tarr’s brute concreteness is just bizarre and inexplicable enough that it’s otherwise prosaic and realist aesthetic takes on a mantra/pedal-tone/white-noise/dirge/head-trip of its own.

Perhaps this is what you had in mind when you spoke of the film’s “perverse charm.” Mind you, you also suggested that Tarr has a sense of humor—something Tarkovsky is entirely without, admittedly—so maybe the best way to highlight what is better than an endurance test is to return to whatever it is in Sátántangó you found amusing.

Dan Returns:

 

Sátántangó

Not exactly sure what you’re aiming at by calling Sátántangó phenomenological, so I can’t say either way if it is behind the perverse charm I had in mind. Nevertheless, I am hearing you paraphrase my point that Tarr has completely cast out the human spirit. He’s completely, desperately, despondently of this earth. So, life is a painful farce. I continue to find Tarr’s contrasts with Tarkovsky far more instructive than his parallels and the sense of humor issue applies. The deadly serious Tarkovsky clearly had his funny bone surgically removed sometime back in the Middle Ages. He is incapable of an ironic pose, whereas Tarr appears to be able and willing to indulge in one much of the time.

Witness the funeral scene. Vladimir/Irimiás uses this most grim and tragic moment to deliver a speech. At first glance, he has all the fire and brimstone sincerity of an old school preacher attempting to unite a community out of this tragedy. It really turns out that the sermon exists primarily (solely even) to further his con game by massaging the villager’s sense of guilt and remorse.

Along these lines, the first interrogation scene with the official is also darkly comic in my view. He tries so hard to impress upon them the need for leading a responsible life, but they’ll have none of that, thank you very much. It’s like water off the proverbial duck’s back. And yet later, despite having dismissed the cop’s overtures, they turn around and “do their duty.” They rat out every person in the village in a lyrically dismissive discourse. The cops then have to turn artfully spun informant gossip into the kind of bland bureaucrat-ese that will pass muster in the department, yet another bleakly funny scene.

Back to Ben:

I find your interpretation convincing intellectually but not persuasive emotionally because I simply did not experience Sátántangó that way. So let me take an alternative tack on behalf of the film. I can at least highlight one scene that blew me away. I direct your attention to the moving shot of the two guys walking down the alley with all that flotsam and jetsam wind-whipping in their path. I can’t remember experiencing a stretch of cinema so visceral for me; I just got into it, felt as if I was a tumbling tumbleweed myself being carried away. At a very primal level, I just gave over to the experience; surrendered like an inanimate object free from any subjective reflection, I felt like I could have watched that scene for hours, stayed in it indefinitely.

I want to register this response for the record because my purpose is to validate in this instance the method in Tarr’s madness. I really want to pay him the highest compliment I can when it comes to this scene. I was not ready for it to end when it did. It seemed short to me. I just wanted it to go on—even with its uncomfortably menacing motion and environmentally threatening tone—forever. And Tarr is well aware of the singular impact of the scene in the film as a whole because he brings it back later as a coda in revised form.

This tumbling tumbleweed scene stands out in the film a number of ways. It is an urban street not a rural road. Perhaps related to this but definitely what makes the scene so dynamic, they are moving fast, unlike the painfully slow crawl to the horizon line in the other scenes. Add the detritus blowing every which way but loose, it’s a strong pulse of action that suggests some ground is actually being covered by genuinely motile people. The coda of this scene is appropriately not as impressive, with the addition of the teenage assistant to the duo and rain to the wind, with a bit less of the blustery garbage. Does this garbage mean anything? Don’t ask me. I will only venture to say that I am disinclined to see symbolism anywhere in the film, which I have already categorized in terms of brute concreteness.

Dan Replies:

I’m with you on that scene. The pair braving the storm as the refuse refuses to leave them alone. With so many scenes of people walking walking walking, it is interesting that this scene stands out. Unlike you, I am prepared to see the garbage as symbolic, however. This is, after all, how they view the villagers they are about to scam. And, like all good con artists, Vlad/Iri knows it’s best to let the dupe dupe himself. Shit, the whole village is giddy and terrified of this pair’s return. They know they’re gonna be robbed blind, but the thing is—in some demented way they’re looking forward to it. They play into it like all that litter catching at the ankles. Sátántangó starts to make some sense when seen in this sardonic light. With the possible exception of the cat/kid suicide scene, the film piles cruel irony on top of cruel irony.

Ben Again:

Oh man—the cat/kid suicide scene! That was hard to take. It’s disturbing for all the obvious reasons—makes Donald Sutherland in 1900 look like Buddy Hackett in The Love Bug—but in the context of the entire film, it’s insidiously disturbing by being the scene that is possibly the easiest to understand. How horrible. Yet all of it—the love, the domination, the torture, the execution, the suicide—it all makes perfect sense. The fact that it’s a little kid, a girl no less, this just makes her social environment that much more intelligible as a crumbling civilization.

Not that we can take too much comfort from this situational explanation of the child’s psychology. No sooner than we do, Tarr has Vlad/Iri give that funeral speech you mentioned, which offers the exact same excuse, thereby setting our explanatory security blanket on fire with an ironic match. And we can’t even take refuge in the fact that the girl’s death is a plot device. I mean, sure, it is, but at the same time, nothing much comes of it; like I said before, it’s not essential to the main chain of events. Everybody hits the road and heads out to the deserted mansion after she dies, but it’s not like there’s a direct connection between her demise and this exodus. Forget about it. The cat chapter is brutal. Brutal. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to survive it. A few times I thought I might have to stop watching the film. Concreteness too brute.

Dan Replies:

I’m with you on this as well. The cat and kid sequence is almost an intolerable experience. Try as you might to blot out the more horrifying images, they accumulate traumatically to become an inescapable pastiche of horror. Tarr at his most unflinching. You think you know despair? Terror? You are going to suffer through this, motherfuckers, just like that cat, and that girl.

Then to have the child’s death used as a mere springboard for Irimiás’ con; man, that was downright vile. Up until the point that his preacher’s speech turned the corner and headed down that road, there was always a chance that he and his sidekick were going to be some sorta irreverent anti-heroes, putting the boots to the system. How disheartening was that? The moment when spiritual comfort through community appears as a possibility, it is subverted by the “preacher” Irimiás into a personal grab for cash.

Back to Ben:

 

Sátántangó

I am relieved to hear you shine a light on the ambiguous status of Irimiás until this defining moment. To be honest, I am still grappling with this. In the first place, the basics of character motivation that are usually front and center in drama as an explanatory source are null and void in Sátántangó. We can identify the objective circumstances conditioning the characters, but we really haven’t got a clue as to their subjective thought processes. Maybe we have a handle on their behavior (maybe), but what are they thinking? Tarr does not show or tell us the answer to this question.

In the second place, even what we know of the objective circumstances conditioning the characters’ behavior is less given to us in the film and more brought to the film by us; i.e., we infer from the history of actually existed communism. Hence, we gather that the village is close to a ghost town because the entire system is in crisis. The government is not so much administering authority as merely presiding over the ruins as the society self-destructs. The village would have once been the infrastructural center of a socialized agricultural unit that has either ceased to exist or is presently undergoing disintegration. So the disoriented motions through which the characters go are the movements of individuals who are truly lost in the emergent privatization. They try to steal from themselves and get ripped off in the process. It’s chaos according to Eliot, (another heavy-hitter in our dug-out), the sort with a whimper and not a bang; (“the terrain is a wasteland,” you said—indeed).

All of this is plainly evident. How it plays out with respect to the relations between the characters is not so clear. Which brings me back to the ambiguous status of Irimiás for most of the film. Sometimes he appears to be the nemesis of the village and sometimes the savior. The flip-side of this coin is that sometimes he appears to be an enemy of the state and sometimes a government agent. When he turns out to be little more than the ring leader of a lame gang of petty thieves who have absconded with the remnants of the village treasury, and this only becomes clear when he double-crosses the others; well, what’s it all about Alfie? The seven-and-a-half-hours has got to count for something more, no?

Over to Dan:

Not necessarily. You seem to be hoping for hope from the hopeless. I appreciate your need to uncover some deeper meaning to the plot. But there is a lot of business that doesn’t seem to have much bearing on it anyway. I am thinking especially of the doctor sequences. That smug, corpulent prick bored the shit outta me. I know that he’s intended to be an in-village mirror of the law enforcement types. He’s constantly subjecting the village to surveillance; taking notes, keeping records, passing judgment. But it got old very quickly, and I really couldn’t wait for him to get off the bloody screen. His subsequent encounter with the economically depressed whores recapitulates his unsympathetic depiction as a would-be sheriff. No wonder the thieving gang leaves him to his own devices when they split town for the dilapidated mansion. His character just doesn’t provide any information beyond this that is useful for interpreting the rest of the film.

Ben Bounces Back:

I thank you for providing an interpretation of the doctor because I failed to come up with one. Your reading of him as a negatively representative of the state is convincing. Still, if we are going to hold to this take, it remains for us to figure out the significance of him nearly drinking himself to death and banging drugs to recuperate from this. In addition, and far more challenging to interpret, what does it mean for the doctor to make that trip to the ruined church, find that maniac banging the gong there and then return home to question his own sanity with respect to the bells he hears. At this point, the ultra-so-therefore-distorted realism of Sátántangó almost goes over to surrealism.

More from Dan:

I can’t tell you what to make of that crazy bell business and I’m happy to take your surrealist bait. That gigantic breasted Mrs. Schmidt who seems to be getting it off with every one in town, is she a tip of the hat to Fellini perhaps? The gigantic breasted woman in Amarcord, specifically? And that soup that the guys eat while talking about a gun deal; did that remind you of the baby in Eraserhead too? Really disturbing imagery, that. Oh, and those officials who reinterpret Irimiás’ poetic prose, a little Orwellian, but more precisely a critique of the way bureaucracies take the piss out of art, which should be allowed to range freely into impressions of the unconscious, perhaps? This film is just too strange to sit politely in some file labeled “realism.” Yes, what are we to make of that crazy bell business?

Ben Yet Again:

I feel incompetent to put my finger on how Sátántangó can be so persistently dull and fantastically unusual at the same time. Is the sensation of creeping surrealism just the impact of it’s marathon dimensions? No. Just like I argued in my review of Manufactured Landscapes, the scale may be the epitome but it is not the essence of the aesthetic at hand. The excessive size and excruciatingly slow pace of Sátántangó are more the manifestation and less the source of whatever the hell is at work. I believe if this were not true, the film honestly would be nothing but an unwatchable document about the drying of paint.

Relentlessness is at the heart of what Tarr is doing cinematically. Like I said before, he doesn’t always know when to call “cut.” Sometimes it just frickin’ does go on too long. Never mind the doctor sequences, the drunken dancing in the bar with the obviously not ambient accordion soundtrack—sorry Béla, this quickly crossed over into aggravating tedium. Although before it did, the one guy babbling away endlessly about “plodding and plodding” was almost a manifesto declaration from Tarr, proof positive that his futile scenario is indeed inhabited by the likes of Vladimir and Estragon. So his relentlessness is under control; almost an oxymoronic phrase, I know, but Sátántangó calls for riddles. Besides, you’ve made me wonder if the whole thing isn’t a big joke.

Speaking of which, we’ve only half jokingly said that it is a test of endurance. It truly does constitute some kind of ordeal to tolerate. Yet, it is powerfully engaging. Whether or not the viewer feels that Sátántangó in whole or in parts is something to suffer through (one meaning of “endurance”), I am confident that Tarr is methodologically intending to capture on film a lasting impression (another meaning of “endurance”) that necessarily requires the first meaning of the word.

His obvious pessimism about the Hungarian polity during its supposedly emancipatory development away from authoritarianism comes off as a disbelief in progress as such. This content is mirrored in the very form of the film, which does not progress either. Sátántangó does not proceed within the conventionally prescribed time limit, but instead drags on and on. It unrelentingly presents itself as Exhibit A for its thesis. On display is the unrelenting grinding down of whatever we had hoped would last and unrelenting escape from the mill of whatever we had hoped would pass away.

Dan Finishes:

Well Ben, this discussion has lasted almost as long as the film, which seems only fitting. I think I will leave it to Susan Sontag to bring the whole matter to a close. László Krasznahorkai, the author of the novel upon which this movie is based, has been providing Béla Tarr with stories for his films since 1988’s Damnation. And after reading the man’s first novel, Sátántangó, Sontag drew parallels to Gogol and Melville, while also remarking that Tarr’s cinematic adaptation was “[d]evastating, enthralling for every minute of its seven hours. I’d be glad to see it every year for the rest of my life.”

I feel pretty confident speaking for you on this matter when I say that neither of us would want to make such a commitment, but I hope that our discussion helps to unlock some of the reasons that would allow other folks to see how Tarr’s film could provoke such an ardent response. Sontag also described Krasznahorkai as “the contemporary Hungarian master of the apocalypse.” A more apt description of Tarr’s film would be difficult to come by, so why even bother trying?

Dan Jardine is the publisher of Cinemania.

Ben Livant is the current Blog Slave in Residence at Cinemania.