CIFF Diary: Day 9 - Winds of Change

10/15 - While standing in line for Bela Tarr's new feature The Turin Horse on Saturday afternoon, one of the festival programmers made his way up and down the line in an attempt to save anyone from being late for a later screening, announcing that the The Turin Horse has had 20 minutes added to it.  I knew I was in line with some real film buffs when one of them said "that's nothing for a Tarr movie," and my response--"that's two shots!"--got a laugh, my partner Jen rolling her eyes at our collective film geek-ery.  So, with the running time now set at 156 minutes, we entered the cinema showing the new Bela Tarr picture.  If you have no experience with Tarr, it is important to know that to a good majority of the movie-going public, Tarr's movies would probably appear as the perfect, grueling example of artsy-fartsy, intolerably slow, black and white European cinema.  For myself and fans of Tarr's endurance test cinema, it is a rare opportunity to utilize the cinema in all of it's meditative and philosophical capacities, picking up in Hungarian where the great Russian master Tarkovsky left off.

Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker
Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse
The Turin Horse does not disappoint as a new addition to Tarr's few-and-far-between filmography.  I tend to be a bit of a purist when it comes to cinema events like a new Tarr picture.  Although it's great to see great films any way you can get them, some pictures are just built for the collective theater experience.  Some of my favorite pictures this year have been those that turn the wide screen cinema into church, particularly Malick's The Tree of Life, and now The Turin Horse, neither of which I would imagine lend themselves well to the at-home rental experience.

Terrance Malick's The Tree of Life
Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse
I can still recall the slight air of absurdity in attending my first Tarr picture, a screening of Satantango at Facets Cinemateque about 8 or 9 years ago that I was invited to by my friend, and equally adventurous movie goer, Nathaniel Carlson (check out his excellent film writing at Cineaste online).  7 and 1/2 hours? Two intermissions? Black and white?  Hungarian?  I was probably a bit skeptical, but Nathaniel knew I was someone who is always up for a challenging experience at the movies, and I trust Nathaniel because he's the only person I know who can hold film makers like Bela Tarr and Zalman King in the same intellectual head-space.

Zalman King's Lake Consequence
Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse
And, yes, I do think that seeing Satantango significantly changed the way I watch movies...for the better, that is.  It certainly changed the vision of more than a few film makers, Gus Van Sant primary among them, as evidenced in his "Tarr trilogy" of Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), and Last Days (2005).  Tarr is looking to hold all that is holy about cinema in his films, with the greatest stress being placed on the image.  And Tarr's images are worth spending time with, as small details shift and become endowed with a great weight.

Gus Van Sant's Gerry
Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse
Yesterday at the festival I was trying to defend The Turin Horse to two long time CIFF attendees as we stood in line for the new Wim Wenders film.  The delightful and intelligent couple had given up on The Turin Horse before it's grim finale, and even though I understood that they had no idea what they were getting into, my defense of the film was that most commercial films don't even have images worth remembering, but Tarr is unique in that you can nearly hold the entire picture in your mind (whether you wish to or not, I guess).  The Turin Horse is ultimately less elaborate than either Satantango (1994) or Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) in it's narrative, but in it's attempt to follow the path of the animal whose torture apparently drove the great existentialist philosopher Nietzsche to the point of collapse, it succeeds as a meditative elaboration on the cruelty of existence, as well as the humor of futility.  Although there were a few (sometimes unsure) laughs at the Saturday screening of The Turin Horse, I think that the humor in Tarr is often overlooked.  Tarr inexplicably mines moments of humor from the desolate, wind-swept isolation of a father and daughter trapped in a circular cycle of dependence and subsistence.  Tarr really emphasizes the technique of repetition in his "Six Day" structure, and even though we are looking at the same routines, we are always seeing them from a different angle.  An extra belt of alcohol, or a slightly shifted placement of a glass--the nuance of day to day change--play against the constant, doom laden erosion of the relentless wind that pervades the film.  Admittedly, Tarr is not for everyone.  But opening yourself up to the possibilities of a Bela Tarr film, even once, has the potential for significant change.

Up Next:  Xan Aranda's new documentary rocks:  Andrew Bird:  Fever Year


nathaniel drake carlson said...

Well, that was a very special and appreciated shout-out! It really is true though and worth saying (even though it is, I suppose, kind of obvious) that these are just different artists doing different things in a diferent way, but both very well. And, in some respects, they share a surprising similarity. Both Tarr and King are unafraid of and indeed dependent upon what some may see as "portentous" imagery, or images with clear weight. King's purpose is to make melodrama into myth, to get us to recognize the way in which those underpinnings function. Tarr's purpose is to use weighty images and duration and framing to dedramatize or de-emphasize any lasting residual dramatic flavor, at least of the conventional variety. So it is an endurance test of sorts with him but you are right to point out that there is indeed dramatic value in what he is doing. It just doesn't call attention to itself as that. He's more interested in inducing a hypnotic state, seeing what can be got at through that, sometimes just through living that time out in approximation to the characters--living it and being in the moment, allowing for an unconventional sort of sympathy to develop.

Wondered if you ever got to see his last film, The Man from London. For me it's absolutely as great as the rest even though this appears to be a minority opinion. I suspect a kind of cine geek snobbery is the cause of its less than stellar rep (there's no comprehending anything else) having to do with the fact that this was Tarr's attempt at a genre film. It's uniquely his own though and it's what he brings to that which makes it so great (his own existentialist layering of tone and thematic emphasis). Anyway, for me 2007 was a year when some auteurs gave us relatively weak pictures (Hou's Red Balloon, Wong's My Blueberry Nights, Ceylan's 3 Monkeys, Martel's Headless Woman). Tarr's film was amongst those that didn't disappoint (along with Sokurov's Alexandra, Oliveira's Cristóvão Colombo - O Enigma and, of course, PTA's There Will Be Blood).

One final question: given that this is supposed to be his final film how do you see it in his overall body of work? Do you think it brings his unique set of preoccupations to a fitting close? Does it represent a kind of prefecting or refinement of his aesthetic technique?

Jason Hedrick said...

First of all, thanks for the elaboration on the Tarr-King juxtaposition. I threw it out there deliberately to see if you would do anything with it, and, as usual, you do not disappoint.

Have not seen "Man From London," though after "Turin Horse" and your commentary, I am anxious to check it out. As far as the Hou, Wong, Ceylan, and the Martel (the only one I've seen, and the one I thought you dug(?)--I did not, although I didn't hate it), the critical response did not get me excited enough to seek those out, though I am sure there are more than a few memorable images in that cluster of films, especially with directors of that caliber.

Back to Tarr and "The Turin Horse"--I recently saw it again at the Philly film fest and enjoyed it even more--partly because I feel I was able to ready myself for the language oriented sections of the film, which, for American viewers, do pass by fairly quickly, and in Hungarian. Although language is used very sparsely, when it it is, it is layered with a poeticism, humor, and density that you may need a couple of chances to fully appreciate. In fact, the opening, which features a very particular telling of the Nietzche story over a black screen, struck me this time around as a set-up to a very dark and funny punchline. Many may not recognize the humor, but only because it doesn't operate like most humor, the same way that, as you point out, his narratives and characters work in an unconventional way. Also, I don't want to over-emphasize the film as comedic--most would see it as anything but--it just seems that Tarr's particular humor is an important component of the whole here. The Philly audience yucked it up more than the Chicago audience, for sure. (And, it makes me recall how much we laughed over the "dance scene" in Satantango! Hilarious!)

As Tarr's final film, I think it feels like a fitting fade to black--maybe too much so! And, I think it does play with repetition in an exciting way, that not only feels like part of his past aesthetic, but also an evolution of his aesthetic. I can't imagine it will disappoint you as a Tarr fan, although you do have me curious about the direction he went with "Man From London"...