Bela Tarr: The Outsider (1981) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Bela Tarr: The Outsider (1981)

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Every Tuesday Andrew will be examining the work of the Hungarian director Bela Tarr.

"I despise stories, as they mislead people into believing that something has happened.  In fact, nothing really happens as we flee from one condition to another...all that remains is time.  This is probably the only thing that's still genuine - time itself; the years, days, hours, minutes and seconds."

Andrew COMMENTARYThat is Bela Tarr's manifesto.  Every film that he's made follows that idea in one way or another. He isn't interested in the ways that most film's follow a conventional plot structure, and is more interested in making us feel the passage of time as we move from situation to situation.  Unfortunately, his early features don't quite grasp this idea as well as he expresses in later films.  Today's feature showcases a director still trying to find his voice, and producing a movie that doesn't live up to the standards he set up for his work.

The Outsider is the weakest film in Bela Tarr's canon.  Granted, it fits his quote perfectly, time seems to pass with very little happening.  The problem is that Tarr still has not found a way to express his vision outside of the cinema verite' style.  His camera is not as controlled as his previous feature, and has more features in common with a modern action movie than with the deliberate approach he would later favor.  It's not as jittery, but it's intended to be very documentary-esque, putting us into the thick of daily Hungarian life as a passive observer.

The life we observe is Andras', a directionless musical genius that is trying to find a way to deal with the squalor he lives with.  Once again, there's not much plot to speak of involving him or those around him.  They go about their lives, trying to figure out some way to get along, and bump into each other indifferently.  Andras functions as a leech in his personal relationships.  He takes what he can, marries a woman he doesn't really care about, has a child with another woman, and generally behaves like an oblivious and selfish idiot.  His only redeeming trait comes from his music, which brings more joy than he intends.

Granted, I don't expect all the films I watch to have protagonists that are likable people, especially where Tarr's films are concerned.  During a directors showcase, he spoke about his characters and what he is trying to do.  He's looking for ways to engender our empathy without being terribly obvious about this.  The problem is that Andras is not a terribly interesting protagonist.  There's never an indication that he has any sort of real internal struggle in his moral framework.  He's lazy, selfish, and does not have much to contribute the entire movie.

That's not the best way to garner audience empathy.

It's difficult to find things I like about The Outsider.  Since Tarr still hasn't moved out of the verite' style, there aren't any shots in the film that stick out in my mind.  There is a little energy generated in some of the musical performances in the film, but given Tarr's manifesto these seem more like an injection of the kind of emotional manipulation he tries to stay away from.  The actors don't fare much better.  None of them find a way to inject the material with any sort of interest, and generally act blandly.

So is there anything to salvage from The Outsider?  Two things in particular.  Tarr's ear for dialogue takes an interesting turn with this film.  His characters express themselves in a quasi-spiritual way that keeps my interest.  It's not terribly hokey, and works with the documentary style that he's using with the film.  These are smart people that don't all have the means of expressing themselves outside of their alcohol fueled conversations.  While the performances aren't up to the level of the dialogue, it still juts in with a nice insight every so often.

Then there is the way that Tarr integrates the music into his film.  Since this is a movie primarily about musicians it's nice to see that Tarr took the time to provide an evocative, gypsy-esque score to the film.  I have a weakness for filmmakers that try to use the score to confuse the emotions of the audience instead of enhancing any obvious feelings.  Tarr shows a great mastery of this early, allowing the music to present an uplifting energy that isn't present in the rest of the film.  The contrasting emotions are a nice touch, and I wish that the rest of the film could have been as conflicting.

Revisiting The Outsider, I find that I don't hate it as much as I previously did.  Despite the generally uninteresting camera work, Tarr still finds a way to keep my interest onscreen even if there aren't any shots that jump out at me.  It's clear that he's pushing against the constraints of the cinema verite' style, but hasn't found a way to present the thoughts in his head onscreen.  I can see how people might find more positives in this effort than myself, but there are too many conflicting elements in play to really recommend this film.

Next week I'll be looking at Tarr's version of Macbeth.  It's one of the few films in his catalog that I don't know much about, so I'm looking forward to the experience.

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The Outsider (1981)

Written and directed by Bela Tarr.

Tarr with text

Posted by Andrew

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