Bela Tarr: Almanac of Fall (1985) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Bela Tarr: Almanac of Fall (1985)

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

It's nobody's fault is it?  Well, that's human nature.  Why do we call anyone to answer for anything.  Or these laws are either imprinted in us or not.  Who is the sinner?  Does sin even exist?  We have situations, we have nerves, we have desires, we have bodies.  Isn't that so?
-Almanac of Fall-

Andrew COMMENTARYAlmanac of Fall continues Bela Tarr's descent into the bowels of Hungary.  He's interested in his fringe characters, cramped inside of their tiny living areas, but here he approaches it from a different angle.  Previous films allowed the characters some sort of freedom.  They could actually leave the house and go out, or at least go to work in a separate building.  In Almanac, Tarr has situated us in a grand house that contains five people of varying moral fabric.

In many ways this isn't that much different than what Tarr has presented before.  His characters have always been crammed together in poor living conditions, usually because the government hasn't doled out any housing arrangements to the less fortunate.  This could be seen as another evolution of the poor couple that was introduced in Family Nest, then thematically touched on in The Prefab People.  In the first film the couple was looking to get a flat of their own to escape their problems.  In the second, we see that having their own flat was not enough to stop their personal conflicts.  So they begin to dream of a home or at least somewhere they can call their own, away from all the smoke and fake people that fill their lives.

Well, they got their wish.  The young couple in Almanac is a nurse and her boyfriend, who now have the freedom to move about a big home that is presided over by the mother.  However, in addition to the mother, they still have to deal with horrible situations.  The son is a leech, having nothing to contribute and threatening to kill his mother in an early scene.  Then there is a poor drifter, a man that is so desperate for touch he keeps starting a fight with the son so that he can feel something.

One of Tarr's greatest strengths is to present a group of characters and then ask us why they desire the things they do.  Previously it was easy to see why they wanted out so bad.  The cramped living conditions, constant noise, who wouldn't want to be free of all that?  But now everyone in the film, except for the poor drifter, has a bit of silence and we have to examine their morals a little closer.  Tarr doesn't quite invite us to do so, as he is not fond of actually judging the people he presents, but the rest of us might have some difficulty avoiding that temptation.

Everyone is looking for a way to advance their position in the home.  Yes, even in squalor they all want to rise to the top of the heap.  To this end they lie, they steal, eavesdrop on each others conversations, and in some cases sexually intimidate.  In a home where everyone wants a bit of privacy the release of any unwanted information holds a lot of power.  So they continue on, stabbing each other in the back, until finally a final plan is put into motion and one of their own is evicted forever.  Will this make them happy?  They schemed so much to get there, it's unlikely they'll be content.

There are some notable problems with Almanac of Fall.  The first is that, despite the fact that there are only five characters, it becomes very difficult to tell who is who early on.  Worse, the relationships between each of the characters are murky at best, and are never defined beyond what one is scheming against another.  This is not aided by some dialogue that, to put it charitably, is barely functional.  I think that the first time I watched this movie my close reading skills were not what they should have been.  I never quite noticed how simple a lot of the dialogue is, how directly it's speaking of the human condition, and how inadequate it is to really fulfill any philosophical quandary.

Take the piece above, spoken by the mother of the house.  She's addressing the general situation in her home.  Everyone is acting on their own selfish desires, partly stemming from her despicable son, and partly because he was urged on by another person.  She's speaking so broadly that her dialogue could be attributed to any number of situations, no just the one that is going on right under her nose.  Great movies take a specific situation and, using the terms of it's plot, open it up to everyone.  With dialogue that broad and so directly placed in front of us it's difficult to rouse up the necessary emotion to become engaged.

What is worth salvaging is Tarr's use of color and luscious photography.  He floods the screen with color to highlight the emotional moods of the inhabitants.  It also shows that, despite their closeness at times, they each have a compartment for themselves that the other can never get to.  It's an obvious trick, but effective, and accompanied by his most confident camerawork.  The camera drifts and floats throughout the home, showcasing the large and decaying rooms, looking for nooks and corners to hide.  It's all terribly intimate and, despite never leaving the home, it never feels too claustrophobic.  The home is the world for all of these people, there's no sense in the camera closing them in.

In a strange gesture from Tarr, he allows some of his camera work to get a little bit too showy.  That sequence is cut to very suddenly after the boyfriend of the nurse finds out that she offered some tenderness to the drifter.  I like it, it shows how even this band of outsiders can find someone to put beneath their feet.  But it's the only shot of it's kind throughout the entire film.  The technique calls attention to itself instead of being ingrained in the grammar of the film.

The first time I watched Almanac I admired it on a technical level so much that I ignored how banal everything else was.  Revisiting it, I see that the camera work and characters of Nest and Prefab are a lot more interesting, and contain nuggets of truth that Almanac could not obtain.  Bela Tarr is not a director that works well in color, and while it's a fascinating attempt, it's only barely better that The Outsider (his other major color feature film).

Disappointment aside, it's still a good film in spite of it's quasi-experimentation.  Next week I'll be revisiting the noir-tinged Damnation.  The film is just as cheery as the title.

The Films of Bela Tarr:
Family Nest (1979)
The Outsider (1981)
Macbeth (1982)
The Prefab People (1982)
Damnation (1988)
Satantango (1994)
Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)
The Man From London (2007)
Short Films - Journey on the Plain (1995) and Prologue (2004)

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Almanac of Fall (1985)

Written and directed by Bela Tarr.

Tarr with text

Posted by Andrew

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