Bela Tarr: Macbeth (1982) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Bela Tarr: Macbeth (1982)

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

"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
and then is heard no more.  It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Andrew COMMENTARYLet's talk visual expectations.  Typically, you have a standard array of stock techniques to reference how a film is going to be shot, with a number of visual cues that the audiences assume will be used to convey diagetic information.  For example, during a conversation between two characters it's not uncommon to see the director use a series of alternating closeups, or for larger groups stand back and slowly circle around to focus in on whoever happens to be speaking.

The truly great directors know how to take the information provided by these basic assumptions and twist them to their own unique vision.  Look at this fight scene from Raging Bull, there are (bare minimum) fourteen distinct different types of camera shots used over that two minute span, each one intended on conveying a specific piece of emotional, diagetic or spatial information about the scene.  Contrast what Scorsese does there to something like this fight scene from Matrix: Reloaded where I can see maybe three or four different types of shots and very little variety.  Each is suited to the story, and like it or hate it, carry a distinct stylistic stamp of the director.

I highlight these as examples because in order to claim territory as a director of stature, they had to display this kind of control over the frame.  This is still only half the battle (a story worth telling helps -  yes for Raging Bull, only kinda for Reloaded) but it's one that Tarr finally won out 1982.

Previous to today's film, Bela Tarr had been borrowing cues from the cinema verite' school of film making.  This means a lot of documentary esque close ups for intensity, cutting away from head to head during a conversation, and engaging in the drudgery of daily life.  The films of John Cassavettes are a good template for the way Family Nest and The Outsider are constructed, but you can feel him pushing against the limits of the form.  His is a mind that wants to drift, and his shots tended to linger on far longer than those in Cassavettes' more nerve wracking dramas.  So, thankfully, Macbeth is a break in form.

Macbeth finds him discovering his style, but he still hasn't found a great movie to put it to use.  I'm by no means saying that the story of Macbeth is not a good one.  But Tarr, in finding his visual voice, still needs to find a way to temper it down and put it in the service of a story instead of it being a gimmick.  But as far as gimmicks are concerned, it's a visual style that my heart and mind have a particular weakness for.

Tarr's version of that durable play is told with only two shots over an hour.  This means that the first shot of the film consists of the scene where Macbeth encounters the three witches for the first time, then the film cuts to the opening credits, and continues along the next fifty five minutes holding the same shot.  Some find this kind of camera work to be showy and unnecessary, I think that in the hands of a great director it can express things about the material that could not be done by cutting it into fragments.

In the case of Macbeth, his use of this technique heightens the sense of tension and paranoia that is gripping Macbeth's mind after he begins his long descent.  Tarr utilizes the old castle in so many brilliant ways that you have to see it in motion to really grasp how complex his technique is.  Transitions between scenes are handled using the slightest shift in light and smoke, as characters drift in and out of view to the focal point, only the descend away as they are no longer needed.

The film dares you to look away, to cut out the passage of time and experience it as the fragmentation of lies is it really is, and shows how dishonest a lot of film photography is.  Tarr has not done something simple here, I was astonished at how many times Tarr had created an entirely new location with those minor changes.  It did not always work, you can see him reaching for transitions at times with a lot of heavy smoke, or a wandering music player that might as well have "Next Scene" painted on him.  To be fair, Tarr continues to weave the music into his films stunningly, evoking the classical period of Macbeth without interrupting the Hungarian flavor of this version.

But the disruptive moments are rare, and the remaining amount of run time treads the kind of territory that Tarr excels at.  By filming Macbeth in this manner, he showcases his strength for turning stories into a slow motion nightmare with people that have not yet learned how to hope again.  In this sense, Macbeth is the perfect story for Tarr to showcase this new sensibility.  Shakespeare's dialogue in this play certainly matches Tarr's creed of despising stories, but in order for the film to work at all you need a strong familiarity with the source material.

I've seen multiple versions of Macbeth, ranging from the inventively simplistic retelling in the cartoon series Gargoyles, to the classic stage version, to the demonically tinged Kurosawa version (Throne of Blood).  So having read the play, and seen it at least five different times, I can safely say that this version will confuse the hell out of people that are even more versed in the story than myself.

Those same characters that drift in and out of view do so without being introduced half the time, and a good deal of them go unnamed.  The only way that you will be able to follow some of the plot threads is by having a more than passing familiarity with the play - and I still had a lot of trouble.

This isn't to say that Macbeth is a bad film, or even a bad rendition, it's just a distinctly claustrophobic but definitely confusing version of the old story.  But soon, all of his work will pay off, but he has to go through one final exorcism to get there.  Next week, I'll be examining his last stab at any sort of cinema verite', The Prefab People.

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Macbeth (1982)

Written and directed by Bela Tarr.

Tarr with text

Posted by Andrew

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