Bela Tarr: Roundup - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Bela Tarr: Roundup

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

Andrew COMMENTARYI have a fan going usually, background noise to keep silence from creeping into my apartment.  Maybe there's some music playing, or I turn on a faucet so I hear water running down the drain.  Sometimes I dirty my dishes up so that I have an excuse to run the dishwasher, and for awhile I know that swishing sound is going to be filling my home.

A lot of movies play like this, only with the added factor of irritation.  They're excuses to pass the time, fill the air with some kind of sound that is no different than running your washing machine or turning on a fan.  It's the total apathy that depresses me more than anything else.  Not all films have to have an original, grand statement to make about life but it would be nice if more of them tried.  What's worse is when you feel that the film has no interest in tugging away at time, and that everyone onscreen seems to be appearing out of some sense of obligation.

It's horrible that there are people that expect us to waste what precious time we have on empty images.  That's why this year has been so depressing for cinemas.  When I sit through offensive drivel like Kick-Ass, or wonder why so many think Inception is saying something profound about life and film - time begins to have less meaning.  Then it slows, and I become aware of it's passage, and I forget to forget myself.

Bela Tarr's films accomplish something that, to most, is undesirable.  Moving slowly through the cold Hungarian nights he makes us feel the passage of time with his images and music.  There's room for philosophy, but very little room for meaningless action.  The clock ticks away and we slowly become comfortable with the pieces of ourselves that pop up onscreen in the faces of his long suffering characters.  Slowly it all becomes a nightmare, the ticking clock can't be stopped and those that are most afraid of it are prone to violence and anger.  But there is at least one person, naive though he/she may be, in each film that tries to stand for some kind of permanence.

You're a good man Bela Tarr.

Unfortunately, I've reached the end of Tarr's material.  All that remains are the two short films included with Satantango (plus Macbeth if you ever pick up the set).  Tarr plays with the passage of time in two different ways.  In the slightly less successful of the two, Journey on the Plain, he follows around one of his Satantango stars Mihaly Vig.  There isn't much to the film, except the fact that it is in color and automatically puts it in the lesser reaches of Tarr's filmography (color is definitely not Tarr's strong point).  But, much like the hero of Wreckmeister Harmonies, he goes about the day, thinking philosophical thoughts and finding ways to pass his day that enrich the world instead of taking from it.  Eventually alcohol gets involved and things end as they always do, but for thirty minutes or so we're caught up in the musings of his life.

Far more interesting is the film Prologue for the Visions of Europe collection.  Tarr was asked to make a short film that shows what Hungary is like in present-day (2004) Europe.  The film that Tarr makes is crushing in it's implications and sadness.  A long line of people, seemingly never ending, cold and hungry from all walks of life.  What are they waiting for?  The smallest bit of food, doled out one person at a time.  Once again, Tarr puts us in tune to the passage of town.  He doesn't fight it, and works with the full knowledge that he has your undivided attention, letting you feel the emotions and seconds slowly flow down the street.

Those two shorts continue Bela Tarr's longstanding tradition of presenting Hungary as a place for the discarded.  They're on the fringes, yes, and have tastes that we may not understand.  But they're human, no different than the rest of us, and are deserving of whatever empathy we can spare for their condition.

It's hard to pinpoint an exact philosophy of Bela Tarr's films other than that empathy.  He has publicly resisted the idea of metaphorical interpretations of his films (doesn't stop me or others from trying though) and is too aware of the manufactured reality of films to think that his stories have any impact.  But perhaps he's just being hard on himself, or he's lacking in so much hope that he doesn't see the point of interpreting his films, or like many great directors maybe he just can't help but make the films that he makes.  Perhaps they're as natural a part of him as Scorsese's fear of Hell, or Altman's intense dislike of authority, or Makavejev's playful anarchy.

Tarr's films exist as they are.  It's how we spend our time examining them that is important.

That's it for Bela Tarr's films.  Starting next week I'll be undertaking a giant project by examining the films of Ingmar Bergman.  This one's for the long haul folks, as I only own 24 of his films and he's directed far more than that.

See you next week for the Ingmar Bergman scripted Torment!

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Tarr with text

Posted by Andrew

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