05 mars 2007

Partisans in the persistent and hopeless fight for human dignity: Sátántangó

{Nearly titled Sátántangó (or, Bela likes to dance)}

Bela Tarr's 1994 epic recently screened as part of a 3-day mini-Tarr fest at BAM. I saw all 3 films (Damnation, Sátántangó, and Werckmeister Harmonies) that weekend, and so got the kind of crash course in Tarr that allows for a more intuitive understanding of his formal and thematic approaches. Once the lights came up after the 7 1/2 hour cinematic marathon that is Sátántangó, the first thing I said to the friend sitting next to me was: "If it was screening again right now, I would definitely stay."

Told in 12 sections (mimicking the 6 forward and 6 backward steps of the tango), Sátántangó warps the viewer's experience of time. Sections overlap, and Tarr invests a heavy significance will the act of watching as events develop.

Assorted reflections on the film:

The use of Black and White photography, combined with the exclusive use of the (extremely) long take, asks a question: What is realism in the cinema?

Tarr's view of human nature is not as dark as has been otherwise suggested, but the film asserts that human life is primarily a dilemma. This dilemma is inescapable, not even by music, drunkenness, or suicide. Our escape from the problem is also the problem.

The long take extends time. Each shot spends so much time observing a character that it becomes a sort of presentation without judgment. The experience of watching each shot is meditative; as a result, the viewer spends most of the film in his/her own head. For me, a typical experience of watching a single shot in the film might go like this: I identify the action and the character. I process how it relates to what I've seen. Then I get an idea of what it "means." I then have time to contradict my thoughts and construct an alternate - or opposite - meaning. I then am struck with the weight of time, and the length of an action as it occurs. This time then forces me to be aware of the moment presented as a component of life, an event that exists but then fades away (both on screen, and for me). I then think about the limitations of time, and about my impending death. I then return to the scene and feel empathy for the characters even as they commit morally questionable acts. Finally, I'm left watching them, seeing them as they are: striving, flawed, human.

Broken bottles, drunken people, drinking glasses (or: suffering, suicide, mourning)... so much of this film is about consequences, about loss as a part of the natural flow of human events.

Life goes on for so long even as it speeds by. The shots tell this story, but so do the actions: struggling on the trip to refill a brandy jug, replacing spaghetti with bread as two lovers approach a kiss.

Things must be seen to be understood.

Moments of glory are not an endpoint.

Irimiás is a poet: "Partisans in the persistent and hopeless fight for human dignity." I wish I had a copy of the letter he dictates in the cafe. I intend to transcribe it when I get the DVD.

Note also that Irimiás is played by Mihály Vig, who also scores all of Tarr's films (Sátántangó included). This score stands out for its excellence.

Sátántangó is a masterwork.

Its a film that I could watch over and over again, that I could write on for years. But in absence of some Sátántangó book deal, life goes on.

If you have not seen the film, DO NOT watch it anywhere except a cinema (or, if you must, as part of an uninterrupted DVD screening, but that's really no way to see this for the first time). If you have seen the film, you can relive the first shot on YouTube. Or watch the "plodding and plodding and plodding" scene in the bar (one of my favorite examples of self-referential humor in Tarr's work). I do wish the scene with the drunken accordion-accompanied dancing - and the man balancing a loaf of bread on his head - was available for me to link to in one of its iterations.

Others on Sátántangó:

Jonathan Rosenbaum's 1994 article on Sátántangó The Importance of Being Sarcastic is included in his book Essential Cinema.

Sátántangó: And then there was Darkness by Donato Totaro at OffScreen

Ryland Walker Knight's eloquent post Lateral Sculpture: Béla Tarr's Sátántangó.

Waggish on Sátántangó, in 3 parts: 1, 2, 3.

Harry Tuttle, briefly, on Tarr

David Bordwell has a post that offers some insights - and a few good links.

Acquarello reviews Sátántangó

Waiting For The Prince - an interview with Béla Tarr

In search of truth - Béla Tarr interviewed

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