Our Backstreets #16: Tarr-Nation

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

September 16 marked the long-awaited arrival of Hungarian director Béla Tarr to Facets Cinematheque to preface his “popular hit” Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) and join in a discussion of his career with three well-respected members of the film community—critics Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader) and Scott Foundas (LA Weekly), and retired film professor David Bordwell (University of Wisconsin—Madison). I’d been looking forward to the event for several weeks and promised to blog on it for fellow cineastes unable to attend in person.

Unfortunately, one of those cineastes was Tarr himself. Well, that is not precisely true. He hand-delivered the print of Werckmeister Harmonies from Minneapolis, where he had conducted a similar dog-and-pony show, introduced the film hurriedly, and then sped off to attend to a family emergency. In addition, according to Rosenbaum, Tarr is by no means a cineaste. He claims not to be influenced by any other filmmaker (though he admires a few, including John Cassavetes) and largely does not watch movies.

Still, having just been mesmerized by his visually striking, metaphysical examination of harmony and chaos in an unnamed Hungarian town, the hubby and I chose to remain for the two-hour conversation, moderated by Facets employee Susan Doll. It was an interesting, if ultimately unsatisfying, afternoon because of the absence of the principal upon whom we focused our attention.

Facets has been at the forefront of exposing Chicago audiences to Tarr, screening his early works, Family Nest, The Outsider, and The Prefab People. Because she came to Tarr’s career in a chronological fashion, Doll said she had a special fondness for these musicless examinations of domestic strife. The members of the panel did not feel the same way, but commented favorably on Tarr’s close examination of faces. Rosenbaum mentioned that Tarr sees faces as landscapes; whereas his later films are caught up in vistas, Tarr sees his earlier focus on faces to be exactly the same thing.

Rosenbaum, Bordwell, and Foundas all agreed that Satantango, a 7.5-hour film “about” betrayal was his masterwork. They railed that people don’t seem to mind committing themselves to miniseries, but shied from watching this lengthy movie. It didn’t seem entirely obvious to them that spending a whole day watching a movie is not exactly the same as spending successive nights at home watching a miniseries a bit at a time (or recording it for future viewing if one day in the series was inconvenient). But these are cineastes, of course.

A great deal of the time was spent talking about Tarr’s use of long takes. Bordwell quoted a statistic that the average Hollywood movie has 1,100 takes per one hour of film, whereas Werckmeister Harmonies has 39 takes in total. An interesting discussion transpired about edits versus choreographed long takes, and how a long-take director like Tarr or Tarkovsky can use camera movement and precise blocking to create similar effects. Many directors like editing because they like to direct the audience’s attention specifically to the action they feel is important to observe. Other directors, particularly Antonioni, favor a static camera and long takes to allow the observer to make choices.

Rosenbaum spoke about how much of a master illusionist Tarr is, creating effects even in the long-take verite style that are completely artificial. He compared Tarr with Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami in this respect, saying that even when Kiarostami intentionally shows the artifice of filmmaking (e.g., the actors and crew shown interacting after the “last” scene of A Taste of Cherry), he is creating additional illusions.

Both Bordwell and Rosenbaum talked about Tarr’s resistance to interpretation. He refuses to interpret his films or answer questions about other people’s interpretations of his works. One thing he will acknowledge about his films is that they are about humanity and the dignity of human beings. He lives in a village in Hungary with “real peasants,” a class of people he clearly prefers to intellectuals. He eskews intellectualism when applied to his films and is suspicious of it, according to Bordwell and Rosenbaum.

Audience questioners included a Hungarian woman who helps run the Hungarian Film Club of Chicago. She was cornered after the event by local film buffs eager to attend their screenings. l

  • Gromit spoke:
    18th/09/2007 to 1:35 pm

    Well Tarr can certainly be elusive.
    Sorry you missed him.
    Looking forward to your take on Werckmeister’s Harmony. I think it’s a better film than Satantango. I was mesmerized in watching actions fully complete and then the camera still watching for a little longer. It just felt organic and made every day life feel somehow transcendant. WH felt really grounded in a time and place (even if that place was never actually specified).
    Whereas in ST the length of shots seemed rather arbitrary. While ST has some great set pieces it just seemed a little too abstract and muddled on the whole. I enjoyed and appreciated Satantango, but Werckmeister’s Harmony really bowled me over.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    18th/09/2007 to 3:57 pm

    One of the Facets insiders complained that this isn’t the first time an Eastern European director has bowed out, using precisely the same language Tarr used in making his excuses. Personally, since Tarr dislikes discussion his meanings and motivations so much, I’m not surprised he didn’t want to stay with a bunch of overeducated film geeks pummeling him with questions–this, of course, assumes that he told a lie, which is a big assumption.
    Anyway, the panel felt that WH was Tarr’s attempt at making a normal feature film at a normal length–his popular film as a kind of an experiment. The experiment certainly worked, since WH is very arthouse AND accessible. The panel felt that the long-take form puts the viewer into a kind of trance, and that is its appeal for those who like that sort of experience. It’s certainly not for everyone, that’s for sure. I think Tarr achieved something similar in WH through the use of a metaphysical, archetypal “story” that his “Greek chorus” of beer drunks in the opening sequence preface.

  • David Bordwell spoke:
    20th/09/2007 to 7:21 am

    Just a few corrections/ clarifications:
    *While I didn’t learn an exact reason for Tarr’s departure, the general terms of it sounded as if he was indeed very pressed by a situation back in Hungary, not simply an urge to bolt a panel discussion. He’s given plenty of interviews and press conferences, so I don’t have reason to believe that the format itself was a problem for him.
    *It was Susan Doll, not me, who said that the average Hollywood movie has 1100 shots, and I’m not sure that she specified per hour. I’d put it this way: Most US films have an average shot length of between 3 and 5 seconds, regardless of running time.
    *I didn’t specify the number of shots in WERCKMEISTER. Not counting credits, I count 37.
    *I didn’t say that SATANTANGO was Tarr’s masterpiece, though I think highly of the film. I also think highly of DAMNATION and WERCKMEISTER. I really don’t know what I think is the best of these three.
    *I didn’t rail at people who won’t commit to watching long movies. That is Jonathan’s shtick. I did say that I think films like Tarr’s need to be seen in a theatrical situation, not on home video, to have their full effect. This is true of most films, of course, but issues of image scale and pacing are particularly acute with his work, and that of Angelopoulos, Hou, and similar directors.
    *It was Tarr who told me that he sees the face as a landscape, and I reported that statement. Jonathan agreed.
    *I think the word that applies to us is ‘cinephiles’ (which means film lovers) rather than ‘cineastes’ (which means filmmakers).
    *I have a longish post on Tarr’s films tied to the event at http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog.
    Thanks to Marilyn for calling attention to the event!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/09/2007 to 8:18 am

    As I said, I thought that assuming Tarr was lying about needed to leave is a pretty big stretch. I personally accepted his departure at face value. Nonetheless, one Facets insider was suspicious of his departure.
    It seems I got quite a bit wrong in terms of attribution. Thank you, David, for clarifying. I did get the impression that you all thought most highly of Satantango, but you’re right, that does not translate to “masterpiece”.
    “Cineaste” in my dictionary is defined as “a devotee of motion pictures.” I’m quite sure the magazine Cineaste is not just for filmmakers.
    I have seen several cites for the “39 shot” assertion.
    Jonathan and Scott both spoke about commitment of time to longer films. In fact, I believe Scott brought it up first.
    Thanks for dropping by.

  • Ferdy on Films, etc. spoke:
    27th/12/2007 to 2:05 pm

    My Year at the Movies – 2007

    My Year at the Movies—2007 By Marilyn Ferdinand Now that my good friend and collaborator, Roderick Heath, Esq., has seen fit to write one of those bloody year-end wrap-ups—third in my rogue’s gallery of things I wish reviewers would…

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