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