Down into the Black Hole with Turin Horse and Miners' Hymns
Béla Tarr, the Hungarian director who became something like the patron saint of slow cinema with 1994's 450-minute Sátántangó, has made some of the toughest endurance tests in film history. Watching his latest, The Turin Horse (co-credited to Ágnes Hranitzky), is an experience comparable to starting down the road with an empty sack then, over the course of the journey, having it weighed down steadily with rocks until you can't go on. But this backbreaking effect cannot be called an artistic failure. It is exactly what Tarr sets out to achieve.
This fresh descent into Tarr's pit begins with the director narrating, over a black screen, the events that allegedly preceded Friedrich Nietzsche's breakdown in 1889, when Nietzsche witnessed a coachman whipping a horse in the streets of Turin, Italy, at which point the philosopher "put an end to the brutal scene, throwing his arms around the horse's neck."
Then the first image in a film of stark, silvery beauty: A coachman with the face of a biblical patriarch (János Derzsi) drives his horse into the teeth of a gale. Is this Nietzsche's horse? Is this meant to be the outskirts of Turin, though the scarce spoken dialogue and pitiless weather are Hungarian? This, and much else, Tarr leaves the viewer to infer.
The coachman arrives home to his dilapidated stone house with a stable and a well, in a forlorn, forgotten valley where the remainder of the film takes place. His daughter (Erika Bók) helps him unhitch the horse, undresses him, puts him into house clothes—we notice then that one of his arms is lame—lugs well water, and prepares their dinner of one boiled potato each, which he eats with joyless animal ravening. When there is a lull in the daily chores, they take turns staring out the window, watching the incessant tempest blow.
This pair, this house, are the film's universe. Following their morning shot of pálinka, we will watch them repeat these same domestic rituals with variations in camera choreography and performance in taxing real time, through the six largely housebound days that make up The Turin Horse—six days being enough to suggest the infinite loop, the interminable existence that has preceded what we see. Through each day, signs of life shrivel away: The woodworms go quiet, the old nag won't eat, the well runs dry. And finally, in an inversion of creation, God—that is, Tarr—proclaims, "Let there be dark."
The Turin Horse is Tarr's fifth film since 1988's Damnation, which began his collaboration with the novelist László Krasznahorkai, a writing relationship that seemingly consists of mutually reinforcing each other's sense of the end. Much like Tarr's grinding long takes, Krasznahorkai's novels ward off dilettantes with their pages of brick-like text written without the respite of paragraph breaks. Krasznahorkai's 1999 War & War contains a novel-within-a-novel whose author cannot find a prospect of peace for his characters anywhere in the whole of human history. A similar conclusion—that is, that man lives in a worst-case scenario—has been reached by one of the few visitors to the homestead in The Turin Horse, a neighbor who drops by to deliver a monologue about doomsday: "Everything, everything is lost forever."
Tarr, who is only 56, claims The Turin Horse as his last film, and it's hard to imagine a follow-up. Like Henry Adams, Tarr and Krasznahorkai point to entropy as the major agent in history; with The Turin Horse, a last testament movie that mocks the idea of enduring testaments, they have finally burned themselves cold.
Also dealing in Sisyphean toil, though not weighed down by it, The Miners' Hymns has its own "lost forever" world. Composed mostly of black-and-white footage from the British Film Institute National Archive, Hymns' subject seems, on the surface, distinctly English. The film is a requiem for the mines of Durham, in the country's northeast, where coal was the principal industry for well over a century. But despite—or perhaps because of—this regional particularity, it speaks eloquently about the disappearance of most any indigenous working-class culture.
Hymns was arranged by an American, Bill Morrison, who works in found-footage assemblage and repurposing, often with an anti-entropic, preservationist bent—his Decasia (2002) is a collage of variously desiccated silent films, while The Film of Her (1996), playing as part of a shorts program accompanying the 52-minute Hymns, turns the rescue of the Library of Congress's Paper Print Collection into a fable.
The Miners' Hymns begins with, and later briefly returns to, an aerial tour of the new Durham, with pauses to identify the sites of onetime generations-old collieries. On-screen dates of operational birth and death are imposed over the landmarks that have replaced them—big-box stores, the Sunderland AFC football stadium—totems of a producer society gone consumer, spectator.
This contemporary landscape is a counterpoint to the bulk of footage, which revisits Durham's industrial past. Early on, there is an almost narrative sequence, which begins with miners filing down darkened streets for early a.m. shifts; one kisses a safety lamp like a religious relic, and they descend into the pit's glittering blackness to rake the walls. From here, we follow the tumble and churn of loosed anthracite, the film becoming an industrial primer, a tribute to the awful, awesome power of the machine. All of this is also, incidentally, a tribute to another industry of yore—the dynamic standards of cinematography upheld by British cameramen working in industrial films. (Much of the material here is culled from the National Coal Board's original output.)
The quality of imagery decays concomitantly to the coal industry. We move to TV for coverage of the event that, as much as any other, put an end to Durham, the 1984–85 miners' strike, workers seen scrapping with coppers on charging horses. Then, in the film's final movement, Morrison returns to a scene from better days, that of Durham's annual Miners' Gala, where brass bands congregate under splendid Lodge banners and then march in processional to a service at the Durham Cathedral.
Approaching the cathedral, the film reaches emotional depths until now only hinted at. Honoring this convocation of two seemingly opposed organizations since much-depleted in influence—Marxist trade unions and the Church of England—and intertwining the nation's conservative and progressive heritage, Hymns achieves an elegiac note. For Morrison, more poet than politician, it is enough that something is lost to make it worth searching for.
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