Béla Tarr’s Slow Burn


Festivals, exhibitors, and critics maintain— both in practice and in attitude—an invisible demarcation between the avant-garde and the art film. On one side of this curatorial DMZ lie figures like Ken Jacobs or Jennifer Reeves, ghettoized in experimental sidebars, small-gauge cinematheques, and galleries, cultivating relatively insular but devoted audiences. Just over the border sits a mostly non-American panoply of visionary directors—say, for example, Claire Denis or Apichatpong Weerasethakul—more widely celebrated for their expansions of narrative form.

But this relatively recent aesthetic apartheid (was Warhol cordoned off from Godard in the ’60s?) feels increasingly untenable. Availability won’t work as a criterion; after all, New Yorkers have far more opportunities to see Stan Brakhage in theaters than Tsai Ming-liang, and DVD has made each equally available otherwise. Nor will a narrative versus non-narrative distinction hold: Stateside, at least, Reeves’s The Time We Killed was too often categorized as mere “experimental narrative,” unlike the equally idiosyncratic storyline of Apichatpong’s Tropical Malady. And let’s be frank: Mention names from either camp to the average moviegoer and you’ll elicit both blank stares and broken movie dates.

Nowhere is this false dichotomy more apparent than with the structurally daunting yet deeply rewarding cinema of Hungarian director Béla Tarr, whose trilogy of ultra-longform, oozingly slow narratives screen at the mercifully well-seat-cushioned theaters at BAM this week. Once relegated to obscure object of desire by hardcore cinephiles thanks to the rarity of its screenings, Tarr’s seven-plus-hour opus, Satantango (1994), provides the centerpiece, bookended by its relatively brief predecessor, the 122-minute Damnation (1988), and his most recent feature, Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), clocking in at little under half of Satantango’s duration.

Ponderous musings on misery, doom, and despair, set in apocalyptic Eastern European purgatories of feral dogs, relentless rain, and viscous mud, Tarr’s overwhelmingly bleak oeuvre makes Robert Bresson seem like an upbeat party animal by comparison. The signature Tarr shot—as unabashedly avant as anything by Michael Snow or James Benning—creeps unbroken for up to 10 minutes or more, smoothly panning in horizontal landscape scrolls, or tracking back at a snail’s pace to reveal lugubrious human interactions unfolding in real time, enforcing its own otherworldly pace in brazen defiance of our collective attention-deficit disorder. Each shot becomes a mini-movie in itself, prying open a rare opportunity for deep contemplation, then filling it with the bitter antimatter of spiritual desolation.

There are stories here, spun thin over these massive slabs of time. Satantango’s
overlapping, episodic time-dance follows the forlorn denizens of a collective farm facing its final days; even though the film requires a full waking day of devotion, it nonetheless remains obsessively captivating from beginning to end. Damnation follows another town’s characters through smaller circles with sharp, bleak realism, while Werckmeister Harmonies verges almost into magical-realist territory, chronicling the arrival of an ominous circus bearing pickled birth defects and an entire taxidermied whale. But Tarr is as much formalist as existentialist: Crumbling facades and storm-dampened concrete become abstract compositions under the long durée of Tarrian vision. In Satantango especially, minimalist sound design adds to the paradoxical unrealism. Man-made structures take on sickly organic life, while nature becomes as artificial as a soundstage.

Critics have rightfully hailed Tarr as one of filmdom’s criminally undersung geniuses; Susan Sontag once boasted that she saw Satantango over 15 times (likely the cause of her signature white hair streak). If 20th-century cinema begins with the montage frenzies of Vertov and Griffith, possessed by a cocksure project to remake history and the world, then it ends with the long sigh of Tarr, brutally conveying the inescapable weight of history and human limitation through monuments of unblinking vision.