March 14, 2010

Bela Tarr

"First of all, I’d like to make it clear there are no allegories in any of my films. There are no symbols and such metaphysical things … The instrument we call the lens can only record real things which are there."
--Bela Tarr, in an interview with Jonathan Romney, London, 2001, on the Artificial Eye DVD of Werckmeister Harmonies.
One of the interesting things about the 40-minute interview Bela Tarr has with journalist Jonathan Romney on the Werckmeister Harmonies DVD, with Tarr speaking in Hungarian next to an onstage translator before or after a London screening, is the way that Tarr says "we" almost every time he talks about his process. So that should be their process: Tarr plus editor and occasional co-director (and spouse) Agnes Hranitzky, composer Mihaly Vig, writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai. We're used to an idea that works of art spring complete from the mind of an individual genius, especially in art cinema with its auteur cults, and the warmest reception for Tarr's slow cinema has been on the festival circuit. Instead, here is an idea of Tarr and his collaborators operating more impersonally, like an experimental film-making group, a research and development unit. These are some of the questions they might have set out to test: How might film language be taken apart and reassembled? How do you make the time and space that a story moves through more material to the audience? Can you do minimalism without looking like you are aspiring towards something mystical? Is the evasion of philosophy itself a philosophy? Their homemade version of neo-realism became something recognisably Tarr-esque -- slow, muddy, black-humoured -- by the time they got to Damnation (1988); this film and ones that followed were praised by Susan Sontag as “some of the very few heroic violations of cinematic norms of our times”. A major violation was around the unfolding of time. In the peculiar, insular, grave masterpiece Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) -- secularised Tarkovsky; phantasmagoric realism -- there are only 39 individual shots in a film that stretches to two hours and 25 minutes. That evasion of philosophy has been mastered too: asked why there were such long sequences of people walking in Werckmeister Harmonies – an idea picked up by Gus Van Sant in his openly Tarr-influenced Elephant -- he has said, that’s how long it took them to get there.
When I asked Bela Tarr what the whale [in Werckmeister Harmonies] meant for him, he answered, "I don't really like talking about individual things in my films." I was reduced to asking him how he built the whale. "It was a lot of iron, some plastic. We had a scientist girl come in to design it."
-- Gabe Klinger, in Senses of Cinema.