Thursday, November 25, 2010

Bela Tarr: some thoughts

for Roxana, who is a mind reader

Perhaps an Eastern European or specifically a Hungarian Post-apocalypse will look exactly as Bela Tarr shows us in his movies. Deserted villages and towns, empty vacant roads, tired and muddy during the day and then forbidding and forlorn at night. The street lights don't light anything except a sinister emptiness, a forbidding solitude. Or may be the apocalypse has struck and left the remaining few survivors, who seem guilt ridden and as empty and vacant as the streets. The houses they inhabit are dark and cold, one can feel the damp rise and the outer mist and fog somehow exudes inside not just the bricks and wood but the nerves and bones of the remaining few. The only places that show signs of life are the public houses, where a hedonistic and rampant kind of drinking goes on. It is a kind of senselessness of the body or bodies, wherein the people alive or seemingly so are living without any visible remnants of outwardly volition.

The bawdy and almost senseless drinking exudes nothing except a paralysis of mind and senses, a numbing of the very souls of these numb people. Since there is no one on the streets, there are a few in these public houses. There are some performers too. This is so in the long dance sequence in Satantango. That dance sequence typifies this emotional and moral malaise. A different kind of routine follows in Werkmeister Harmonies. Here, the drunks perform, and such is the physical affliction, they do so inspite of themselves. The collaboration of Tarr and krasznahorkai should not be overlooked. As in Harmonies and later on in Satantango, the novelist Krasznohorkai achieves a depiction of an inner restlessness that is embodied in the behaviour of the bodies concerned: In his War & War and in The Melancholy of Resistance, it is existential concerns that are the main theme of his novels. It is as if everything is broken and cannot be fixed. Seen from the Post- Soviet perspective, it is as though the long communist or dictatorial regimes have left the populace devoid of what they might have possessed. Krasznohorkai has exploited that anguish in his novels without giving them the music that one wants to hear again and again. Or in other words, any comparison with Kafka is fallacious for Kafka's world is essentially religious.

Existential despair can perhaps arise out of a crisis of thought or else after a collapse of previously held cognitions. It cannot suddenly substitute for all other ills. If communist states deprived their citizens of certain essential freedoms, it is because ideas about citizenship were not allowed to thrive. However, for any kind of alternate ideologies to flourish, which also allow certain people to become spiritual, a certain space for discourse is essential. It is perhaps that space that can be exploited in various art forms. Personally, I find depiction of existential crises in fiction or in cinema quite boring. This alienation business seems thoroughly middle class. Get on with life seems a better option rather than depict neurotic females like Antonioni did. This alienation bogey has now been overplayed long enough. It implies a very cunning hypocrisy as I see it. The place where Tarr succeeds is actually in depicting the alienation of the entire landscape from man completely. His places are always cold. The weather in Werkmeister is a character too as in Satantango. Such a device is perhaps used as a personifying element. The frozen nature of the night, the lack of electricity, the scarcity of drinking water, here and in other locations are thus used to reflect a kind of spiritual tristresse. It thus seems, after observing this world, that, existential despair is an occupation of the middle classes. The working classes can only act as a back drop on this essentially middle class business of angst.

Compare this to the bleak landscapes of Antonioni which are stylish, almost like paintings and his women, who are quite good looking and depressed. The stylish city scapes reflect a growing post war distaste of modern amenities. No cause for the sadness of Antonioni's women is obvious. It seems as if the very material advances that have made their lives easy are depressing them. In La avventura, as soon as one main character disappears, her friend, the central female character, never flinches whilst being kissed by friends fiancé. That depression induced by technological advances can be balanced by promiscuous sexual acts seems acceptable to Antonioni's neurotic creations. In Tarr however, it is as if the entire community of people have surrendered after witnessing an event of enormous magnitude. Here, bawdy sexuality is the norm rather than an exception.

It is entirely possible that Tarr shows us a moral fibre that totalitarian rule has produced or that energy sapping state of the soul that only allows a certain movement of the limbs and permits nothing other than hedonism. However, to situate Tarr only in a totalitarian space or Hungarian space will be an injustice to his work. In essence, his movies depict a state of men and women in slumber, in lassitude. That such states of mind can exist is his concern. He is also concerned with the lack of any positive or life affirming stance on the part of these souls or that they lack souls entirely? Tarr thus depicts, if symbolically the state of men and women who have taken a back seat and are thus virtually waiting for a messiah. In Satantango, this clearly seemed to me to be the case and in the first moment of Harmonies, the main character is defintely giving a demonstration. Too much is written nowadays about the effect of politics and social policies on modern conditions of our lives but unless the change comes from within, there can be no fruit in waiting for some one to come and effect a change.

Tarr is a supreme artist. His work demonstrates the effect of moral ineptitude. The bawdiness and the ugliness he shows is not something he relishes but something that he finds revolting to say the least. However, he is also a realist and in his portrayals, he shows very artistically the damaged fabric of our times. Inevitably, this will lead to existential interpretations of his work, especially because of his collaborations with Krasznohorkai. One would like to see these movies outside of a specific landscape and linger and think that essentially all human experiences are similar.

1 comment:

Roxana said...

if only i were a mind-reader! :-)

but you seem to be one too, since you also posted about Contempt when i was just about to watch the film! not to mention the Japanese coincidences...

this post is particularly challenging for me, since i was born and raised in the same universe. ever bleaker. though i haven't managed to see Tarr's films until now, i've intended to for quite some time, as you know.
i have to ponder longer before answering more.