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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Béla Tarr by David Bordwell

The recent films of Bela Tarr constitute a referential archetype of what we call here "Contemplative Cinema", for lack of a better terminology (I don't know how to call it anymore), as they embody every aspect of this marginal trend of contemporary art cinema. The characteristics detailed in a previous post are Plotlessness, Slowness, Wordlessness, Alienation.
  • Bela Tarr eschews plot and storytelling, even refuses to answer questions dealing with that matter. He feels strongly about this choice to shift the focus of a film away from the narrative tradition, which is determinant for this "contemplative" generation of filmmakers.
  • Bela Tarr is famous for his monumental long takes, the absence of onscreen action and the slowness of his characters.
  • As far as dialogue, Bela Tarr is one of the most verbal of this trend, according to me), because he likes to give importance, at times, to a long piece of text (usually monologues), while other filmmakers avoid altogether grandiloquent discourse, either recording small talks without any immediate significance to the narration, or keeping their characters silent for the most part (Bartas, Weerasethakul, Alonso, Sokurov, Kitano). Although Tarr's characters are usually at least laconical, the intellectual speech plays an important role. The political theory of the Prince, or the speech about the Werckmeister Harmonies in the eponymous film. The motivational speech of Irimiás or the police interrogatory in Satantango.
  • Alienation is also a major trait of his films, where characters suffer from social isolation and navigate aimlessly in a world where connection is impossible or at least unreliable.

David Bordwell explains in a recent post, The sarcastic laments of Béla Tarr, various characteristics of Bela Tarr's style that could inform on a more general scope our understanding of what makes "contemplative cinema" different. In particular, he speaks of "Block construction" to define a non-narrative approach to film exposition.
There is no narrative beginning-middle-end structure to the shots, no dramatic cues to drive the plot and no cross-cutting. Thus the action focuses on the hic-et-nunc of a slice of life which only importance lies in the intrinsic mundane activity taking place. A vision of cinema content he calls "Behavioral cinema" (that would be interesting to compare it to what we know of C.C.).


"Tarr builds these films out of conversational blocks, punctuated by undramatic routines. The result is that often major plot actions take place offscreen, or rather in between the dialogues. Exposition that other filmmakers would give us up front is long delayed, with bits of information sprinkled through the entire film. (...) Further, by skipping over the most obviously dramatic incidents, Tarr’s storytelling joins that tradition of ellipsis celebrated by André Bazin in his essays on neorealism. No longer does the filmmaker have to show us every link in the causal chain, and no longer are some scenes peaks and others valleys. By deleting the obviously dramatic moments, the filmmaker forces us to concentrate on more mundane preambles and consequences. (...) This block construction yields an unusually objective narration. These films lack voice-overs, subjective flashbacks, dreams, and other tactics of psychological penetration. We have to watch the people from the outside, appraising them by what they say and do. It is a behavioral cinema."
"Tarr refuses as well to use crosscutting, which would show us various characters pursuing their activities at roughly the same time—another strategy that keeps us fastened to one relentlessly unfolding chain of actions and, usually, one character’s range of knowledge. The avoidance of crosscutting will have major structural implications in Sátántangó, which overlaps characters’ individual points of view by replaying certain events and stretches of time."
"Similarly, many long takes in the later films don’t present a beginning-middle-end structure. We simply follow a character walking toward or away from us, pushing into a stretch of time whose end isn’t signalled in any way. This becomes especially clear in those extended long shots in which a character walks away toward the horizon and the camera stays put. Traditionally, that signals an end to the scene, but Tarr holds the image, forcing us to watch the character shrink in the distance, until you think that you’ll be waiting forever. Likewise, the diabolical dance shots of Sátántangó, built on a wheezing accordion melody that seems to loop endlessly, are exhausting because no visual rhetoric, such as a track in or out, signals how and when they might conclude. Early and late, Tarr won’t hold out the promise of a visual climax to the shot, as Angelopoulos does; time need not have a stop."

"As I indicated at the end of Figures Traced in Light, he stands out as a distinctive creator in a contemporary tradition of ensemble staging. Like Tarkovsky, he shifts our attention from human action toward the touch and smells of the physical world. Like Antonioni and Angelopoulos, he employs “dead time” and landscapes to create a palpable sense of duration and distance. Like Sokurov in Whispering Pages (1993), he takes us into an eerie, Dostoevskian realm where characters are cruel, possessed, mesmerized, humiliated, and prey to false prophets. (...) Whether or not Tarr consciously joined a tradition, his practices do link him to several trends. Tarr has rejected the idea, floated by Jonathan, that his early films are indebted to Cassavetes, but there seems little doubt that by 1979, when Family Nest was released, it contributed to the fictional-vérité tradition, regardless of his intent. Likewise, his late films’ reliance on long takes is part of a broader tendency in European cinema after World War II. The neorealists taught us that you could make a film about a character walking through a city (The Bicycle Thieves, Germany Year Zero), and other directors, such as Resnais in the second half of Hiroshima mon Amour, developed this device. With Antonioni, Dwight Macdonald noted, “the talkies became the walkies.” Jancsó took Antonioni further (acknowledging the influence) in the endless striding and circling figures of The Round-Up, Silence and Cry, and The Red and the White. So even if there wasn’t any direct influence, Antonioni and Jancsó paved the way for Tarr; they made such walkathons as Sátántangó and Werckmeister thinkable as legitimate cinema."

I'm wondering about this "tradition of ensemble staging", it seems to suit better Tarr, than other contemplative filmmakers who prefer to isolate a couple of protagonists only. So we can't generalize this trait to the whole trend.
The attention to the corporality/physicality of the world, "dead time" and landscapes are however something we could observe across this trend.
As far as I am concerned, I don't care to figure out who came first, who influenced who, and if there is a legit lineage within this name-dropping. What's interesting here is to comfirm the plausible similitude, be it purely formal, between these auteurs, as to form a coherent set of thinkalike minds. It's obvious they didn't jump on the latest bandwagon or followed the steps of a mentor (except maybe a few exceptions like Gus Van Sant who admits to his influences). But it's interesting to witness several auteurs push toward the same direction at the same time, even without knowing the similar activity of their peers. It's the collective unconscious that is at work there, an expression of our time and space, a reaction to the state of our culture which affects us the same way anywhere in the world at this point.

"Visit any festival today, as Scott mentioned in our panel, and you’ll see plenty of films with long takes and fairly static staging. I criticize this fashion a bit in Figures, but it’s undeniably a major option on today’s menu. It’s even been picked up in contemporary American indies, with Gus Van Sant’s work from Elephant on offering prominent examples. He, of course, has been crucially influenced by Tarr, but Hou, Tsai Ming-liang, Sokurov, and other directors haven’t. We seem to have a case of stylistic convergence, with Tarr choosing to explore the long take at the same time others were doing so."

It's interesting for us that Bordwell acknowledges the existence of a trend in contemporary cinema with some of the auteurs we highlight in Contemplative Cinema (Tarr, HHH, Tsai, Sokurov, Gus Van Sant, and before that their likeminded precursors : Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Jancso, as well as other Hungarian filmmakers I've never heard of) who show a (coincidental) convergence of style (the long take). Personally I believe there is more than just camerawork, and that's what we are trying to demonstrate on this blog.
And the question he suggests is also one we should ask ourselves, about the reason why this convergence took place at this time in cinema history, whether it is a stylistic maturation, a logical continuation/mutation of the preceding movements of Neo-realism and Modernism, or if there is a cultural/political motive to confront the mainstream realm of Image and Spectacle.

"Tarr’s severe parables, grotesque and sarcastic in the manner of Kafka, don’t exude the religiosity we can find in some of this music or filmmaking, but, at least for me, they share the impulse to lament humans’ inability to transcend their brutish ways. “I just think about the quality of human life,” he remarks, “and when I say ‘shit’ I think I’m very close to it.”"

Tarr admits to an assertive misanthropy (which certain critics seem to feel uncomfortable about), or at least to be overtly pessimistic about today's human condition. If it's not man's nature that is responsible, it's the epoch of our society. And this is still a fairly minoritary concern within contemporean cinema. "Contemplative" filmmakers aren't necessarily gloomy or sadistic, but the absence of immediate reward, the hopeless pursuit of happiness, the conscious realisation of human lowest instincts make this perspective a more realistic view of the world than whatever simmering in the fantasy-deluded minds of mainstream screenwriters.


weepingsam said...

And the question he suggests is also one we should ask ourselves, about the reason why this convergence took place at this time in cinema history, whether it is a stylistic maturation, a logical continuation/mutation of the peceding mouvements of neo-realism and modernism, or if it there is a cultural/political motive to confront the mainstream realm of Image and Spectacle.

I might be turning into a devil's advocate on this a bit... But I think the answers turn out to be different for everyone involved. I need to write up my thoughts from seeing Pedro Costa and films last week - in his case, the answer seems to be something like a mix of the general mix of influences (Godard and Bresson and Ozu and Tourneur and I'd bet Herzog) and technology: his unhappiness with conventional filmmaking (35mm, crews, budgets, actors) - and the possibility of reinventing film-making with a video camera and some willing amateurs. His style is more or less a direct product of the machine: the ability to shoot with a crew of one, to shoot in available light, to shoot takes as long as he wants, the ability to shoot 200 hours of video to work with...

My suspicion is that they all tend to come to their styles by similarly individual paths. The links are likely to be the examples of other film makers - which is why I have tended to favor the historical approach of tracing geneologies from various precursors - the Antonioni branch, the Bresson branch, the neo-realist branch, the avant garde branch...

HarryTuttle said...

thanks for the comment. I don't think I disagree with you. And please, write up your thoughts.

We should separate the individual influences each auteur picked to build their personal style, and the collective influence that spawned the emergence of C.C. as a common trend. So the fact Tarr and Costa have distinct references doesn't invalidate the idea of a common mindset. What matters to us here is what they have in common, as we consider this group of filmmakers as a (virtual) global entity, a product of a certain cultural generation.

So maybe we should make a check list for the influences fitting pretty much everyone (and what particular trait did they pass along the genealogical tree) and the singular influences only defining a subgroup of our trend. Maybe that's what will help to refine the sub-families of this vast trend. I already tried to do something like this with my genealogy map, dividing them by columns of natural lineage (although it was mainly based on content rather than aesthetics).

What you say of Costa is intersting however, and I'm sure (like Bordwell's comments that are Tarr-specific) that we could extend this to other C.C. filmmakers. For instance the leeway granted by the limited digital video crew could be said of Sokourov's documentaries, Wang Bing, Jia Zhang-ke, Akerman, Alonso, Kiarostami...

But you're right, there is a major divide there between this new practice and the traditional big set crew needed for big productions like Won kar-wai's, Hou Hsiao-hsien's, Bela Tarr's, Sokurov's (big productions)... So we might need to investigate this. Is production an aesthetic characteristic discriminating C.C. filmmakers?

I can see the importance of non-actors in producing a non-conventional style. But I'm not so sure about the opposition between digital and 35mm anymore. In recent years many auteurs have proven that the digital image deserves the big screen and is not limited to the TV aesthetics.
Tarr also said he considered the commercially standardized length of a film roll was a censorship, but that digital video will not be an option for his cinema. And he makes longer takes than anyone, so it doesn't limit him more than others.

Carlos Ferrão said...

As a filmmaker (amateur!) who has worked with 16mm, 8mm, HD, Hi8 and VHS I can tell you that each format asks different questions of the director, actors, crew and the film itself. It's not just a question of budget either, but a "presence" that the camera has on set which is different for all these formats. A very simple example are the actor's rehearsals before a take. In digital most crews film these rehearsals anyway, so that in effect all the actor's performance, even if practice, is their performance. Whereas in film one would let the actors rehearse quite a lot before switching the camera on. Impossible for them to be the same thing.