Lots of people know Béla Tarr because Gus Van Sant name-checked him when he made Gerry a few years back. Others think of him with Theo Angelopoulos and Andrei Tarkovsky as one of the masters of the very long take.
The 7.5 hour, black and white Béla Tarr movie Sátantángó just played the Northwest Film Forum here in Seattle last weekend. I was only able to see half of the movie (just about four hours), due to a prior engagement that evening. That was a damn shame, but I figured half was better than none. I’ll probably watch it start-to-finish on DVD one of these days.
When people talk about this film, they always talk about its length and not its narrative. It’s easier, really, because the story is delivered even more slowly than the shots themselves. At first I thought it was about a group of folks gathering to split some ill-gotten money. It reminded me of a Western set in some frontier where ranchers are more common than cityfolk. In each chapter there is infighting, backbiting, sleeping around or greed, sometimes all of the above, and these genre elements spice up the movie, energizing even those long shots of people walking in the rainy, muddy, Hungarian countryside.
But in those first four hours, I never really did know how everybody was connected. I did get a little sleepy during the drunken doctor segment, and may have missed something crucial. On reading some reviews after, I discovered the folks are splitting the proceeds from the sale of their collective farm or something. And I did like the parallel storytelling, where every so often we would see a scene from a different character’s point of view, which is something that Van Sant did very well in Elephant.
Of course, Sátantángó is not just about plot. The opening shot could be a metaphor for the whole film (we are all animals in a herd following our basest instincts, perhaps?), where the static camera captures cows exiting a barn, with a slight pan left to capture the stud humping one. Then as the cows start walking off-camera left (something like four minutes into the shot) and the camera pans to watch them. THAT’S when the super-long dolly shot begins, all part of something like a 10-minute take.
I know it may not sound interesting to action movie fans, content-wise, but the quality of the black-and-white photography reminded me older films in a very nice way, and it's hard to imaging the cows being better choreographed, which begs the question of whether it was God or Béla Tarr directing them.
Some people get tired of Tarr’s miserablism, and I can understand that. Nothing seems destined to work out and it looks like everybody will end up unhappy. But because I looked at it as genre fiction rather than a reflection of Hungarian society and moods (and the end of Communism, as some have said), the ugly-on-the-inside characters didn’t bother me so much.
I actually found Sátantángó as stimulating as a good Hollywood action film, albeit at a different pace. Instead of impossible actions cut together to look real, there were impossible-looking shots that shifted halfway through thanks to a surprise (to me) dolly move that would change the look and the feel of the film. If that makes sense.
One of the last bits I saw before I had to leave was the semi-tangential story of the little girl and the cat which totally reminded me of Bresson's Mouchette, complete with Eastern European animal cruelty. That little girl turned in an amazing, occassionally hard to watch, and ultimately moving performance.
Heck, maybe the movie is uneven, but it’s still worth seeing. I'm totally looking forward to watching the whole damn thing, straight through, whether it's on DVD or at another rare theatrical screening.