Tuesday, June 12, 2012


1. At three hours, a film aspires to a certain grandeur, something along the lines of Michelango’s The Last Judgement. At four, it’s the whole Sistine Chapel. At seven, it might as well be all of Rome. And Satantango would be the city in ruins, abandoned to rain and rust, populated only by dour ghosts with no one left to haunt.

There is no sensible reason for any living person to visit this place. And surely one might rightly wonder what good could come of dedicating seven hours of life to this particularly austere branch of Hungarian art cinema. Normally, I frown at such talk as hopelessly philistine and sort of impolite (leave me to my five-minute tracking shots of muddy cows and stick to your own damn heathen amusements), but I’ll entertain doubts when being asked to commit the equivalent of one whole working day to someone’s artistic vision.

Once a film grows to these proportions, however, it becomes difficult to even consider its merits. Not necessarily because these things don’t matter anymore—they do, and I’ll yammer on about them right away, I promise—but because it has turned into an immovable object. Commit yourself to Satantango, and you’re no longer asking if the experience is worth it. For better or worse, it’s done. You’ve gone through it and come out the other side. What does it matter if the film was good or bad? There’s only one question that matters here: Am I the same person after watching it?

But first, what is “it”?

2. Much as one can’t capture a whole city by describing a street corner, Bela Tarr’s sprawling seven-hour epic can hardly be summarized through a discussion of mere plot. Not to say that there isn’t a plot—there’s plot in spades, reams of it, stuffed into corners and spilling out of drawers, plot on the floor, plot in the cupboard, everywhere and anywhere. There’s betrayal and greed, sex and violence, joy and despair. Beyond that, there are strange digressions and weird, ecstatic visions. Dreams are described. Much alcohol is consumed. The centrepiece of the film is a drunken dance party where the normally miserable peasants stomp and sing and walk around with cheese rolls balanced on their foreheads before passing out and becoming swallowed up in spider webs, like relics in a museum basement.

As a story, the film is almost simplistic. Although there’s no real central character, much of what happens revolves around Irimias, a charismatic man of questionable morals who comes to a failed farming commune with the intention of settling old scores and bilking his comrades out of their paychecks. A sorrowful lot trapped in a cold, damp Hungarian hell, the former communards are especially vulnerable to any promise of a better tomorrow (Futaki, the strongest personality in the whole bunch, has no bigger hope than to soak his feet in hot water every day). The fact that a mentally disturbed child has killed herself only makes the villagers all the more vulnerable to Irimias’ righteous shaming of the entire community. Even as Tarr engages in elliptical storytelling, sometimes doubling back to retell earlier events from different perspectives, the story itself remains engrossing and clear in its allegorical purposes.

But why describe the plot? Is that what the film is about? Why not describe the animals? You could just as easily summarize the film as a herd of cattle in the rain, a pig in the mud, a cat tortured and killed, an owl on a balcony. Or why not describe the rain, the ever-present rain, which is basically the lead character, at least judging by the amount of screen time afforded it? Or perhaps you could describe the landscape, which speaks as eloquently as the finest storyteller? There is so much in this film beyond its characters and story; the humans and their little troubles matter, but no more than any other element of the film. Sure, the sexual dalliance between Futaki and Mrs. Schmidt near the beginning of the film is a significant incident, but Tarr spends much of his time focused on the kitchen table and the chair, while life happens somewhere just off screen. We hear the pair scheming and musing on their crushing, confining lives, but so what? The chair has its problems, too.

3. Like any hefty epic, this film carries with it the inherent gravity of artistic intention. In other words, if you’re making a deliberate artistic statement, then you must be deadly serious, right? This is the same pernicious attitude that assumes Herman Melville could somehow write things like “Queequeg was George Washington, cannibalistically developed” without smirking or that an often reserved filmmaker like Yasujiro Ozu would never stoop so low as to make jokes about children shitting their pants in a farting contest (Good Morning, check it out).

Yet for all its grey misery and rain-soaked squalor, Satantango is funny, and sometimes even brutally, ridiculously hilarious. Aside from the fact that one of the key structuring images is a pig wallowing in the mud and filth, the film is littered with verbal gags and droll non sequiturs (one member of this miserabilist chorus dreams of a better future: “I’ll be a watchman in a chocolate factory. Or a porter in a girls’ dormitory”). Yes, the film is also deeply serious, but this is the challenge Tarr has taken on for himself, and perhaps his greatest achievement here. He has molded a tragedy out of a group of comic misfits, losing none of the humour as he reaches for pathos. It is a King Lear in which the Fool plays every part.

While each individual’s fate is often tragic, or at least pitiable, the grand sweep of history on display here is clearly fodder for comedy. History is not written by the losers or winners, but the ignorant and the deranged—people too removed from reality to actually play a part in the pageant they describe. In the police office, two clerks go over a report authored by Irimias, who offers sneering indictments of his acolytes, all of whom are portrayed as pathetic, stupid and somewhat unhygienic. Rewriting the harsh descriptions, the two clerks provided a bemused commentary of their own as they revise the record, reducing everything into the doughy, formless language of bureaucracy.

Whatever truth is to be found about these people is left up to the village historian, the doctor. Locked up in his house with his books and his alcoholism, the doctor sits all day at his window, recording the comings and goings of the townspeople in his notebook. In a final, crucial joke, he is sent to the hospital for 13 days to recover from a desperate midnight ramble, but when he returns, he is unaware that the village is now deserted. He returns to his chair, writing in his notebook that everyone is apparently too afraid to leave their homes. The death of the community becomes the end of history, and the doctor’s response is simple and almost logical—he shutters his own window.

4. In the bar, a drunk man drones on in the background, recounting his encounter with Irimias endlessly, trapped in some sort of damaged feedback loop where he just keeps repeating the same words over and over until they break down and become sonic paste: gunpowder, grasshoppers, Steigerwald. For a film so attuned to empty spaces and silent pauses, Satantango is remarkably attentive to the vagaries of language (perhaps a lingering trace of the film’s literary origins, as a novel by Laszlo Krasznahorkai). The man in the bar, besotted with beer and verbs, serves as the film’s chief linguistic theorist, offering up a practical demonstration of the mass delusion that is the socially agreed upon meanings necessary for language to function. Or, as he explains to no one in particular, there’s a huge difference between plodding and plodding.

You don’t really begin to appreciate just what a fine joke this really is until about the eighth or ninth instance of someone silently, doggedly trudging through the rain and the mud. If this film were a doctoral thesis, it would be called “‘How’s my plodding?’: The psychological function of walking in late-20th century Hungarian agrarian cultures.” The natural place of these people is not at rest, secure in their homes. Nor is it striving towards a destination, confidently entering with the knowledge that you are expected inside. It’s in-between, exposed, whether as a drunk belching in the ditch as he shuffles forth lamely in search of fruity brandy or a group tramping through the storm, collars turned up against the rain as the refuse of the world congregates at their feet like tiny tribes worshipping stone-faced gods.

5. At one point, in his home, the doctor collapses, and I am seized with panic, and not just because something has suddenly, shockingly actually happened, a real dramatic incident on screen in front of us, good lord, it’s like Tarr has gone Hollywood on us, but I truly fear the doctor is dead, and I ask myself is this what life comes to, dead alone in a room, and my panic comes because I see myself in the doctor, he had his brandy and I’ve got my Tarr, we’re both holed up with our spirits, I need to get out of this room, the air is growing thin, I need to get out before they find my corpse, the light from the DVD menu screen flickering across my face like a candle at a vigil, oh god it’s me call the doctor I’m the doctor call the doctor let me out out out and oh wait, never mind, he’s just drunk, just drunk, false alarm, next chapter, please.

6. Abandoned between capitalism and communism, the villagers seem on the verge of sliding into some proto-industrial purgatory (one of the only jobs in sight is prostitution, and even that doesn’t pay anymore). Everyone reels about for a guiding principle to provide at least a meager sense of direction and purpose to life. Apparently too petulant and selfish to function as a collective, the group also lacks the ruthlessness necessary to be effective capitalists. It’s not for nothing that Irimias derides them all as slaves without a master.

The film’s final sequence is a potent vision of this desperate, rootless quality. In a monologue delivered in total blackness—this scene only screens in your mind’s eye, sorry—the doctor tells us of a dream he had once. Futaki is called forth by the sound of distant bells, but he discovers only a small church, the tower collapsed and no bells to be found anywhere. Standing amidst the wreckage of history, the villagers are similarly confused. The collective collapsed and the communist dream dead, the people live on, sleepwalkers awakened in strange environs, no longer certain what brought them to this place. They seek out jobs and live unfamiliar lives, holding all the while to the irrational belief that one day everything lost will be restored. Numb, sleep-drunk, they rub their eyes and stumble through the grey new world. Was anything ever real at all?

7. “Well, did you enjoy yourself?”
“All right.”
“Did you see the metro?”
“What have you done, then?”
“I’ve aged.”
—Raymond Queneau, Zazie in the Metro

No comments: