Thursday, January 14, 2010
Satantango: Take 2
Bela Tarr puts me into a trance. If you haven't been able to infer from my numerous appreciations of his films in the past, I can't help but be drawn to his work. I also can't help but feel the overwhelming desire to write anew about individual films each time I rewatch them, to revise my own sloppy thoughts, to expand upon something only hinted at, or to express something entirely new that came out of a viewing. I don't want to give the impression that I think Tarr can do no wrong, or that I would kiss his feet if ever in his presence, because I will readily admit that his films certainly have their moments - however rare - of tedium, moments where I just wish he would get on with it. Yet at the same time, I feel something extremely special when I watch his films. Something tells me he is a savior of the cinema, a sign of clairvoyance whose importance will most likely not be fully recognized until after it's too late. In a sense, he is the messiah that the ill-fated characters in Satantango only hoped the ominous Irimias would be, a man who could lift them from their mundane existence towards a more comfortable and sustainable future. So it is with this outlandish enthusiasm that I return to his films, even at their most taxing, which is certainly the case with Satantango.
And yet, despite all of the analytical chops I like to think I have acquired throughout my years of film viewing, Tarr's glorious hunker of celluloid maintains a core of inscrutability, of cosmic cinematic feng shui that may never be understood logically, despite all of the director's steadfast denials of metaphysics. Something sacred is going on here, and perhaps it would take seven viewings (that is, one for every hour that the film runs) in order to grasp it or articulate it, but this lack of knowing precisely does not slacken the impact of the present experience. Quite the contrary, in fact. It seems that for every plot thread that is either slightly underdeveloped or left deliberately ambiguous (and I mean deeply, deeply ambiguous; Tarr doesn't give much of anything to assist in interpreting some parts of the film), and for every blatant diversion from the ostensible "story" that Tarr unabashedly indulges in, Satantango grows more tantalizing, beckoning you further into its simultaneously prosaic and sinister atmosphere. Consider the IMDB-ready synopsis of the film: a dilapidated farm collective in post-Communist Hungary awaits their yearly wages while becoming anxious about the impending arrival of a prophetic figure named Irimias and his sidekick Petrina, whom they know could potentially destroy their well-being or enhance it. Ultimately, following tragic events in the village, Irimias lures the rural folk into his convoluted plan, ending up with all of their treasured wages in his coat pocket.
This straightforward aggregation tells you everything and nothing about the film. It's true that it covers the major narrative action in it, and it would suffice if you were to ever to be put in the situation of informing someone of what the hell a seven hour movie could be about, but it would almost have to be followed by an acknowledgment of the scant importance the story plays in the overall cinematic experience. Instead, the events that take place are more a vehicle for exploring Tarr's characteristic concerns, for putting characters - or more fittingly, real people, given his affinity for using the same non-professional actors time and again - into situations that test their dignity and moral certitude, but even more for simply immersing us in a powerfully concrete space and time. Before trying to decide what the film is about, Tarr would prefer you to shut down all interpretive frameworks and give yourself over to the visceral presence of the film, to literally live alongside the characters for the duration, if not physically then pretty damn close to it. The in-your-face tactility of Satantango may explain why it is so difficult at times to grapple with on a narrative level, for the purely experiential dimension of it supersedes the dramatic details. After all, this is not a Lisandro Alonso film we're talking about, where the physical weight of the film is the be-all and end-all, but rather a film that is equal parts physically immersive and substance-driven.
An episode of Satantango that would be instructive in this regard - that is, it embodies the balance the film tries to maintain between these two viewing apparatuses - is the first sequences with the doctor (Peter Berling), the third chapter of the film (out of twelve, a number rooted in Laszlo Krasznahorkai's novel of the same name). The episode is possibly the film's most intimate, and therefore most penetrating and direct, in terms of its relation to the audience. The silently pirouetting camera observes the obese doctor sitting before a messy gathering of papers and such at his desk, peering out at the comings-and-goings of the local villagers and recording their actions in his notebook, the image alternating focal trajectory several times over the course of one unbroken take, an amazingly unfussy act of technical wizardry. Nothing much occurs in this sequence other than the repetitious heavy breathing of the doctor interspersed by his periodic swings of Fruit Brandy and his dispassionate murmurs while jotting down notes. Yet because of Tarr's extremely tight observation in claustrophobic, grimy quarters, we are completely, even uncomfortably submerged in the physical moment. The near silence further accentuates this intimacy, because such quietude in films is usually reciprocated by something unexpected, something to jolt you out of your seat, but when that moment is prolonged further and further, a strange tension is born out of the interplay between the verisimilitude and the expected change of pace.
With all of these simple surface preoccupations that accompany the viewing experience of this individual scene, it's easy to miss the narrative and thematic undercurrents that it establishes. For instance, the episode is introduced by a classic binocular effect assuming the doctor's point-of-view as he focuses out his window on the rainy, muddy streets. We see this before we even see who is using these binoculars. The voyeuristic nature of the scene is a self-reflexive device used by Tarr; by first supplying us the subjective experience of looking through the binoculars, he is aligning us, the audience, with the doctor as his surrogate. We too are observing the disjointed events that take place in the village, gathering hard evidence and making overall assumptions based on it. This stance acquires added significance in the final scene when the doctor, in a striking bit of cynicism, boards up his windows for good, blocking off his view from the outside world, and by extension ours. The film ends, and we can no longer see what happens. What also occurs in the scene is the fascinating, potentially multivalent line that is drawn from the doctor to the police investigators who are seen throughout the film seemingly in cahoots with Irimias, because of the doctor's propensity to oversee everything and make judgments at face value. Perhaps it is significant that Tarr makes him a retired doctor, a profession meant to singlehandedly help people rather than punish them. Social critique seems to inadvertently attach itself to this equalization of the law, the doctor, and the moviegoer.
Like the doctor, it is frequently difficult to refrain from judging the characters based upon their actions. Tarr however, separates himself from a director like Terrence Malick (at least in a film like Badlands), who supplies the audience no inkling of a backstory to help understand a character's motivations, leaving us only with their physical behavior and surroundings. Granted, you're unlikely to ever get any explicit mention of motivations in Satantango, and storytelling devices such as flashbacks or foreshadowing are basically extinct from Tarr's cinematic vernacular, but at the very least he discovers a way to weave in some assistance. The infamous cat torture scene, when a young, mentally challenged girl named Estike (Erika Bók) scurries into a loft and disturbingly asserts her power over a stray cat, attests to this. Earlier in the film, her older brother Sanyi (András Bodnár) informs the approaching Irimias and Petrina of the conditions in the village, even telling them what a headcase Estike is and how she is beaten by her mother as punishment. Prior to the cat scene, Estike is forcefully instructed by her mother to remain seated outside their house on a dirty chair, and directly before this, we watch Sanyi trick her into believing that she can plant a money tree. She is clearly a lonely, neglected girl, and her spontaneous desire to express her dominance over the innocent cat is a displacement of that angst, a way of mirroring her own mother's actions towards her.
What follows is one of the most devastatingly sublime scenes in the film. First, she watches the cat's slow demise after force-feeding it rat poison. Then, after wandering into the rainy night and being viciously ignored by the doctor (a moment witnessed earlier in the film from the doctor's point of view), she escapes into the remains of a wooded church (a location that has all the spiritual dissolution of a similar spot in Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev) and consumes the rat poison herself. Resting the cat lovingly in her bosom, she lies down to face her passing and Tarr introduces an excerpt from Krasznahorkai's novel about her peaceful death. It's a beautiful, forgiving moment that urges us to reconsider any automatic judgments we made based on her treatment of the animal. Though Tarr's a decidedly earthbound auteur, the scene is effortlessly transcendent. The most curious part about it though is her clinician's approach toward putting the finishing touches of both her and the cat's life, acts that feel as calculated and premeditated as the vile, selfish acts that they inspire. With all the deftness of a frighteningly precise dictator, Irimias twists what starts as an eloquent elegy to Estike's life as well as an acknowledgment of the collective blame required into a discussion of his own plan for the villagers, which involves them shamefully handing their wages over to him.
If Tarr's primary goal is to not judge his characters, thereby implying the audience should not judge his characters either, he certainly pushes more buttons with Irimias, albeit in a more ambiguous manner when placed aside the directness of the cat episode. Satantango's most continuously probing question, at least on a narrative level, is this: is Irimias truly interested in helping the villagers or is he a selfish conman, focused primarily on squeezing the most money out of the situation for himself at the expense of a group of people? Being mindful of Tarr's preference of "real people" - meaning rural peasants - over bureaucratic organizations, it seems inevitable that his sympathies would lie with the villagers, even though they are often presented as conniving and greedy, such as in an early scene when Schmidt (László feLugossy), Mrs. Schmidt (Éva Almássy Albert), and Futaki (Miklós Székely B.) plan on ditching the town with all of the wages. Yet at the same time, there are moments that suggest that Irimias is not so bad after all, like when he sends the group to an abandoned manor, leaves them thinking he will not reconvene with them (he has the money at this point anyways), but eventually shows up with new plans and unerring dedication. Is this only a move that will set him up for more monetary gain later?
Of course, Tarr ultimately does not reveal the final result of this supposed plan, ending the film on the most enigmatic note possible instead. He simply shows us the last exchange between Irimias and the villagers, which involves him providing them directions in town as to how to acquire the jobs he has set up for them. This, he tells them, is a necessary step to take on the way to achieving the prosperous farm they hope for. They vanish into town and we never hear about how it worked out, if there were even jobs at all. The telling scene occurs afterward, when two police officials transcribe a report written to them from Irimias speaking negatively, and very harshly, about the state of the villagers. This prolonged, dispassionate jibber-jabber between the two cops (one of those rare scenes I was talking about when Tarr really pushes it) persuasively suggests that Irimias sold them down the river for good, but simultaneously they could be lies off his pen. After all, what exactly is the link between Irimias and the policemen throughout the film? Is he a loyal spy for them, or is he like the figure in Pickpocket, as resistant to the law as he is devoted to true freedom?
Questions like these pile up throughout the experience of watching Satantango, in every one of the film's carefully orchestrated scenes. They're enticing questions that propel the film forward even during its more static stretches. I see this essay as part of what may become an ongoing series, perhaps to be expanded upon every time I rewatch the film, perhaps even as a fitting seven-part series. It's nearly impossible to fully address the sprawling majesty of the work in one all-encompassing essay; rather, it's something that would warrant an entire book. For instance, I haven't even begun to hammer away at what this all means, although I do have my theories. I can't imagine though that I'll ever truly have this masterpiece fully figured out. Still, that won't stop me from trying.