Monday, June 12, 2006

Damnation by Bela Tarr

I first heard of the avant garde Hungarian film director Bela Tarr early this year when his mammoth masterpiece (it runs over seven hours) Satantango was being shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The New York Times had an ecstatic write up about the film and somewhere else the MOMA screening was called the "cultural event of the year". I was intrigued after reading about the film and his other work. So, I was naturally very excited when our film society decided to show Damnation this Friday and after seeing it, I don't hesitate a bit to call it a Masterpiece (yes, with the capital 'M').

This article in Kinoeye website has an excellent overview of Tarr's career so far. It also has this following plot summary of the film (although the film is essentially experimental, it also has a fairly conventional, if pared down, plot):

Damnation is close to being a genre film in its story of love and betrayal, a theme that Tarr has described as being very simple, —even "primitive." Karrer lives a withdrawn life in a mining community where his evenings all end up in the Titanik bar. He is offered a smuggling job by the bar's owner but passes it on to Sebestyn, husband of the singer at the bar. In Sebestyn's absence, Karrer and the wife sleep together and Karrer seeks a lasting relationship. He considers denouncing Sebestyn to the police. On Sebestyn's return, there is a confrontation between the two men and the bar owner takes the woman to his car, where they have sex. The next day, Karrer denounces them all. In the final scene, Karrer approaches a waste tip in the pouring rain where he confronts a barking dog. Getting down onto his hands and knees, he barks at it until it is forced into retreat.

What is most remarkable about the film is its style. It is shot in long, really long takes with the camera always tracking in extremely slow motion. And what exactly does the camera capture? Well, it is very difficult to say in words. Suffice to say that the end feeling is of relentless despair, defeat and irredeemable gloom. In fact Tarr's pessimism is so deep and his sense of futility is so profound that the film overall doesn't depress at all. Rather, it makes your own sadness look petty, boring and unartistic! There are few dialogues in the film but whenever some one speaks, it is some apocalytic aphorism. At one point Karrer confesses that "nothing scares him more than children with their bright eyes and cute little faces, because they swindle mankind into going on with this charade and condemn us all to an eternity of horror." A little later, in the same scene he muses, "if it made any sense to speak at all". Moreover, he is disgusted by the will to survive that animals, including human beings, show and condemns love as "that pathetic clinging"!

It is really very difficult to write anything about this film. It is incredibly rich in visual detail and it is not easy to reduce its subject matter to few thematic issues either. By the way, this was also one of the favourite films of Susan Sontag, the great American critic, who championed Tarr's films in her essays and lectures calling them, "some of the very few heroic violations of cinematic norms of our times".

I will just point to some articles on the net. Other than the kinoeye article, here is an overview by Jonathan Rosenbaum and a capsule review of the film here. Another review from the Guardian website (from where I took the quotes) here. Link to Tarr's interviews here and here.

I can't wait to get my hands on Werckmeister Harmonies and Satantango. The later though is still unreleased on DVD.

11 comments:

Arun said...

cruised in from ventilator blues blog.

I first hrd abt sontag while looking up the satanic verses controversy. quick search and wiki led me to her most fav movie: Damnation. Intrigued, I had to see the movie. Can't describe it in words, but just that its a work of art. Its said, satantango is his masterpiece. It is 7 hour long, but worth the patience, i hrd. Not seen it, but the length of the movie might be a reason why its still not on DVD. Wreckmaster Harmonies available on netflix. Worth every time invested!!

And I have not seen L'Eclisse and La Notte, but it wud be hard for any of those to surpass my admiration for Blowup!

Alok said...

thanks for dropping by Arun!

it is good to see someone already familiar with his work. damnation was like a revelation to me...
Werckmeister Harmonies is already high up on my to-see list!

Cheshire Cat said...

Damn, I envy you, Alok. Isn't Satantango the one based on "The Melancholy of Resistance"? Krasznahorkai has been translated into English (I wonder if the movie helped), and I checked the book out from the library once. Unfortunately, I didn't get past the first page. The book's virtues or lack thereof had little to do with it (though I should warn potential readers that K_ doesn't believe in paragraphs), just the customary laziness.

I remember reading somewhere that Sontag's favorite director was Sokurov, then Kiarostami, but Tarr was also high up on the list. She wasn't the nicest person, but she had great taste...

Alok said...

No, The Melancholy of Resistance was adapted into Werckmeister Harmonies which is actually the title of one of the chapters in the book (thats what I have heard, not having even seen the book yet!).

Melancholy is the only Krasznahorkai book that has been translated into English so far. Satantango is based on another of his novels and Damnation is based on a short story by him. Interestingly Tarr, Krasznahorkai and the editor of his films, who is also Tarr's real life partner, take joint credit for the authorship of the three films.

btw, what do you mean, "she wasn't the nicest person"? do you mean to say you knew her? damn!!

Alok said...

okay, one correction in the previous comment. His latest book War and War has also been translated into English.

link to the publisher's page.

Cheshire Cat said...

Yeah, that came out wrong. What I really meant to say is that she was an autodidact, inflexible, a bore. Well nigh intolerable, but her acuity saves her.

It's very unusual indeed to have a filmmaker and a novelist working together in such harmony. I can't think of any precedents for that...

ventilatorblues said...

Cheshire
Carol Reed and Graham Greene had a very fruitful partnership spanning three excellent films (Third Man, Fallen Idol and Our Man in Havana). Whether the relationship was harmonious or not, I dont know.

Cheshire Cat said...

vb, thanks, you're right. I have seen "The Third Man" and "The Fallen Idol", and I agree, they're both excellent. But I wonder if Greene counted his contributions in this regard as "entertainments" rather than serious fiction? Both Tarr and Krasznahorkai seem to be deeply serious, it's remarkable that their sensibilities gel so well together...

Alok said...

cat, you are right. Greene and Carol Reed worked closely but Greene didn't think of his contribution as equal to his other more "serious" works, as far as the independent status of his novel was concerned.

He has even said explicitly somewhere that the third man was meant to be seen and not read.

Tarr and Krasznahorkai collaboration is even more remarkable because they are both highly experimental artists both working in their own mediums and it is not a case of a straight-forward adaptation at all. Of course all of this is based on my reading of secondary sources only :)

Alok said...

Graham Greene on The Third Man

To the novelist, of course, his novel is the best he can do with a particular subject; he cannot help resenting many of the changes necessary for turning it into a film play; but The Third Man was never intended to be more than the raw material for a picture.

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