B

‘Satantango’ has been hailed the last great modernist film of the 20th century.

Michael Garberich

.I imagine Béla Tarr regards critics’ wide praise for his monumental film, the seven-hour and 15-minute “Satantango” (1994), as all of his films, not without a hint of humility, proud though he is of each.

“I like very much all of my movies,” Tarr said during his visit to the University in mid-September. “They are my kids: One has a little bit of a big head, another a big nose, but I like all of them very much.”

“Werckmeister Harmonies”

DIRECTED BY: Béla Tarr
SCREENING: 7:30 p.m., Oct. 12.

“Satantango”

DIRECTED BY: Béla Tarr
SCREENING: 1 p.m., Oct. 13, with one 30-minute intermission and one 60-minute intermission

“Man From London”

DIRECTED BY: Béla Tarr
SCREENING: 7:30 p.m., Oct. 20; 2 p.m., Oct. 21.

SHOWING AT: Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
www.walkerart.org

Here was Béla Tarr, the infamously irascible Hungarian filmmaker, a man of impressive physical as well as artistic stature, and a self-described “strict autocrat,” sitting at a table with his shoulders heavily stooped over its top, explaining his relationship to his films with the vocabulary and the tenderness of a father pressured into appraising his children.

His children, his films, despite all their superficial poverty (no doubt informed by a very deep and real poverty) are among the grandest in contemporary cinema.

The late Susan Sontag had said as much in the original draft of her essay “The Decay of Cinema,” before all mention of Tarr went conspicuously missing upon the essay’s publication in the Sunday Magazine of The New York Times. It was 1996 and Sontag was writing against the demise of cinema and cinephiles, both of which, for her, had “decayed” as cinema’s artistic integrity declined in direct proportion to the medium’s rise in the international market – through co-productions and, finally, with home distribution. For Sontag, if the cinema had birthed a new art form into the world, the home had killed it, buried it and left it to decompose.

But her view was a survey, and a misguided one, one that even today reads hopelessly defeated, its pertinence and rhetorical passion notwithstanding. That the American industries of film and journalism left nothing remaining of Tarr’s depleted Eastern European farming community – the setting and subject of “Satantango” – even as it intended to support and rebuild it, is an unsurprising irony. But history has hewn Sontag to her task (she unsuccessfully attempted to withdraw the essay when she heard about the omission), the impossible task of the critic: to report on the past, however contemporaneous it might be, entertaining yourself and others with the belief that together you are shaping the future.

Béla Tarr is shaping the present.

And it is a peculiar shape. Its seven hours and 15 minutes are black and white for every frame; its story, adapted from and modeled after Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s novel, takes six steps forward before retracing its path with another six back, thus completing the tango, and the film’s 12 parts. Tarr’s camera tracks through muddy fields, through bare forests; it dollies down empty, dogged dirt roads, ahead of gales that howl at the backs of devilish men under heavy rain; it hovers amid passes of thick fog that threaten to obscure the image completely, before vanishing as if pulled as a linen cover from a sofa in an unused room. His camera carefully shapes the film, and becomes a part of that shape.

The farming community gradually dissolves, precipitated by the return of Irimias, a demagogue thought dead. But before it dissolves, we acutely, painfully and patiently observe its inhabitants, several of them closely and for great measures of time. It is a film over seven hours long, after all.

Yet, in “Satantango,” observing does not mean understanding. This is not anthropology; nor is it an exercise in self-identification. The film’s resistance to narrative, which is never absent, only latent, offers something different: It offers the occasion to contemplate.

Tarr’s extended tracking and dolly shots often advance without the characters they had just framed, or the characters move out of the frame and rather than cutting, as the dictates of narration suggest, we observe. Then, with our sense of time extending beyond that required for observation, we find we have been invited to contemplate. Sometimes the camera does not move. Instead, it centers over a road, splitting the frame, and characters walk along it until they reach the vanishing point where everything disappears – the road, the characters, the narration, everything but the possibility for contemplation.

To echo Tarr’s words during the Regis Dialogue at the Walker Art Center in September, “they” have more capacity than possibility.” He was referring to the disputing couple in his first film, “Family Nest,” made when he was 22, when his films, as he has described them, were concerned with “the social.”

As he moved from his early “social” films to his later, as he called them, “ontological” films, it was not his characters, but his audience he seemed to address. Even the condition changed. No longer was there more capacity than possibility; now he was dealing with an audience whose possibility had exceeded its capacity – its capacity to contemplate, its capacity to observe, and confronted by “Satantango’s” daunting run-time, its capacity to do nothing but watch. And what of possibility? The audience had the time, the leisure (and eventually, most importantly, the distribution) that make watching a seven-hour and 15-minute movie possible.

More than once in the film, a massive doctor, stertorous and slow moving, watches his neighbors from his desk and writes their activity in his journal, the entire time growing drunk off fruit brandy. The frame cannot contain him, and instead of trying to, it slowly closes in on his head from behind, then in one fluid, albeit unhurried motion, it locates his profile in an extreme close-up. By this time we have exceeded all narrative value, all observational value. We have entered contemplation, which requires no regulated time, and we find ourselves wondering, and with patience, contemplating, what value can this have?

The increasing admission prices to the multiplex – upward of $8 if you miss the matinee – have rightfully left audiences dubious toward the cinema. The phrase, “I’ll wait to rent it,” would probably appall Sontag, and probably, it did. Or, owing to the cinema in question, she might have acceded with a nod, saying, “Of course, this is the price we have paid.”

Tarr’s films, his later films especially, and for our occasion, “Satantango” in particular, exist as an alternative to narrative cinema, which Tarr has repeatedly called, “sh**.”

“I saw a lot of stupid sh**, and I said, ‘No, this is not real life,’ ” Tarr said back in mid-September, still stooped over the table. “Do not watch the movies, watch the life. You have to listen to the life.”

If narrative whips us along, presenting a mirror in which we see ourselves, Tarr brings us to a halt. He still shows us a mirror, but in it we do not find ourselves, nor do we find others, but in terms of narration, we say we find nothing. Curious as to what nothing might mean, we find ourselves contemplating everything. This cow in the mud? This man in the rain? This rain at all? This man at all? And what about this movie?

It is seven hours and 15 minutes, after all. But what is that, after all?

I don’t imagine Béla Tarr, proud father of his films, would encourage you to miss “Satantango.” But it is only an invitation, after all, to watch, to observe, to contemplate, and an invitation can be declined (though it should not be).

When Tarr left the University in mid-September, he left with these words: “I hope you will be terribly cruel with people, and incredibly tender.”

As with his films, at once devastating and enchanting, he left us the possibility for either, so we could find the capacity for both.