Friday, September 25, 2020

Van Gogh (1991, Maurice Pialat)

Quest Status: 717 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #728

Maurice Pialat's Van Gogh is not a typical biopic. More than anything, it's a period piece, placing Vincent Van Gogh (Jacques Latronc) in late 1800s France as one character among many others. Of course, Van Gogh is the most significant character here, but there are plenty of scenes without Van Gogh. Some of the other characters include Vincent's brother Theo and his wife, an ineffectual doctor tasked with curing Van Gogh's syphilis, the underage daughter of the doctor who falls in love with Vincent, and a traveling prostitute who is also in love with Vincent. Pialat presents the tangled relationships of these characters as a multi-layered portrait of the times: the traditional but "forward thinking" doctor, the idle but romantically driven daughter, and the middle generation as represented by Theo - who has made decent money as an art dealer but remains outside of polite, traditional society.

While Van Gogh might not qualify as a biopic, it does function as a character study of sorts. When the film begins, Vincent Van Gogh seems to be little more than a quiet, if somewhat irritable, eccentric. He's just been released from an asylum where he spent time being treated for "fits" and is on his way to the country to recover and work on his painting. As it turns out, he doesn't do very much of either. In the first half of film, we sometimes see Van Gogh painting, and we even see some landscapes that feature in some of his famous works, occasionally creating the impression of walking inside of a Van Gogh painting (like a subtler version of the spectacular Van Gogh sequence in Akira Kurosawa's Dreams).
However, as the film the progresses, the tone changes considerably. Vincent starts to seem less and less like the great man we assume he will be painted as. He starts drinking again and engaging in reckless romantic games with the doctor's infatuated young doctor, even after she and her father discuss Vincent's syphilis. Without handouts from his art dealer brother, who refuses to push his work on potential buyers, Vincent goes on drunken rants and bursts into violent fits of anger that those around him grit their teeth and politely put up with. By this point, he isn't painting anything of worth, or even painting at all. The result is that as the film goes on, the thought that gradually emerges is that an artist's life is not as important as their work. Even in the case of an eccentric like Van Gogh, who the doctor moans is "not like other painters," might not have been as interesting in real life as biographers would like to paint him in retrospective. Maybe he was just a pathetic, lecherous drunk whose troubled thoughts resulted in cluttered, vibrant paintings that happen to have stood the test of time. As a film, Van Gogh doesn't hit the usual familiar notes that we expect from a biopic, but it remains interesting as a period piece as well as an anti-biopic.

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Friday, September 11, 2020

Sátántangó (1994, Béla Tarr)

Quest Status: 716 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #108

Sátántangó opens with a 10 minute tracking shot of cows aimlessly wandering across a muddy dirt courtyard. Quietly ominous synth pads are layered with tolling bells and the intermittent bleating of the cows, with no people in sight. The Steadicam tracking shot glides across the potholes and mud with unsettling grace, following the cows' movement with absolute precision. At first glace, this opening shot apparently serves only to establish a bleak mood and an equally bleak setting, a dilapidated farming commune in rural Hungary. The narrative begins with the next sequence, in which bells are heard more prominently this time, as they will be again much later in the film. On repeat viewings, the opening shot of the cows could be seen as foreshadowing for what's to come. For others, coming to the film with no prior knowledge of Béla Tarr's style, this opening shot could seem like the ultimate height of avant-garde pretension, signaling that it might not be worth sticking around for the remaining seven hours. Nevertheless, it's an ominous and surprisingly unsettling opening, the perfect overture for what's to follow.

The opening also gives the viewer a clear idea of what the film's pacing will be like over the course of its seven hour running time. It's divided into twelve distinct sections, each of which focus on a single character or group of characters. For the first four hours of the film, we see the same day unfold multiple times from multiple different perspectives. Each perspective is limited, but adds another layer to the viewer's understanding of this decaying community and the people within it. Except for a few scattered reminders of modern society, this looks a lot like life in the middle ages. There appears to be no running water and only the most basic electricity. Almost of the villagers express a desire to escape, to find some elusive dream in some far-off place. But somehow these dreams remain just out of their grasp...

At least, that's what the situation looks like when the film starts. However, throughout the film's first four hours, we repeatedly hear murmurs about Irimias and Patrina, two mysterious characters said to be on their way back to the commune, despite being assumed dead by everyone in the village. Along with the money that the villagers have made from that year's herd of cattle (revealing the significance of the cows in the opening scene), the arrival of these two men is the big news on everyone's mind on this miserable, rainy day. It's the first rain that signals the start of fall, a season of continuous rain which will cut the farmers off from the town until winter comes. The film constantly evokes a feeling of being cold and wet. We often follow the characters as they plod down muddy dirt paths and get drenched in the unending rain. It feels as if the rain will never stop, this day will go on forever, and Irimias and Patrina might never arrive...

No filmmaker has embraced the long take in his work quite as wholeheartedly as Béla Tarr, and true to form, there are reportedly only 150 shots in this entire 7 1/2 hour film. Sometimes Tarr follows his characters as he does the cows in the opening scene, sometimes he moves around them in laboriously choreographed camera movements, or sometimes he watches them walk off into the distance, lingering for minutes on end until they become black dots on the horizon. And it's not just the long takes - Tarr breaks a lot of cinematic rules in this film. The narrative focus stays constant throughout any given chapter, but the camera could move anywhere at any time. As long as the long takes are, they usually end suddenly. This creates a sense of tension, as a long take of characters in the distance might give way to an extreme close-up without notice. In the indoor scenes, the cinematographer performs unbelievable feats of fluid motion - shifting focus imperceptibly while crossing behind a character's back or deliberately zooming in on initially unnoticed objects in the frame (with a few long zoom shots that recall Michael Snow's Wavelength). While some might equate the term "long take" with the words "boring" or "motionless," Sátántangó is anything but. Its camerawork is daring, breathtaking, and wide-ranging - encouraging the viewer to focus and let their eyes wander around the frame rather than serving only to highlight the things in the frame that are important to the plot.

As for the plot, it's surprisingly threadbare given the film's gargantuan length. Two mysterious men return to the broken-down farm community at a moment of tragedy, at which point they provide a miraculous plan to get the community back on its feet again. The charismatic Irimias convinces the villagers to pick up and move from their dilapidated farm to an equally dilapidated manor nearby, where he promises that they can start a new life of prosperity and self-sufficiency. Only that the results aren't quite as miraculous as expected. Given that the film takes place during Hungary's early post-communist era, the characters' inability to provide for themselves or make a meaningful change in their lives might be seem as a bit of cynical social commentary. Even if they're not under the government's direct control and patronage, people without the capacity to act for themselves will always be controlled one way or another. Even if one political system falls and gives way to another, it still results in the same outcome in the end - the same way of life hidden under a new disguise.
And keep in mind that the plot described above takes place almost entirely in the last three hours of the film, after the second of the film's two intermissions. What comes before that is almost all description - of the setting, the characters, and the various intersecting events that will create the perfect storm for Irimias and Patrina to come in and catch the villagers off guard. An adaptation of a novel by frequent Tarr collaborator László Krasznahorkai, Sátántangó uses a narrative structure which is much more literary than cinematic. Especially during the first half of the film, I was continually reminded of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, with its extended internal monologues and a narrative that can only be comprehended gradually, due to the limited perspective and inherent flaws of each of the characters. This type of style might be acclaimed in the literary world, but when transferred to a cinematic context, it makes for a much more challenging viewing experience than what we usually expect from a film.
Nevertheless, thanks to this literary storytelling style, Sátántangó has a sense of texture and scope that most filmmakers could never hope to achieve. I also think that, despite the many commentators (including Tarr himself) who insist that Sátántangó can only be truly appreciated when watched in one uninterrupted sitting, there are many isolated sequences of visual beauty or technical prowess that could be taken out and appreciated on their own merits. There are also a handful of sequences which I might be tempted to skip on repeat viewings - primarily the infamous cat torture sequence. Apparently the cat used for this scene was Tarr's own pet cat, the child actress who acted in these scenes practiced with the cat daily as a form of play, and the cat's cries of pain were dubbed in after the fact. Still, if you're a cat lover like me, consider yourself warned: that scene is not an easy watch.

But as difficult to swallow as the cat scene is, it is consistent with Tarr's desire to show us how pivotal moments in his character's lives play out in real time. Sometimes he even stops time and creates tableaux in which his characters stand motionless in a frozen moment of time for the viewer to examine. The pain, the ugliness, the humor, the beauty, and the mystery contained within this story are all there for us to absorb in all of their multi-faceted glory. Sátántangó may not be the greatest film ever made, but it will get under your skin, mess with your head, force you to examine both the nature of time and the meaning of human existence over the course of its draining but often engrossing and fascinating seven hours.

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Thursday, September 10, 2020

FROM THE VAULTS: Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Béla Tarr)

--Originally written 7/8/2011--

Current TSPDT Rank (2020 Edition): #367

[2011 Edition: N/A] 

Dear readers,

Since I am planning to have a post on Béla Tarr's magnum opus Sátántangó up in a few days, I decided to dredge another piece of my past writing up from the depths. At the time, this was the first Béla Tarr film I had seen, and it had yet to enter the 1,000 Greatest Films ranking. Shortly after writing this review, I saw some of Tarr's earlier work, but I am just now getting to Sátántangó. That film, while more famous than Werckmeister Harmonies, has a lot of difficult aspects that are sure to turn off first time viewers. So I still stand by my comment that Werckmeister Harmonies is a good introduction to Béla Tarr's work. If you don't like this one, you'll probably fare much worse with his other films.

One more point: This review contains some detailed description of the film's plot and the meaning of narrative elements, especially those related to the film's climax, so tread lightly if you haven't seen the film before. And as always, thanks for reading.

I first watched this film a few days ago, and was subsequently so strangely caught unawares and bothered by it that I was unable to form a judgement on the film based on that viewing of it. After a couple extra days had passed, I decided to give it another go. I don't think this film is quite a masterpiece, but it is great nonetheless - and very multifaceted in terms of theme. It's a horror film definitely, but instead of the "spooks and chills" version of that genre, it's a horror film in the sense that the characters in the film either don't appear to have souls and/or are eventually forced into losing all discernible hope in human nature. This being my first Béla Tarr film, I can't be sure, but for those who know Tarr's work better, I'm sure that "a Béla Tarr horror film" would be a more than fitting explanation of the film's basic nature. That being said, the film looks fascinatingly on the nature of evil (in only 39 sublimely composed and, in my opinion, starkly poetic shots!) in a very quiet and disquieting manner that can be taken countless different ways. Before I get into the more detailed discussion, I will say that although it is a very doom-laden and upsetting film, it is extremely visually beautiful, and I highly recommend it as an introduction to Béla Tarr, it's really very impressive.

Some discussions I've seen about this film seem to suggest that Janos is the Prince, but I think that is ridiculous because he's listening while the Prince is speaking, the Prince went to numerous towns before the one in the film, and the whole film revolves around the destruction of Janos' idealistic and simple way of looking at life - with the arrival of the Prince, giant whale, and company the catalyst. The film does actually detail a complete transformation: in the opening shot, in the bar, Janos is seen happily directing a set of drunks through a demonstration of how the planets operate. He is shown as one of the most liked people in the town, and intelligent as well. The important thing is, at this point in the film, he is in a position of considerable control and influence in the town - symbolized by his direction of the "planets" in the bar.

By the end of the film, Janos is completely wrecked and helpless emotionally - having seen his ideals and values beaten to a pulp with the violent riot on the town incited by the Prince the night before. The only thing that remotely resembles hope in the end is that the whale is laying "beached" on the ground amidst the rubble and exposed as a stuffed figurine unable to do any more damaged to the destroyed town. Through the ordeal, Eszter is shown as the only one in the town who escaped it unscathed - but this is only because he believed hope for humanity had been lost with the Werckmeister system of harmonics centuries before. I love his monologue about the Werckmeister Harmonies, especially upon second viewing, because it ties in so completely and mysteriously to the "main action" of the film that is the plot with the whale and the Prince. Auntie Tunde, played by Hanna Schygulla (of Rainer Werner Fassbinder fame) in a comeback role, and the others who are not shown as noticeably evil, seem to have lost their souls in pursuit of a "town cleansing". However vague this aspect of the plot is (and I think it is meant to be that way), it seems to me that this cleansing wouldn't have ended much differently than the riot incited by the Prince.

I'm not sure about Béla Tarr as a director yet since this is the only film of his I've seen, but I do think that Werckmeister Harmonies is a great film, and a crowning achievement. I love films that nag at my brain and drive me up the wall for weeks. The same thing happened to me after watching Jeanne Dielman, and the films that have this affect on me are usually very challenging but almost always great.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

The Saragossa Manuscript (1965, Wojciech Has)

Quest Status: 715 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #979

Based on legendary Polish literary figure Jan Potocki's 1815 magnum opus, Wojciech Has' The Saragossa Manuscript is a labyrinthine epic filled with tantalizing mystery, as well as equal doses of humor and eroticism. Long out of print in the US, the film has nevertheless attained renown thanks to the devoted fandom of celebrity appreciators as diverse as Jerry Garcia, Luis Bunuel, David Lynch and Martin Scorsese. Its unconventional structure is rightfully famous - the film contains layer upon layer of overlapping stories, as various narrators tell a variety of stories about demonic possession, mischievous noblemen, dueling swashbucklers and amorous escapades. These stories often reflect upon each other, with connections to other characters being revealed gradually as each successive story gives way to another, and another... eventually returning back to the starting point in an perpetual series of narrative loops.

So what is it all about? Good question. The film begins in the Spanish town of Saragossa during the Napoleonic Wars, where soldiers from both sides become captivated by an old book discovered in an abandoned inn. Although this would-be frame story is never revisited, everything that follows stems from this initial discovery. The whimsical idea of soldiers abandoning their battle in order to read about a Spanish nobleman's adventures sets a tone of dreamlike fantasy, and when the action shifts to a barren mountain pass long ago, with one of the soldiers appearing to be transformed into the book's narrator, Spanish nobleman Alfonso Van Worden (both portrayed by Polish cinema icon Zbigniew Cybulski), it feels as if we've suddenly leaped into another world. As it turns out, this feeling will be repeated again and again throughout the film, until the film's world begins to feel transient and timeless - an endless chain of stories with no constant "reality" to keep us grounded.
The initial feeling of whimsy is soon replaced by one of mystery and dread, as Alfonso stumbles upon a deserted inn said to be inhabited by ghosts and "evil spirits." Here, he is invited to dinner by two seductive Tunisian princesses, who have supposedly never seen a man before and have therefore turned to each other to satisfy their natural desire for love. It also turns out that Alfonso is a distant relative of the sisters' dying royal lineage, obliging him to marry both of them simultaneously in order to produce an heir. Before Alfonso can recover from his mystified infatuation, he is also informed that he must convert to Islam, drink an unknown substance from a skull chalice, and agree to see the sisters "only in his dreams" in order to seal the deal. Before he knows it, Alfonso wakes up beneath the corpses of two bandits hanging outside the inn, with the sisters nowhere in sight. And this is only the beginning of his adventures.
The film is separated into two parts: the first of which follows Alfonso as his attempts to reach his destination on the other side of the mountains are continually foiled by a succession of strange figures, including (but not limited to) an eccentric hermit, a cryptic Cabalist, and the Spanish Inquisition. The second part of the film, meanwhile, takes us down yet another rabbit hole as the leader of a traveling band of gypsies regales Alfonso and his companions with a series of bawdy tales featuring a large ensemble cast of characters whose fates intersect and eventually lead us back to Alfonso. As for our hero, he is eventually reunited with his wives, only to wake up to another, even more ambiguous fate. The ending turns everything that has happened over the course of the film on its head, but this is fitting for a film which toys endlessly with narrative structure until the stories themselves begin to seem like the reflections from so many grains of sand in the vast desert of imagination.

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