Sunday, August 24, 2014


Ah, Satantango.  What can I report, dear readers?  Report what I can.

When you come upon the film Satantango directed by Bela Tarr - a film which was put as the #36 film of all time on the Sight & Sound poll of critics' ten favorite films - what to first tell about or hear about the film isn't necessarily what it's "about" (to put it in those pesky things called 'quotes' because, well, the Ebert lingo "It's not what it's about it's how it's about it"). 

Oh, sure, you can tell someone that it's about a (very) small Hungarian rural village where the people have little hope but cling to and decide to follow a quiet but stern leader (Mihaly Vig, also the composer, looking more like a musician than an actor by the way), and decide to try and find something better than what they've been dealing with for so many years.  Just the idea of it being about Hungarians at the end of the era of Communism in the 1980's - the movie came out in 1994 but it's based on a book from 1985 - sounds appealing in the sense of being interested in other cultures and seeing what life is like in such stark terms.

But that's not really what to first tell about this movie.  No, that would be the pat, easy way.  The first thing you should know about Satantango is the actual form of it: it's a black and white film that is seven and a half hours long (or 420 minutes to be precise). 

And to put it more into a technical perspective, it has 150 shots.  Divide 420 by 150 and you have an average shot length is 2.8 minutes per shot, and really many, many shots in this film are much longer than that, stretching to the limits of what was allowable in that long ago When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth age when you could only shoot such a work on celluloid-loaded cameras.  In other words, a long, long film - in Hungarian - about mainly miserable people caught in miserable circumstances.

Some folks out there will hesitate just by the black and white, or that it has those pesky things called subtitles.  But most people can take that if they aren't too young and closed-minded.  It's the length that automatically will make people go wide-eyed and say 'Come again?'  And yet even for this, it should be said that in recent times a very long-form story isn't a deterrent either given the right viewer; and forget about the binge-watching of long-form TV shows on Netflix and the like, I mean a self-contained narrative like True Detective or the FX Fargo adaptation.  

"Just dance," says the Gaga Lady
We are now at a time where, perhaps ironically, a film like Satantango could have more of a chance with an open-minded viewer than when it played at festivals like the NY Film Festival in 1994.  And for myself, I like getting into a BIG cinematic challenge, not unlike years gone by when I sat down for hours and hours and engulfed Kieslowski's Decalogue or Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz.  If a director has it in his mind to make a gigantic magnum opus on a long scale, I'm intrigued.

So.... why was Satantango, on a first time, such, in parts, a hard, slightly endurance-testing sit?  And can I tell you that you NEED to see it, or may just WANT to see it, or could be CURIOUS to see it?  After all, it's not an easy film to obtain at any rate; it's not on Netflix, it screens rarely in cities, and it's on 'sale' on Amazon or Ebay for $50.  It's a commitment to watch this darn thing any way you look at it.

Well, for starters, I must put forward that the film, in its entirety, is worth seeing IF you have the constitution for it.  In other words, out of seven and a half hours of celluloid there are at least five and a half, maybe six, hours of really breathtaking, daring, incisive, oddball, disturbing, harrowing, darkly funny, somber, and (I hate to use this word but it's a cliche I can't avoid) meditative material here.  But the main catch is this: unlike those examples I listed above of long-form storytelling, Tarr is not really that interested in story. 

Or, rather, he is telling stories here, but it's not the sort that, on paper, should require seven and a half hours to accomplish (and as the opposite of what usually happens with cinematic adaptations, the book it's based on by László Krasznahorkai is 200 pages long, so for the film material is expanded, not reduced). 

Further curiously, and coincidentally, the film came out at around the same time as another major cinematic event, Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction.  Like that film, Satantango plays with structure, doubling back at key moments and, as I'm told by people who have read the book, is novelistic in structure.  That's fine.  Maybe more than fine: it shows a filmmaker who wants to trust his audience as much as he trusts himself to remember images and shots that stick out, moments that really do mean to double back for a purpose.  But in Tarantino's case it was more compact - like, you know, picking up a pulp fiction anthology, and loaded with explosive dialog and outrageous set pieces.

Satantango is a different beast than that.  The whole thing is about watching.  And waiting.  And more watching and waiting for things to happen.  And watching as despair and doldrums overcomes people and they might try to escape.  Or not.  It's not particularly explosive (though explosives are mentioned at one point, for some reason that's left obtuse). 

Doctor Doctor, please.
It's essentially an experimental film more than anything else, which is another key thing that you must know before going into this experience.  Tarr isn't quite as extreme as, I don't know, Andy Warhol, and you aren't made to sit and watch someone sleeping for five hours straight or something that is more akin to Trolling the audience.  I don't think Tarr and company are out to do that. 

And to his and particularly cinematographer Gabor Medvigy's immense credit, the camera is usually, constantly, moving and alert, tracking along with characters but then also tracking into something that has been carefully planned and staged.  For many passages, the director, staging, how light is used or diffused, is breathtaking or, if it gets lugubrious, at least has quality. 

And yet... here's what it is: I can take, and enjoy, seeing people doing something deadpan or minimalistic on screen - or, as case happens at times in this film, more action than that, such as a accordion-driven musical number (second only to Holy Motors for being creative and wonderful and using the scope of cinematic technique for its affect). 

But what can be tiresome is if it goes past watching behavior for the sake of the scene into just... watching people 'do' things. 

Walking... not as much talking
Tarr was once quoted about why he likes his long takes: "You know I like the continuity, because you have a special tension. Everybody is much more concentrated than when you have these short takes. And I like very much to build things, to conceive the scenes, how we can turn around somebody, you know, all the movements implied in these shots. It's like a play, and how we can tell something, tell something about life...Because it's very important to make the film a real psychological process."

For good portions of Satantango, the tension, and the 'real psychological process', does work.  There's one major section of the film involving a girl and her cat where she at first is playing, the tussling, then basically pulling a rough-housed torture on the creature, leading up to the girl feeding the cat rat poison (!) and the cat fading away.  There's more to this sequence than that, and indeed is the sort of nexus of two other character-driven stories (one of a doctor, which I'll get to in a moment, and the townspeople carrying on with the aforementioned accordion in a run-down cafe), but this you may have heard about with the film if anything else (speaking of Tarantino, it's kind of the 'ear slicing scene' of the picture, the most disturbing part really, and much more so than Tarantino's 'C Tony Watch Your Head' theatrics). 

But the long takes really do work for this, much in the same effect that, years later, Tarr 'fan' Gus van Sant would employ with his experimental films Gerry, Last Days and (his best) Elephant.  for van Sant, when those long takes worked it had a purpose involving bringing the audience into that space of psychological unrest and unease and seeing things that keep going in a shot suddenly takes on another meaning that is deeper, harder to qualify or put into words.  Tarr is after that in this picture, to be sure, and yet I can't help but feel, at other certain times, it's less about any tension or psychological process than.... someone's eating something... or drinking something.... or writing... things... in elipses...

Which brings me to sections with the Doctor character.  These are the most painful sections of the film, for me, to get through.  Though throughout Satantango you will just see people walking, and walking, or talking, or maybe walking and talking, or just sitting and looking around, there can be something said for how it fits in with an interesting portion of behavior, or how it may relate to the closest thing to a "plot" involving Iriminas' "Mission" to bring these people into some new way of life.  But with this Doctor, nothing happens, or just barely (yes, he does walk around, and interact with some characters, but to little end).  Particularly in the first hour, this was where the filmmakers were just trying my patience at over-extended takes on this character who, perhaps, COULD be interesting, as he sits and writes down what he sees out his window.

Ok, that's funny
There was a moment when I was on a break after this dull portion of the film where I went to Twitter and tweeted about my mixed feelings on the first couple of hours - the introduction of a few of the townspeople, involved with a scheme involving lots of money, and the introduction of the smooth talking, possibly outlaw Irmina, was involving even in its slow-burn pacing (including shots like just showing a woman talking a piss, things like that), and then this protracted sequence with this doctor happened and set me off.  A friend (one who had read the book but not seen the film) made a comment about, in so many words, 'you don't have to eat your veggies if you don't want to. 

And I get it, or got it.  Satantango, at times, is "veggies", to put it into a cinema-as-food comparison.  Junk food this is not.  It is "good" for you to watch.  Whether you'll feel good once it's over is another matter.

I continued watching the film though - why should I stop now, there was still, even in portions I could just about keep my eyes open, simple but fascinating camera moves and a look that was all this world's own - and... it got better, or more interesting, or just reached other levels I didn't expect.  It's also been said in certain reviews (look on Rotten Tomatoes for quick start) that the film also carries a level of comedy to it.  This is only in a few instances, very quick asides.  If there is humor it's so pitch black and morose that perhaps you'd need to have grown up in such desolate former (or current?) Communist blocks to get the sardonic sense of humor about such low living as these villagers do. 

What makes Satantango though an important experience is that it keeps challenging you to keep watching and to expect more from what you have seen in almost any other film you've come across.  The director knows what he wants, and whether you will all the time will depend on what you can take or just find absorbing and engrossing about this desolate landscape. 

Also, when it has characters that spark some interest, like the scornful and bitter shop-keeper ("This is all MINE!" is basically his mantra when he hears Iriminas, who has been at least though dead if not just gone for so long, is returning to town), or the quiet and sad local middle aged woman (who at one point is just there in the cafe half listening to others like the crazy bearded people), or how things like the clock ticks on in certain scenes (sound is actually important here considering how much Tarr and company put into their long images) or that monotonous (but in a good, trance-inducing way) music comes on the soundtrack... the film has a distinct effect. 

The opening shot of the movie, which is just... cows... yep, just cows.

The other thing to note is that in the black and white, it's hard for this to ever become exactly "dated".  It has a timeless quality because of it, which works to its benefit.  Ultimately, it's not easy enough to just say 'you'll either dig it or you won't', as, again, the length issue will deter (and has deterred) people away automatically, especially as the director (according to Wikipedia) insisted audiences watch it straight through, no intermissions (normally, as with the DVD and other screenings, it has two, which is also important as to break up the narrative into what are, actually, fairly distinct acts).

I think it's a complex recommendation for me - I can't be into the camp of the critics, whether you wan to call them "snobs" or elitists is something else, who praise the film to the high heavens.  Maybe I'm just not that sophisticated enough of a viewer.  Or, despite (or because of) my acceptance of films that are challenging and puzzling and unfold, this still tested my limits of what I can take before I throw out the big buzz words like "boring" or "pretentious".

Its director may be both a genius and a total loon.  Maybe he needed a surer editor, albeit the one here, Ágnes Hranitzky, was likely by the looks of credits for Bela Tarr total in the camp of letting shots (and I mean just watching people become dots far off into the horizon, or waiting for them to arrive) go on and on and on and on and on.  Or maybe it's like Hungarian cinematic prog-rock: it's indulgent, it's intense, it's full of solos and nothing much going on in parts... but when things do go on, and you're open to it, you (I) can be rightly astonished. 

Satantango, however, IS art, and was made to be seen as an artistic experience really, not a commercial one, this also despite it having certain techniques with its roving camera that can feel like what one might see in a commercial film from time to time.  So as such, I can't discount it either completely because there is so MUCH film to consider here, so many shots that do pull into question how these villagers, this "leader" Irminias, can keep going on in such a place and in such houses and manors and buildings that could crumble at any moment. 

In short: I'm glad it exists, and it has a weird, hypnotic power.  It's something new and different and that's precious.  It's just... the minutae is also there.  In parts.  A "parts greater than the whole" sorta thing for hardcore cinephiles and art-house critters. 

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