I: In which Tyler discusses the “It’s A Long Picture” elephant in the room
Okay, let’s get all of the takes about the 450-minute runtime out of our system first:
There was a time when I would seek out art that was firmly situated in the genre of “difficult” primarily because I thought that was the sort of person I wanted to be. I watched Difficult Movies because I wanted to be the one who had seen the Difficult Movie of the year. I discovered Béla Tarr when A Torinói Ló was released to DVD, right around the peak of my Difficult Movie Person period. I was attracted to the aesthetic, and it blew me away to discover that people were still making movies like that. I did the normal Difficult Movie Person thing and spent a bunch of time obsessing over his work without actually ever putting any of it on. I discovered Sátántangó early on in this obsession, and the film itself became such a curiosity for me that I ended up buying a DVD copy of it which would sit in my library taunting me for almost a decade.
I still enjoy a Difficult Movie these days, but I’ve started appreciating that world as just a component of a less stuffy idea of taste. The 4K remaster of Sátántangó and its road show popped onto my radar less than 12 hours before its final showing in my area, and I cancelled all of my plans that day to go see it. The ticket price included unlimited popcorn and two soft drinks which was nice of the theater to do, but to be honest, the picture doesn’t feel very well suited to popcorn viewing. This isn’t because of its subject matter or plot, but rather because what was on the screen was so utterly mesmerizing that it felt somehow wrong to pull my attention away to shovel something into my mouth.
It was because of this that I started hoping about two hours into the picture that there would be an intermission so this underling could get something into his stomach (the icing on the cake is that the the movie is cruel enough to save the eating scenes for the final third, making them the second most excruciating bits to watch). I read afterward that Tarr urges us to see the whole thing through without interruption, but most of us are mere mortals. Anyhow, the showing I went to included two intermissions, during which I got to listen to people tell their stories about how they fell asleep but “probably didn’t miss anything.”
There are the kinds of people who don’t so much view art movies as they do sit across the room from them. They inhabit the persona (eyy, good pull) of a viewer with the same sort of irony that they would don when they put on a trucker hat or something. Listen, I can be as sarcastic about art as the next guy, but I do it mostly out of love for the text itself, not because I resent myself too much to let myself enjoy it.
II: In which Tyler actually talks about the movie
One of the easiest things to criticize about a work is the stylistic choices made therein. The grand question that anybody has regarding style is about how it serves the narrative, as if that is the order of operations inscribed on a stone tablet somewhere. Narrative comes first, and everything else follows. I want to present a way of looking at a text that definitely isn’t anywhere near original or intelligent, but it’s how I prefer to approach a work, so here goes: style is a component of a kind of language that a work establishes to build its narrative, and neither “serves” the other so much as they build themselves from each other.
The first thing you’ll see anybody discuss about Tarr’s work is that he’s big on long takes, but you’ll rarely see that style choice criticized the same way as when another director puts a hot-shot oner in a movie. Perhaps the difference is that, while a oner can often read as a way of flaunting your prowess, Tarr’s shots are simply baked into the language of his work such that their presence as long shots in themselves recedes from view. Each shot tells its own sad story, ending with a long, languid coda. Sátántangó, composed of just one-hundred-fifty shots, represents a thorough exploration of that form.
Some notes on the 2019 restoration: it’s a thing of beauty. I’m glad I had the opportunity to see it in theaters, because despite the fact that I had to listen to people try to come up with their hot takes during the intermissions, there is nothing prettier than deep greys on a 20-foot screen. I think the projector in our theater might not have set to spec, because it felt like there was some frame interpolation. Either that or I’m just so used to other the juttery mess I see in most theaters that a true 24 FPS feels weirdly smooth.
As the camera drifts over the length of the unconscious body of a corduroy-clad, diabetic doctor reeking of pálinka and stale cigarettes, whose entire world is little beyond a damp velvet armchair and a pile of papers, we can see the entire movie flash in front of us out of the stillness, just as it did in the opening shot in which we watched a herd of cattle materialize from the film grain and drift across a muddy pasture beneath a grey, featureless sky, disappearing into the distance, presumably toward the abattoir; we can see this magic trick unfold in front of us if we can just look hard enough, if we can find a way to sit still and inhabit the frame.
One of the wonderful things that Tarr does with the latitude that a long take gives him is play with the idea of stillness. The first few chapters establish the permutations of the device’s usage: figures marching off into the vanishing point of a dreary panorama, people watching each other closely in silence before speaking, a character who conjures stillness out of sheer force of will. Stillness is a core component of the visual language he forms throughout the picture, and it gives him license to tear our hearts out of our ribcages when he commands it.
Sátántangó is the kind of movie that sticks with you. Each chapter applies an additional coat of whatever it’s applying, swelling and receding like a long sigh or a mixed metaphor. It’s the kind of movie whose point isn’t so much to send a message, but rather to imprint itself upon you if you let it. Its point is to invite you to witness a kind of apathy and misery while somehow refusing to moralize. At the same time, though, the camera is under no illusion that it is not an instrument of objectivity. In spite of the way it drifts around the scene, it is painfully aware that its role is not that of a disinterested observer, but rather of a alchemical device for transforming nihilism into silver.
It felt like fate for me to have been given the opportunity to see this movie in a theater. It has always had a sort of presence in my life as a sort of Everest to climb or something, but after the fact it feels like that attitude was a strange one. Emotional evocations aside, it is not at all difficult to make it through all seven hours of Sátántangó. A good movie sits with you for a while, but it is rare for a movie to allow you to sit with it as well.