Monday, October 09, 2006

Satantango (1994, Bela Tarr) [In praise of long-ass movies]

First things first. Click here and scroll down to #25. Aww yeeah.

It seems only fitting that the 100th entry on this blog should be devoted to one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all time. SATANTANGO is a landmark film, one that has deservedly acquired a rep in the years since it first premiered. However, a major part of the vibe I've always gotten from the SATANTANGO hype has to do with how long and austere it is, which after seeing the film seems a tad off the mark. Long it most certainly is- at 7 1/2 hours, there's no escaping that- but once you grow accustomed to Tarr's style, it's so compulsively watchable that one's patience is well-rewarded. Plus- and this shocked the hell out of me- parts of it are funny as hell. A barroom scene about halfway through is brilliant, with half a dozen or so drunks stumbling around to a seemingly endless accordian tune, and the film sustains the scene beyond any logical breaking point, not by introducing new surprise elements into the scene as most filmmakers would, but by having the actors subtly vary their characters' routines as though they're stuck in the same infinite loop as the music (e.g. the dude who keeps balancing the cheese roll on his forehead).

Other sections of this film are as emotionally affecting as this one is hilarious. The justifiably famous sequence involving a little girl and a cat feels almost like a Bresson film dropped into the middle of the story, and an hourlong section devoted to a drunken doctor who stumbles out to buy brandy is even better. Once again, the key to these sections' effectiveness lies in Tarr's exquisite attention to detail, as well as his filmmaking style. Gus Van Sant cribbed both Tarr's use of long Steadicam shots and his propensity for non-linear chronology in his recent trilogy, but he lacked Tarr's genius for immediacy, employing these stylistic tropes in the service of a more conventionally-building narrative. Tarr's cinema is about the here and now of the world within the film, and the fact that he splits SATANTANGO into discrete sections only underlines this.

In a certain movie-related discussion group a few months back, I witnessed a discussion which was prompted by the question, "why is it that nearly every really long film seems to get universal critical acclaim?" Frankly, I'm not sure it's as simple as that- in today's wintry film distribution climate, it's hard enough to get an arthouse film seen, so if it's a prohibitive length, it's gotta be damned good or nobody will bother to distribute it. But another answer to that question comes back to the kinds of filmmakers who would make such long films. It can be such arduous work to make a film, long or short, that if a filmmaker is is going to make the effort and fight the overwhelming urge to shoehorn his vision into an easily-packaged running time, it's almost certainly prone to be something noteworthy. And SATANTANGO fits the bill in spades. While certain sequences of the film might stand alone effectively, taken together I can't imagine it being any shorter than it is. It needs every minute it takes to unfold, and Tarr uses every minute wisely.

It's for this reason that I can't imagine having to see the film for the first time on video or DVD. I've said it before, but it bears repeating- it's the long, meditative films that are diminished most by home viewing, not merely because of the smaller size of the image but, more importantly, because of all the distractions of home. Home is such a familiar place that one grows accustomed to all the routine sights and sounds, to the point where anything that one sees or hears outside the movie itself can become a way of synchronizing one's internal clock to the outside world. Ideally, in a theatre, most of these distractions are gone- no cars driving by, no clock on the wall, no telephone ringing (I can't imagine what kind of person would bring a cell phone to SATANTANGO), and the film itself so dominates one's theatrical experience that the rhythm of the film takes over.

This was especially true for me yesterday, when seeing SATANTANGO for the first time. I know it's a cliché to say that a great long film doesn't feel as long as it really is, but in my case it's true. I woke up around 9 AM yesterday, ate breakfast around 10, then went to see the film, which began at noon. It was shown with two intermissions, during which time I ate two cookies (one each break) and drank a few sips of water. After it ended at 8:30, I wasn't hungry or thirsty at all- SATANTANGO had so completely thrown off my internal clock that I found it hard to believe that I had gone almost 11 hours without a real meal. And when my usual bedtime of 11:30 rolled around, I was wide awake. There are many amazing films out there, but how many can pull off a feat like that?

In short, see SATANTANGO, if you haven't already. If you have, see it again if you get the chance. I might end up buying the DVD, but I know it won't be the same, and watching the DVD would be more for the sake of sampling the film again than diving in headfirst as I would in the theatre. You can be sure that if it comes to town again, I'll be there, front and center, ready once more to get my world rocked.


M. Lieberman said...

I've missed too many chances to catch this on the big screen, even if it meant a three hour drive. I've loved both "Damnation" and "Werkmeister Harmonies," but those feel like biding time before "Satantango," which I will be buying when it makes it's way to dvd this year (btw, buy the region 2 version! Tarr approved the transfer).

But you're very right about the distractions of home...I find myself having a difficult time watching anything on video anymore. It took two attempts to watch "Edvard Munch" before I got into it, because I had phone calls and other things bothering me. Ehh.

Anyway, very good write-up.

Steve said...

Graaa... envy. I'm debating not even bothering watching this on DVD, since I know the Facets transfer is going to be shite (why do they even bother releasing DVDs?), I don't have a region-free player and my attention span at home isn't that hot anyway.

But then, it IS Satantango. We shall see.

Mark said...

I gave serious thought to seeing this Sunday--how many times will the opportunity present itself?--but I knew I didn't have the energy that particular day. It wears me out just thinking about seeing it...and I saw seven films in a day at the Cleveland fest this year.

Glad to hear it was worth the effort and time investment, though.