Thursday, November 12, 2009


"I live to tango. Tango, tango. I live to tango. Tango. Tango."

A 7.5 hour film by Bela Tarr. Yes, you read that right. 7.5 hours long, in a screening at MOMA, that was supposed to be introduced by the director himself in person but wasn't. This wasn’t my first exposure to the film. I had attended one of the understandably infrequent screenings at the Museum of Modern Art a few years back, and simply fell asleep. The spirit was willing, the flesh was unable. I was impressed enough with what I had seen to acquire the US DVD release, which isn’t pretty: possibly the worst single non-homemade video transfer I've yet seen. The image isn't enhanced for widescreen TVs, which is a real drag and ultimately makes the film even harder to watch. A real shame, as the film features some of the most ravishingly gorgeous black and white cinematography I've ever seen, evident even in this cruddy DVD transfer. I watched the first two thirds of the film on my laptop during my flights to/from San Francisco for the Silent Film Festival, and watched the first two thirds of it, and was very impressed with those two thirds. I don’t really understand why I was willing to watch the film on a tiny laptop screen rather than our pretty good-sized flatscreen TV, though. So this screening represented my first exposure to the whole SATANTANGO experience.

7.5 hours. God. I actually watched a 7.5 hour long movie. I think the longest single film I’d seen before this was Syberberg’s OUR HITLER many years ago, which I saw when I was far too young and of which I have only very fragmented memories: an extended sequence about Hitler's valet and a man in an SS uniform delivering Peter Lorre's "I can't help myself!" speech from Lang's M being the main ones.

OK. So how was it? I liked a good deal of it. The seven hours don't exactly fly by, but there's some of the best filmmaking I've ever seen going on here. The story centers on a group of people who belong to what looks like some kind of farming collective, in what I guess is Hungary near the end of the Communist era. They seem to be living in borderline poverty. They are expecting a large sum of money which is to be divided amongst them, apparently derived from the sale of some cattle. The film opens with a sort of plot to steal the money. Bad news though: a pair of disreputable characters, Iremias and Petrima, are also on their way to the area...

Director Bela Tarr uses lots of long takes. We're not talking just long takes, but very very long takes indeed. And not Wellesian long takes, which are crowded with activity, but long takes showing someone walking along a deserted road, or even just sitting still, staring into space. There's one remarkable section showing someone referred to as a Professor who jots notes into a notebook about the locals when he isn't pouring brandy out of a bottle into a glass and then pouring water out of a pitcher into another glass and then pouring the contents of the two glasses into a third glass and then drinking the contents. It can get rather taxing after a while, expecially during one extended sequence involving a drunken dance in a bar, where Tarr seems to be pushing this kind of filmmaking, and my patience with this kind of thing, to the very very limit. About all that kept me going was the feeling that Tarr knew what he was doing, that there was a point to all this and that it was going to all pay off at some point.

And it largely does. The film is structured in an interesting way, as a series of intersecting episodes. There will be an extended sequence involving some characters, and then another sequence with another character will start, and at some point it will become clear that the actions of the second sequence are taking place at the same time as the first sequence, and the two sequences will suddenly intersect in an interesting and occasionally amusing way. Kind of like those glasses that get mixed together. A good deal of the fun of watching the film is finding the little intersections, the moments where the plotlines touch and move on. There's just no way to get these things on a first viewing, you're too busy getting and keeping your bearings.

I'm going to have to say that I think Tarr goes too far with the long takes. There are a couple of sequences that just go on long after anything is being gotten out of them; one scene in particular just never fucking ends, the drunken dance party in a pub with most of the cast dancing around, and it goes on long after it really could have stopped. I can't imagine anyone noticing or even caring if it were cut in half. Other moments like that, of people walking and walking or sitting and sitting or breathing and breathing could be similarly trimmed. Just because something can be shown for ten minutes doesn't necessarily mean that it bloody well SHOULD be shown for ten bloody minutes.

Ordinarily I'd brush that off as being a minor complaint, and on some level it is. Any film is going to have longeurs, but the sheer bloody length of SATANTANGO ensures some long longeurs. I'm not looking to turn anyone off from seeing the film, but I can't blame anyone who finds it just more than they want to deal with. It would be a shame to miss the film's best parts, though. The beauty of the black and white cinematography and the brilliance of the performances (there isn't a weak performance in the film, I've basically forgotten to think of them as actors playing roles) and the overall impact of the film make it worth the trouble.