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Ways of Seeing: Sátántangó and Records of a Cinephilic Encounter

Sátántangó (Béla Tarr, 1994)

My journey through cinema has been one from the back to the front of the theater. At the outset of my cinephilia, I saw films more or less as puzzles to be solved, ciphers to be decoded, problems to be figured out. I would watch a film, then desperately search for that one key text that opened the lock to the secret at the heart of the film, the correct solution that showed me what it was all “about.” Later down the line, after reading—and misunderstanding—some Bordwell-Thompson, I was convinced that there is a science to film analysis, one which is objective and quantifiable in every way: through which you could show with hard evidence why a certain film is a great work. As the years passed by, I saw films that defied a straightforward shot-by-shot analysis, films that broke down the strict logic of my simplistic evaluation system. My math-oriented mind had to be rewired. These were films that not only required their own systems of evaluation but their own ways of seeing: works by filmmakers as disparate as Straub-Huillet, Le Grice, von Sternberg, Marker, Cassavetes. At the same time, I gradually became more interested in the sensory and bodily experience of watching films. This shift was marked by a change in my distance to the image—not in a metaphorical sense, but in a literal, physical sense: instead of sitting at the back of the theater, I made my way ever closer to the front, to be more easily overwhelmed by the image, so my eyes wouldn’t have any escape from the screen. Truffaut had already advocated for this in Cahiers decades before I made my journey across the rows: “The more one goes to cinemas, the more one feels the need to get close to the screen in order to mitigate the hateful critical objectivity induced by a habit that turns us into a blasé audience and therefore a bad audience.” The further the physical distance from the big screen, the more one can control the image. That’s partly why the perfect form of viewing for the analyst is not at all in the cinema, but on a computer screen, where the film is at his or her complete mercy: it can be paused at the press of a key, dissected, screenshotted, rewound, replayed, skipped, tweeted etc. In other words, the physical space and the apparatus of the screening define the power dynamics of the screen-spectator and dramatically impact the eventual outcome of the viewing.

Aside from the viewing context, there are also techniques that are typically thought of as more jarring (quick cutting) or more immersive (longer takes). For maverick Hungarian Béla Tarr, the long take is as much about immersion as it is a moral choice: “Because when you have long takes, you share so much with these people that you have to become morally identified with them in some way. It’s not simply observing them.”interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum, Cinema Scope no. 8, September 2001 Observing entails a careful yet distanced viewing of the subject. Yet, Tarr’s cinema at its best, as in his newly restored 1994 magnum opus, Sátántangó, transcends the notion of an observational cinema, as, after minutes of looking at a frame with no visual alteration, there remains nothing to observe. Observation is the work of the scholar, the anthropologist, the scientist. Yet, watching a Tarr film isn’t an intellectual exercise, as much as it is a bodily exercise. First and foremost, the long take affects the body. If the cut is a release—or as Pasolini once said, the “death” that interrupts the long take of life—the lack of one is to withhold; attention, vision, thought, movement. It’s withholding you in the home of the doctor character, watching his massive body dominate the frame as he writes, drinks, and stumbles. The effect is that of entrapment, not only within the frame but in the seat. Here, the viewer’s relationship is not one of distance, despite what the long shots of the film might lead you to believe, but of involvement. If Brecht sought to de-dramatize to prevent immersion, Tarr de-dramatizes to create a deeper, more pure mode of immersion: a sensory and bodily one, not unlike what you’d find in an abstract mid-period Phil Solomon film. What makes this more immediate is exactly the lack of strict adherence to a narrative structure. As Tiago de Luca writes in Theorizing World Cinema, “one could say that this is a cinema on the frontier between storytelling and sheer recording, the latter constantly undermining the former. By being delayed, the cut ceases to serve dramatic purposes.” Despite the fact that Sátántangó ultimately is a narrative film, Tarr’s stretching of a 250-page novel to an eight-hour film (lauded by Rosenbaum as a radical gesture in itself) creates long stretches bereft of narrative, which are the most powerful parts of Sátántangó, like the middle two hours (consisting of the segments of the doctor’s lonely drinking in his house and the infamous and spectacular section capturing the cat and the little girl), which make up for an unparalleled cinematic tour de force of epic magnitude. The kind of cinema so monumental that it single-handedly renders narrative filmmaking obsolete, so intense as to make you sweat in your seat.

Being too narratively driven is not a common criticism of Tarr, however, I can’t help but regret the last couple of hours of Sátántangó, which depart from what makes the rest so compelling by getting too bogged down with story. Narrative is imposed on characters and the world, and inevitably creates a barrier between the audience and the characters. The people in the film and the people in the theater are divided by this predetermined layer of artificiality, based on templates, expectations and the logic of the market. Not on emotions, and certainly not on physicality. Or if it has anything to do with emotions, it is surface-level and overtly manufactured. And if it has anything to do with bodies, it is at worst exploitative, at best observational—always vulgar. If observation is the domain of the academic, then perception (“immediate or intuitive recognition or appreciation, as of moral, psychological, or aesthetic qualities,” to give a dictionary definition) is that of the cinephile. De Luca suggests that Deleuze was anticipating and prophesying a kind of cinema that was yet to be fully materialized when he published Cinema 2: The Time-Image in 1985, in which he writes that the character has become a kind of a viewer, within the film that he occupies: “a cinema of the seer and no longer of the agent.” And indeed so much of Sátántangó is comprised of characters looking rather than acting. Perhaps the film’s most potent moment comes after the sole interaction between those who Rosenbaum calls the film’s “only good characters,” the little girl and the doctor. The encounter comes after a nearly wordless 40-minute long stretch of bona fide filmmaking containing grueling yet breathtaking scenes of the little girl, at first playfully then violently throwing around a cat, which ends with her realizing that her older brother has stolen their money for himself. Appearing from the woods, in the dead of a rainy night, she looks at the village adults dancing in the local tavern from behind the window. She sees them, but they see neither her nor much of anything throughout the film. Before leaving, she runs into the doctor. She grabs his coat and keeps pleading “doctor,” before he drunkenly collapses on the ground and begins to swear. The camera moves and reframes, from a two-shot of them against the well-lit wall of the tavern to a medium shot of her against the darkness of the woods, and it lingers on her intense gaze for a few moments before she runs away, disappearing into the darkness. In the following scene, she takes her own life. This ambiguous interaction reminds me of the famous moment that precedes the eponymous Mouchette’s suicide in Robert Bresson’s 1967 masterpiece. Upon seeing a farmer on the other side of the river, Mouchette waves her hand, in a final pleading gesture for life. She receives (yet another) cold and affectless look of apathy in return. In both cases, the characters’ attempts at (inter)action fails. Their last gesture, or the only possible gesture in these cinemas of “seeing,” then, is a hard look into the abyss. And sure enough, the abyss returns the look promptly.

Bresson famously said “I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it.” Years later, Jacques Rancière echoed the French master in his book on Tarr, writing “cinema is an art of the sensible. Not simply of the visible.” If this has been more about a kind of cinematic, or rather a certain cinephilic encounter, than about Béla Tarr, if it has been more around than about Sátántangó, or if it’s more concerned with the act of seeing rather than what is being seen, it’s partly due to my own reluctance to engage in such analyses. But also because Sátántangó belongs to a certain kind of cinema which resists that sort of approach at its core. Whenever asked about his film school in Sarajevo, Tarr rejected the notion that he taught film: “It wasn’t about education, but liberation.” I would like to say the same thing about this piece: not a piece to tell the reader what the film is about, rather an attempt to liberate them from having to search for such an answer.

Mouchette (Robert Bresson, 1967)
Sátántangó (Béla Tarr, 1994)