Bela Tarr’s masterpiece Satantango has been released on dvd finally. My copy hasn’t yet arrived, but I’ve seen this 7 and a half hour work of art three times. I’m anticipating a Bela Tarr fest the moment it shows up. Until then, readers have his Damnation and Werckmeister Harmonies to enjoy (his earlier films are excellent, but precede the visual grace he has demonstrated over the past 15 years or so).

Bela Tarr’s techniques as a film maker leave no doubt as to his involvement in creating a new kind of time and temporality. For a film to have only 37 or so cuts, each scene running towards the edge of the kodak 11 minute limit (“Tarr’s go to eleven”), meant that Tarr (and his wife, as editor) were able to edit the film in a single morning (according to statement he made at the PFA, Berkeley, as I remember it; thus proving that Tarr is given to some amount of pride and exaggeration). Tarr’s blind disregard for montage however is the result of his vision of time. Or better, proximity.

Proximity is a relation of time as well as space, involving a relation of near/far in both dimensions. (It is a psychological relation too, but less so in Tarr’s work). We tend to think of close ups as putting us in close proximity, but in fact a close up is normally used in a reaction shot. We’re not so much in close proximity as it is suggested that another actor is. If we’re given a close up of Cary Grant, then Ingrid Bergman, back to Grant, back to Bergman (you get the picture), there’s no confusion of who’s in close proximity to Ingrid. It’s certainly not us, the audience. And for the most obvious but yet counter-intuitive reason there could be: the image. A close up is an image that stands in the way of the audience falling into a close relationship to the film. The image itself becomes a barrier to proximity, and the closer the shot, the more likely our reaction is to pull back.

There’s a much simpler way of achieving proximity, and Bela Tarr’s films provide a rich case study in it: it is through sound. Sound reaches us along a different axis, one that integrates and embraces, one that involves and seduces. The image involves the eye in looking, and in selecting what it looks at, the “at” here being operative. Sound, however, is a field and we do not use our ears to place ourselves within it so much as we are first immersed within it involuntarily. Hearing cannot be closed down. Our hearing is our grounding, is receptive. Sight is directive and focusing. And I am not suggesting that we don’t listen, or pick out sounds. When we do, though, it is because a sound is heard, and stands out from its field. Our hearing cannot focus on a particular sound until it has first become noticeable. Sight operates with greater flexibility.

Our relation to images is made of distance, near and far being its degrees (Orson Welles worked with this spectacularly). Tarr instead works with sound, and indeed it allows him to abandon the cut, for in sound he can create rhythm within the shot. Thus his shots often involve repetitive sounds: sheets of rain, footfalls and footsteps, from the urgent approach to the the shuffling feet of drunks attempting some kind of coordinated dance, the plodding of a long trek, the clack clack of a long and un-ending line of coal buckets running overhead. In fact, in a key sequence in Werckmeister Harmonies in which a hospital is ransacked and its patients dragged from their beds, the shot procedes without sound. Tarr knows that the audience’s role in providing the sounds on their own will make it louder, and more disturbing, than if he were to put them in the film.

Tarr’s time image, to refer now to Gilles Deleuze (Cinema 2: The Time Image) is constructed directly. Tarr’s film makes time through camera movement and the through the repetitive motion of elements captured in the scene, and through repeating sounds: rain, buckets of coal, footsteps, wind, organ playing, machines, bars… The opening scene of Damnation is a long and subtle zoom and tracking shot of a coal tram running endlessly, seen through a window. The movement and sound of the buckets of coal, each adding to the monotony of work and evoking the slog of labor (in a communist regime, but global nonetheless), constructs a tedious rhythm within the scene. The slow motion of the camera tracking the window gives us a subject’s contemplation: time without agency, time without a thought, contemplative subjectivity beholding the repetition of a life.

The use of sound here echoes a tracking shot in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, in which the Poet, the Guide, and the Scientist journey into the Zone on a mechanized rail car, tak-tak, tak-tak, tak-tak. The sound there is like a mantra, fading into the background as the soundtrack comes to the fore: three wise men on their pilgrimage to the Zone, where dreams may come true if they act in accord with the Zone’s law.

But Tarr’s cinematic hearing produces strange effects. Sounds do not recede or fade but remain in focus. As characters walk into the distance, the gravelly crunch of their footfalls remains present, and with their changing distance, sound remains the same, just as loud, just as near. (I asked Bela Tarr if he miked his actors’ ankles, and he acknowledged using wireless mikes but wouldn’t reveal more than the wry smile that is the director’s conceit — to show but not to reveal.) Orson Welles used a visual technique in his Citizen Kane that bears analogy to Tarr’s use of sound. In Citizen Kane, Welles deployed specially-made lenses to keep foreground and background in focus, providing for a cinematic version of theatrical perspectival distortions — imagine set designs built out of proportion to achieve depth). They allowed him to create scenes in which the physical and perspectival relation between the foreground actor and background actor were given depth of field, both actors remaining in the frame and both still in focus, the background actor however being small and appearing to shrink in power and prominence. Welles’ visual depth of field enabled him to convey the psychology of each actor to the other, and also each actor him or herself, in one field of proximity. (Kane and his wife each appear, in different scenes, framed within or below a fireplace or window, weakened personally, and under threat socially.)

Through use of sound whose intensity remains unchanging even when the camera is moving, or its actors are moving (again, because the microphones are often on the actors, not with the camera), Tarr creates a Cinema of Proximity. The audience is brought close to the film through hearing, and hearing is always only our own. There is no displacement, as there is with the cinematic image. Where the image gives us a scene, sound places us within it. This may reveal one of the greatest misunderstandings of film (discounting of course silent film): to be “within” a cinematic scene would involve possibilities of movement; this being of course impossible, film-makers use sound to involve us. And indeed, any good film-maker will defend the importance of his or her soundtracks and mimetic sounds as a means of moving the story along, varying its emotional tone, cuing the audience into what’s happening, what’s about to happen, or what just happened. (Television soap operas are designed to be “watchable” when viewers are off in the kitchen: just hearing their dialogue and unsubtle musical cues is enough to trigger a sprint back into the living room to catch a critical moment just in time).

I was tempted at first to think of Bela Tarr’s film as time cinema, along the lines of Andrei Tarkovsky. But the more I think about it, the more it becomes clear that Tarr has done something entirely different. The two directors have in common a love of the long take, and of almost imperceptible camera movement, whether tracking shot or zoom shots. But where Tarkovsky creates scenes of exquisite aesthetic beauty, visually suggestive of artistic concepts and ideas, thought-imagery that lifts us and in encountering these scenes, demands a thoughtful reaction from us, Tarr is much closer, and proximate, to the ground, is in our heads, is pulling us along with movement, as if we were tracking the shot, as if we were there, aware, perceptive, but also captive. I don’t suspect that Bela Tarr watches too many films; I don’t suspect that he thinks that hard about what he is doing. That simply wouldn’t be his style. And there’s no need, after all, to think about being there if you are already there.

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A montage of stills nearly as seen in just over a minute of the film Clean, Shaven, featuring Peter Greene. Can a film be captured in its parts? What sense does a performance make if it is given to us in frozen segments? Film commentary is a mode of observation. If stills can help communicate observation then something is gained.

Clean, Shaven is a small indie by Lodge Kerrigan made in 94. Kerrigan’s recent film Keane was astonishing (as was Damian Lewis). Like Keane, this film features a genuinely real and captivating performance by an actor playing a schizophrenic. The film’s movement is fragmentary, roped together by a soundtrack that reveals the voices we might suppose are echoing within our character’s unbound mind. His actions are confusing to him, and make us increasingly reluctant to watch, as watching makes us complicit with what he does, which is bad. As many bloggers and reviewers have written on this film as have seen it, possibly more. So I won’t address the story but instead touch on Kerrigan’s use of sound—a cinematic element that Kerrigan here turns inside out, and which I hope I can explain here.

The use of sound in this film practically makes it worth watching in its own right, pun intended. In the critic’s video essay that accompanies the Criterion release of this film, which is pitched to grad level film students (and that’s not a complaint), Michael Atkinson remarks that the director uses “objective” sound, not “subjective” sound. It’s true that the sounds that fill the film’s soundtrack are given us from the external world, often through the protagonist’s car radio and sometimes simply through the ether. But I’d disagree with Atkinson. I don’t think this is just use of objective sound to a parallel the film’s fragmented and “subject-less” subject and narrative. Yes, it’s a different use of sound, but it’s a complication of subjective sound, not a departure from it. After all we hear the soundtrack, and therefore we can’t but believe that the subject hears them.

The use of sound here is interesting, I think, because the protagonist is not hearing them but producing them. We’re given the sounds as he hears them, but they echo and resound within his schizophrenic mind, as they are the schizophrenic’s world. Voices unattributed, perhaps real, perhaps recollected, but certainly not sounds that anchor the schizophrenic to reality. Rather, sounds that divorce him from the world, catching him as abruptly as an unexpected blow to the head. Short, sharp, shocks that knock about and bring into consciousness commands, put-downs, and other forms of verbal punishment that trouble us for their detachment. We don’t know who’s saying them. Which means we don’t know why they are being said, which means (as Atkinson notes), we don’t know what to think of them.

Where Atkinson hangs these sounds on a reel of film though, my sense is that they should be hung on memory, which is not a reel of film, is certainly subjective, if not multiply subjective, and is not objective in the slightest for the simple reason that memories can’t be. Our schizophrenic protagonist’s relation to sound is that he’s caught in a compulsive listening, but cannot hear. The coup in Kerrigan’s sonic genius, I think, is that in memory is the protagonist’s pain, and it’s a pain he suffers, often, without making the slightest of sound. But for the one that we hear.

Clean, Shaven on Criterion
Keane, reviewed by Michael Atkinson

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Anatomy of a (couple) scenes.

British crime film and television excels in transposing the elements of drama—itself a form brought to peak performance by none other than William Shakespeare—to filmic narrative. Our domestic tendency favors action as a means of propelling a story forward. Actions change situations, as events create new conditions, and a new situation calls for adjustments on the part of our actors. The rule for narrative tension and suspense is in compressing tension into time, producing a waiting of sorts, anticipation for resolution drawing the audience to the cliff’s edge from which nothing can be seen until one is allowed to peer over the edge.

Action spawns the tension of resolution by challenging actors to respond adequately. In British dramatic crime, on the other hand, tension is held in and amongst relations between persons. The challenge presented to actors is in the personal negotiation of relationships, not of action, events, and new circumstances. When an actor playing a role must negotiate personal conflict, s/he can do it by means of the power and authority granted by his or her role, or by his or her personal resources and character. I think it’s this ambiguity that British crime films and television series unfold so powerfully.

Look at the images below. Is it Helen Mirren and David Thewlis as cop and criminal? Or is it Helen Mirren and David Thewlis as individuals? Which drives the story forward and grounds the tension? Can you tell?

My sense of it is that the dramatic frame doubles the performances (personal as well as position or role), thereby granting actors a greater depth and giving them, as performers, a greater range of options from which to choose. A good actor will deliver ambiguity in his or her performance, draw in the audience, and thicken the plot with little more than a gesture, look, or reaction. It soon becomes unclear whether or not the actor is giving us a look at his or her character or role. And because dramatic passages involve inter-personal interactions and encounters with other actors, the doubling is doubled again.

As it turns out, there are more than just eyeballs awaiting spectacles and unexpected thrills watching the show. As it turns out, it takes little to involve us. But a few superb performances can never hurt.

Prime Suspect 3, starring Helen Mirren, David Thewlis, and Ciaran Hinds.

(I shot these from the TV screen)

Full size versions are here: Prime Suspect and Helen Mirren

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This is one of those films that must be hard to fund — films like the
Woodsman, The Magdalene Sisters, War Zone (by Tim Roth) or Monster –
but which, when made, distributed, and seen, recoups any expense and
undresses any doubt. The problem with films like this is that they
involve inappropriate undressing, be it by pedophiles, insitutions,
families, or serial killers. The appeal of the genre is in some ways
the unthinkable, unacceptable, the distasteful and the unwatchable.
It’s that last part, the unwatchable, that creates tension, serving as
a kind of offscreen reference that anchors the film’s story and becomes
its power for not being seen.

(Herzog’s Grizzly Man reveled in this, for it was a film about a guy
who was eaten, along with his girlfriend, by the very Grizzlies he
believed himself to be protecting, and everybody knew it. That was the
whole catch: to know something that is not going to be shown, to be
compelled by it, and to rent and watch this film knowing that it’s a
long set up to a final act we will not be allowed to see. Can it be
that a film such as that prepares us for something horrible? Do we
become complicit with it then, as consumers of that preparation?)

Complicitness. This film shows us what happens. It is simple in its
presentation, and for that complicates its subject matter. Because it
does not plant a stake in the ground and draw clear, distinct and
straightforward lines between right and wrong. Those are the films that
are hard to fund. But better to watch. For they complicate their
concepts, distribute perspectives and motivations, and sometimes even
put the viewer harm’s way.

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I’ve been using this a bit recently. It’s duper fast and though it’s not got all the films ever made in its datafactory yet, it’s got a lot. I’m loading it up with ratings and short reviews. Seeing as I dont get to write on film as much as I’d like to here, I’m using this for the quick n dirty. Come join! (No disclosure necessary, I’m just a user!)

the anticipation of plying the first pages of Thomas Pynchon’s new one just took a stumble. turns out mr robert altman has left us. a new work from a great novelist of the literary ensemble, characters cast in mad bundles to leap off the page; and the departure of the silver screen’s original ensemblist… so long mr altman. your nashville and shortcuts gave us the root tone of the human condition, in its major and minor keys finding their players in what seemed the effortless performances you drew out of your actors. you were king among humanists, for where others had much in common with your interests — kieslowski, pt anderson, malick, inarritu, mike leigh, haneke, wong kar wai — you were more of a kurosawa, a painter of the human experience.
but it was your operatic line… that operatic line, which like a solo voice trembling over the twittering machine of humanity’s madness, cracking open the surface to give humanity a hope of finding a common place… that even when that common place may be a hole in the ground, the voice that sings sonorous might fill it, if even for just a while. so long, and thanks for holding the note.

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Hey folks, I finally have a table of contents to all four of my blogs: Social software; Cultural Commentaries; Film; and Music. If you’re like me, you probably don’t navigate blogs by archive postings; so here’s to one of the most basic navigation inventions ever, the TOC.

Now here’s a film that’s been stuck in the archives for much too long! This was a short shown occasionally before the main feature at Sunday flicks back in college. It’s a useful antidote to the proliferation of cute (cats, kittens, I recently received pics of a deer and a rabbit sent under the guise of cute). While naturalists study the possibility that cute might in fact serve as a survival mechanism, a darwinian trait so to speak, developed in the wild but tranferred to domestic animals also, a means by which animals protect their kingdom from humanity by appealing to a shrivelling human need…. there are still satiric and parodisical pleasures such as this one by Mary something; Mary oh, can’t remember her name. It’s in the movie…

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If you don’t know Eddie Izzard’s work, you do now. Here’s one related to film. A loose connection, I have to admit. Not tight, like a pea shoved up inside a tube of penne. That would be weird. Loose, rather. Like peas alongside the penne.

In L’Enfant, a young couple struggles to keep it together when a newborn enters the picture. Shot, as were the brothers’ previous films “Promesse” and “Rosetta” in a French city lost somewhere in the industrial past but home nonetheless to important family and social tradition, the film’s genius can easily be overlooked and mistaken for the banal and trivial detail of a realist’s take on daily life. A bicycle is ridden, stairs are climbed, a scooter takes a corner, a beer served. Or does or protagonist ride a bike, does he climb the same flight of apartment stairs, again and again, does he bank a scooter into the same street as if it’s a street he knows as well as any other he’s been confined to, a beer is served or a beer is requested and the bartender pours our customer another round…. French author of the Nouvelle Roman, Robbes-Grillet, created an art form perhaps similar to that of the Dardenne brothers. The films of Cinema Verite and Italian Neorealism were also attempts to approximate the Real while remaining within fiction. “As if” film-making.
But the Dardenne brothers have a take of their own though. It involves the affect and scene upon which the film has been made. L’Enfant was inspired by the sight of a young mother who frequently took her baby on walks near the filming of “The Son.” The film-makers and crew noticed this woman, and in particular the troubled and abrupt manner in which she pushed the baby carriage in front of her. This scene, repeated every day, took on significance with each repetition, as if the repeating of it deepened its meaning while making it more obscure at the same time. The brothers decided to turn this into a film.
And so the it is that the kinds of impressions life makes on the these sibling film makers are the kinds of expressions on which their films are constructed. Stairs are not climbed, nor does a protagonist repeatedly climb the same stairs. Rather, the climbing of stairs is repeated. The drinking of beer. The riding of scooter through streets known. The Dardenne brothers had their actors do these things over and over so that they themselves would do them as if they lived in this town, under these circumstances, in this reality. Directing their actors to be present to the context, social and material, spatial and temporal, in color and in temperature, in their own physical experience, strikes me as a masterly approach not just to film making, or to acting, but to narration also. For the actors are now able to narrate the story in gesture, their actions becoming the indicative material of the film’s narrative instead of story elements, plot points, and so on. And we from that we get an emotional reality, instead of a narrative reality, or the reality of event, action, situation. Emotional reality — that is the reality of affect, the movement of feeling, mood, the intensity, pressure, the breaking point, anticipation, the muteness and explosiveness, of human experience. I don’t know if these guys are alone in this particular technique. As a viewer I find it incredibly powerful.

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