Sunday, March 20, 2011

New Film: The Turin Horse & Of Gods and Men (Co-written by Michael J. Anderson & Lisa K. Broad)

Premiering at the 61st Berlin International Film Festival, where it was honored with the second prize, Jury Grand Prix Silver Bear, Béla Tarr's The Turin Horse (A torinói ló, 2011) advances the aesthetic program of the director's supreme masterpiece Sátántangó (1994), presenting gestures that maintain the same phenomenological plenitude as those depicted in the earlier work, and repeat with maximal regularity and minimal variation over the course of the 2011 film's 146-minute duration. Within The Turin Horse's six-day time-span, Tarr and co-director Ágnes Hranitzky bring to terrible life the bleak daily rituals of his father and daughter protagonists, confined to a single sparely lit and even more modestly appointed room on a perpetually wind-swept Hungarian plain. Each day Ohlsdorfer (János Derzsi) and his daughter (Erika Bók) wake in near darkness, with the latter dressing her physically impaired father before she is forced - in her daily trips to the close-by family well - to face the unceasingly harsh conditions outside their home. As she opens their front door on the second day, the gale's deafening howl smacks the spectator no less than the cold wind and the accompanying wall of dust hits the young female lead as she crosses through the threshold. Back inside, she prepares meal after meal of boiled potatoes - never more or less than two - with her father scraping the skin off the scorching objects using his remaining working hand.

Indeed, it is in Bók's preparation of their day-one meal that Tarr's peculiar registration of gesture manifests itself mostly clearly. Here, Bók does not simply drop the potatoes in the murky water of the stove-top pot before taking them out moments later, following a temporally abridging cut. (The film's lone food item references both Van Gogh's "Potato Eaters" [1885], as the film's directory of photography has confirmed in an interview, and also Chantal Akerman's Modernist masterpiece of Sisyphusian ritual, Jeanne Dielman, 1975.) Rather, Tarr stays with Bók as she sits beside the stove, staring out their lone window as she - along with the film's viewer - waits for the food to cook. In this regard, Tarr not only portrays the elements of the family's daily ritual, but more importantly, the director further records the (approximate) duration of their enactments; Tarr presents his viewer with facsimiles of the felt experience of his gestures. The Turin Horse's presentation of ritual is in this sense fundamentally phenomenological in nature.                

By comparison, Xavier Beauvois's Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux, 2010), itself a first runner-up last year at the 63rd annual Cannes Film Festival, opts for a far more conventional presentation of the daily repeated acts of its heroic monks. In Of Gods and Men, much more a work of the humanist art film middle certainly, but one of notable accomplishment nonetheless, the monastic episodes appear in comparatively abbreviated, summary form, verging closer to items on a list - bottling preserves, hoeing a garden, etc. - than to the distended, if comparatively phenomenologically precise articulations of ritual contained in The Turin Horse's modernist art cinema. Frequently bathed in a cool blue-green light that provides the principle visual marker of the naturalistic French idiom from which Of Gods and Men descends, Beauvois and cinematographer Caroline Champetier shoot his ritual-generated, commonly wordless episodes (in this sense the Cannes prize-winner is very much like The Turin Horse; neither however is silent, given the recourse to song in Beauvois's film and the consistently prominent score and sounds of howling wind in Tarr's) in a series of largely static set-ups, with camera movement primarily initiated by and following figural movement. Consummately a work of craft with takes that are longish by commercial standards, Of Gods and Men nevertheless does not match the durational excesses inscribed through Tarr's lengthy set-ups.

***
Tarr and cinematographer Fred Kelemen utilize an astonishingly small number of takes - a mere thirty over the course of The Turin Horse's 146-minute duration - with an average shot-length approaching five minutes. Exemplary of their heavily choreographed strategies is the pivotal, six-and-a-half minute take in which Bernhard (Mihály Kormos) visits with news from the village. The sequence-shot opens with the sound of Bernhard pounding on the door. Entering, he asks Ohlsdorfer for "palinka," with the latter commanding his daughter to fill a bottle for their visitor. Crossing the under-lit space - the filmmakers rely exclusively on natural and on-camera, diegetic light sources - Bók replenishes a bottle in the lower foreground while the men converse at a table situated within a second, background plane. As Bernhard's monologue continues, Bók crosses back to the table, with Kelemen's mobile Steadicam keeping the bottle in the center of the frame. Once at the table, Kormos's Bernhard occupies much of the composition as he continues to speculate.

With Mihály Vig's score increasingly audible, its crescendoing figures marking the passage as a dramatic climax, Tarr and Kelemen zoom slowly into the speaker, where they will remain until he concludes with his diatribe. At this juncture, the backward zooming camera accommodates his listener Ohlsdorfer's response as well as Kormos's departure through the doorway, now present in the rear of the frame. Consequently, Tarr and Kelemen's camera moves with Bók once again as she proceeds to the window, where she will watch as Bernhard disappears into the barren landscape, amid the sharp sounds of the swelling wind outside and its thematically inspired double on Vig's musical accompaniment. (The ubiquity of one or the other or both confirms the condition of chaos that the film inscribes from the outset.) Tarr and Kelemen accordingly have complexly choreographed this verbal torrent in a single, mobile take, reliant on zooms and moving camera work to procure both close-ups and multi-planar longs over the course of its more than six-and-a-half minute running time. The sequence-shot, representative of the filmmakers' strategies throughout, is signature Tarr.

***
Likewise defining is the content of Bernhard's four-plus minute speech - a verbal outpouring that, it should be noted, breaks substantially with the film's comparative lack of verbosity. Reinforcing the cardinality of Friedrich Nietzsche to The Turin Horse's philosophical point-of-view (the film opens with an anecdote about the philosopher and the eponymous horse) and thus to the director's worldview, Tarr and fellow screenwriter László Krasznahorkai provide one of the richest, if less than succinct articulations of the director's personal outlook, reproduced below in its entirety:
Because everything's in ruins. Everything's been degraded, but I could say that they've ruined and degraded everything. Because this is not some kind of cataclysm, coming about with so-called, innocent human aide.  On the contrary... It's about man's own judgement, his own judgement over his own self, which of course God has a hand in, or dare I say: takes part in. And whatever he takes part in is the most ghastly creation that you can imagine. Because, you see, the world has been debased. So it doesn't matter what I say because everything has been debased that they've acquired, and since they've acquired everything in a sneaky, underhand fight, they've debased everything. Because whatever they touch - and they touch everything - they've debased. This is the way it was until the final victory. Until the triumphant end. Acquire, debase. Debase, acquire. Or I can put it differently if you like: to touch, debase and thereby acquire, or touch, acquire and thereby debase. It's been going on like this for centuries. On, on and on. This and only this, sometimes gently, sometimes brutally, but it has been going on and on. Yet only in one way, like a rat attacks an ambush. Because for this perfect victory it was also essential that the other side... That is, everything that's excellent, great in some way and noble should not engage in any kind of fight. There shouldn't be any kind of struggle, just the sudden disappearance of one side, meaning the disappearance of the excellent, the great, the noble. So that by now these winning winners who attack from the ambush rule the earth, and there isn't a single tiny nook where one can hide something from them, because everything they can lay their hands on is theirs. Even things we think they can't reach - but they do reach - are also theirs. Because the sky is already theirs and all our dreams. Theirs is the moment, nature, infinite silence. Even immorality is theirs, you understand? Everything, everything is lost forever! And those many noble, great and excellent just stood there, if I can put it that way. They stopped at this point, and had to understand, and had to accept that there is neither god nor gods. And the excellent, the great and the noble had to understand and accept this right from the beginning. But of course they were quite incapable of understanding it. They believed it and accepted it but they didn't understand it. They just stood there, bewildered but not resigned, until something - that spark from the brain - finally enlightened them. And all at once they realized that there is neither god nor gods. All at once they saw that there is neither good nor bad. Then they saw and understood that if this was so, then they themselves do not exist either! You see, I reckon this may have been the moment when we can say that they were extinguished, they burnt out. Extinguished and burnt out like the fire left to smolder in the meadow. One was the constant loser, the other was the constant winner. Defeat, victory, defeat, victory and one day - here in the neighborhood - I had to realize and I did realize, that I was mistaken, I was truly mistaken when I thought that there has never been and could never be any kind of change here on earth. Because, believe me, I know now that this change has indeed taken place."
Bernhard's argument has affinities, therefore, with a number of philosophical methodologies: namely, deductive/inductive reasoning, hypothetical stipulation and conceptual analysis. It also employs a use of incantatory repetition that recalls the texture of modernist poetry. The combined effect of these strategies is a sense of irreversible totality ('everything has been debased that they've acquired, and since they've acquired everything in a sneaky, underhand fight, they've debased everything') that radiates out from a central source, like ripples in a pond. Unlike traditional cinematic images - which tend to gravitate toward the particular - this kind of philosophical reasoning, which deals only with the universal and the abstract will not accommodate individuals, exceptions, or contingencies. By combining airtight - even airless - logic, with an aesthetic of extreme repetition and abstraction, Tarr seeks to banish specificity from his cinematic world, creating a kind of paradox: a photographic rendering of the horror of the absolute. Tarr continually speaks of everything; the fate described is inescapable.

Of course, the unnamed event has occurred even before The Turin Horse begins ('the change has indeed taken place') with the opening prologue displaying its symptoms both in the horse's described immobility - the anecdote is spoken over a black screen - and in Nietzsche's horrified response. The chaos to which The Turin Horse attests reveals itself only after the fact, through series of plagues - the off-screen horrors in the village, the drying up of the well - brought on by visible (the gypsies) and invisible agents alike; by the time it is encountered, that is by the time it takes a concrete form, its consequences are already irreversible. In this sense, The Turin Horse is a film about everything that is antithetical to a medium that is by its nature particular: constructed on abstract ideas that are articulated in an at best convoluted form - Ohlsdorfer is in some sense right to describe Bernhard's ideas as "rubbish" - Tarr's film continuously references an invisible turning.

This chaos, both described and foretold by Bernhard, is brought to the homestead by the traveling band of gypsies who pronounce ownership over Ohlsdorfer's water. The morning after they are run off by the ax-wielding lead, Bók discovers that their well has in fact run dry.  With no other plausible explanation, The Turin Horse compels its spectator to impute this tragic result (this effect) to the ominous appearance of the itinerant group, who appear as the harbinger of a destiny already set in motion. The perpetually waiting leads - they take turns staring out their lone window onto a wind-swept hillside - finally become aware of the pestilence deep into the film's two-and-a-half hour duration. The chaos that is already ubiquitous has at this moment become local. When next they attempt to leave their suddenly water-less farm, some unknown off-camera incident propels them to return as quickly as they have left. The condition reported by Bernhard is inescapable.

***
Of Gods and Men likewise centers heavily on the act of waiting, though in its case the enemy has a name: Islamic extremist terrorists. Beauvois's film opens in an ecumenical ideal where the French monks live in harmony with their poor Muslim neighbors. Michael Lonsdale's Luc serves as a physician who would appear just as comfortable in John Ford's eminent piece of confessional resistance, 7 Women (1966). The Trappists attend local ceremonies where they show maximal respect for their Islamic brothers and sisters, who in turn demonstrate admirable friendship and warmth toward their Christian counterparts. Lambert Wilson's Christian is well versed in the Koran, quoting it to Farid Larbi's comparatively enlightened extremist-killer Ali Fayattia as they are besieged on Christmas Day. As with Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch (2009), Of Gods and Men inscribes a new French reality wherein adherents of the Islamic faith outnumber those who of the Catholic confession. Their shared humanist commitment provides the de facto creed of the film's French public.      

However, with local military intervention leading to Ali Fayattia's death, Christian and his fellow monks become victims of terrorist reprisal, taken from their compound as they enjoy their Last Supper to a tape recording of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." Ultimately, they are led onto a misty, snow-covered hillside - here the fog is lyrical embellishment, whereas in The Turin Horse it functions as a metaphysical principle, as a metonymy for the film's hermeneutic resistance - where they are martyred for a faith that ultimately reveals itself in their refusal to leave their Islamic brothers and sisters in their greatest time of need. Beauvois's film in this regard provides a comparatively easy humanist politics, where the film's tragedy is brought on by the actions of military and para-military organizations. On the ground, there is abundant understanding and compassion; again, when terrorist Ali Fayattia comes face to face with the monks on the Christian feast, he reveals himself to be a man of religious tolerance. As a result, Of Gods and Men emerges as a profoundly pacifistic work, where the film's real-life image of apocalypse could be reversed with a broader application of the film's values. 

The Turin Horse once more takes a very different perspective, wherein the film's apocalypse is both already upon us and irreversible. While The Turin Horse refuses to name its cataclysm - lending the film an added power and increasing its resonance - a number of suspects nonetheless readily come to mind, from ecological disasters to modern capitalist society to hordes of modern-day barbarians (Islamic extremists) destroying the European Union's 'New Rome.' Foremost among these objects of the film's apocalypse is a post-sacred European civilization, whose implications Nietzsche understood more than a century before Tarr teased them out on screen in his Fin de siècle period piece. In one of the film's final set-pieces, Ohlsdorfer and his daughter prove incapable of keeping a lantern lit, thus providing a negative counter to Tarr's master Andrei Tarkovsky's Nostalghia (1983) dénouement. Where faith remains an option for the deceased Soviet director, in Tarr's world, as in Nietzsche's, 'there is no god nor gods.' When they understood this, and further when they realized that there was no 'good nor bad,' 'they were extinguished, they burnt out.'

Lisa and I would like to thank R. Emmet Sweeney for his material support to this piece. Cinema Guild will release The Turin Horse on a limited basis beginning in early 2012.