“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Bela Tarr

Taking advice from our reader, Amie, LI went out and rented Damnation, the Bela Tarr film, the other day. We’ve watched it twice. …

I’m a reviewer of books, not film. I don’t know how to approach the medium. But let’s say something about Damnation anyway. Or one sequence. The sequence begins in a torrential rain – the rain beats down upon the coal mining city where the film is located, with few let ups, all through the film. You see the lights – this is a b&w film -- announcing the Titanik Bar. A car pulls up. A man gets out of it. We see all this from a camera that is mounted just behind the back of another man’s head, which looms in the shadows of the foreground. The camera is watching the bar at approximately his angle. Then the camera goes into the bar. In Goodfellas and Mean Streets, Scorcese made going into a bar or club a virtuoso fugue for camera, fluidly moving into the Copacabana (I think it was, in Goodfellas) through the kitchen and out into the show area with the faces of the people in the kitchen, first, and then the lit tables in the dark all turning to greet Henry and his date, and Henry greeting or stuffing money into the pockets of waiters and busboys. It was a perfect reflection of the giddiness of Henry’s date, but in its uninterrupted flow it stitches that giddiness into a larger glamour - Scorcese's camera seems to be making a liquid dive into the 'night' part of the nightclub, Peggy Lee's night, downtown. Tarr is so different. His camera is infinitely slow, and it will advance by millimeters on some completely trivial detail. There is a sequence, a really great sequence, later on, when the camera just shows a concrete wall sluiced by rainwater for almost two minutes. Going into the Titanik, we slowly go around, examining the patrons, who are often in odd angles and seemingly stunned. The camera has an ancient slowness – it is like an old man carefully examining his surroundings. The patrons and the bus people are like Brueghel’s peasants after the Industrial revolution and two world wars – they work in filth and rain, and outside of work they search for oblivion, escape from all thought, sprawled in stupor in chairs in the corners. We see them, at various moments, throughout the film, until we reach a sequence at the end of the film showing a dance that becomes a collective, linked arm dance, in which the stupor is completely cast off. A man – probably the lover, a man we have seen at the beginning of the film – has his hands over his face. And then the music begins. A deathly slow camera approach to the singer, a blonde woman with a big face, who holds the mike with one hand and holds a cigarette in the other – against which she is also leaning her head. She wears a cheap, crumpled black vinyl raincoat, and her big eyes with the big fake eyelashes are closed. She croons a love song that repeats variations on “its over/there’s no end, no end now.” At one point she does open her eyes, the song goes into a sort of small speaking chant – “he has the upper hand/without him life is barren” – then closes her eyes, and finishes the song. Not only her lover is gone, but he has taken her life. She really does seem to be at the lowest point, that point at which a person realizes that there actually is no lowest point, and that hell is simply an accurate representation of the human nervous system, with its infinite capacity for new and different shades of pain and its limited, even stunted, capacity for pleasure. Bottomless hells, sentimental heavens. The singers thin, exquisite voice – only exquisite in this one sequence, otherwise we only hear her harsh voice, talking, or her angry screams, in future sequences – seems to be trying to strip off not only the tatters of a superficial individual dignity which, offered to her lover, is weighed by him and found wanting, (as though it were the fatal law of the economy of love that the gift offered by the lover loses, in the moment of its surrender, the only value it ever had, which is precisely that it would never be offered) but the tattered dignity of the whole system, the filthy bars, eternal coal mine, the cheap clothes, the wretched faces that have been pounded by the years and years of futile labor.

Now, I am a huge fan of torch singing in movies. Obviously Tarr’s reference point is not Scorcese, but the Blue Angel. Just as that movie ends with Lola’s (Marlene Dietrich’s) lover doing an imitation of a cock crowing, Damnation ends with the lover doing an imitation of a dog. Everything is prefigured in the sequence that shows the song. The Barthesian question is: why do I want to see this sequence over and over?

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