Mostly Pálinka*

A short piece by Indy Datta about a long film – Béla Tarr’s Sátántagó

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Rarely seen at the cinema, Tarr’s 1994 adaptation with László Krasznahorkai of Krasznahorkai’s 1985 novel is currently touring the country as part of the Scalarama festival, in collaboration with the brainy types at A Nos Amours. I, and about 180 other hardy souls, camped out in the ICA’s Cinema 1 to watch it last Saturday.

Over 7 hours long, and composed largely of long takes of up to 10 minutes, Sátántagó’s reputation could hardly be more forbidding, even before you note that it is in black and white, and concerns the fate of a collective of Hungarian peasants as their rain-lashed little corner of society disintegrates. The first shot of the film is an eight minute tracking shot watching a herd of cows wander aimlessly through a village on the edge of ruination, seemingly on the verge of sinking into a sea of mud.

Krasznahorkai’s prose is as notorious for its pages-long sentences, as Tarr’s cinema is for its long takes, but the first sentence of his novel is relatively brief: “One morning near the end of October not long before the first drops of the mercilessly long autumn rains began to fall on the cracked and saline soil on the western side of the estate (later the stinking yellow sea of mud would render footpaths impassable and put the town too beyond reach) Futaki woke to hear bells.” This sentence appears in voice-over narration in Tarr’s film directly after the cows, and is followed by further exposition that notes that the bells are impossible – any church within earshot has long-since closed its doors. So, relatively early on in the film, Tarr and Krasznahorkai make two things clear – they’re going to take their time, and this isn’t a work of strict realism**.

Tarr’s long takes are too choreographed and contrived to lay any claim to realism – although it was the fashion in certain corners of cinephilia a couple of years back to assert that there was such a thing as a “slow cinema” or “contemplative cinema” movement that stood in opposition to the manipulation of time and action in commercial film, Sátántagó feels apart from that debate. Time is no more or less a factor in Tarr’s scene construction than movement (of cameras and actors), light (colour is absent), dialogue, and his ambient soundscapes (of equal artificiality to his visuals). Cuts are relatively spare, but don’t feel like aesthetic departures when they arrive – in many shots, the roving eye of Tarr’s Steadicam operator effectively delivers 24 cuts every second.

Although it would be stretching a point to claim that Sátántagó contains no longueurs, or that certain scenes are not extended to the point where their duration becomes their main feature (the scene, say, in which drunken villagers dance in a tavern, as seemingly devoid of volition as the cows in that first scene), there are also plenty of moments of startling beauty and humour, often – like the opening scene – featuring masterful deployment of animal action. Tarr’s methods, as many critics have noted, are as faithful a way of getting the feeling of Krasznahorkai’s digressive modernist prose (compared by Jonathan Rosenbaum to Faulkner’s) up on screen as any short of reciting big chunks of it.

Having argued that Sátántagó’s reputation as the Everest of cinephilia, a macho endurance test to be withstood as a rite of passage, is overstated, I will also say that the next time I watch it, I will be taking advantage of its episodic structure to break it down into more easily digestible chunks. There’s no reason why an audience weaned on binge-watching long-form TV drama couldn’t enjoy it as a series of episodes about: an alcoholic doctor who obsessively watches his neighbours from his parlour window, sketching his surroundings and recording their movements in exhaustive detail; a mentally challenged girl who is mistreated by family and strangers alike and takes out her rage on her pet cat, and then on herself; the Kafkaesque story of a man, presumed dead, who returns to the village and manipulates the bovine villagers into trusting him with the only money they have in the world, and who turns out to be some sort of government spy (although to what end is never clear). I’d gladly watch that every year for the rest of my life.

Sátántagó will play at the Glasgow Centre for Contemporary Art on Sunday 14 September, the Hyde Park Picturehouse in Leeds on Sunday 21 September and the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle on Sunday 27 September. Take a packed lunch: with intros and intermissions, it’s a 9 hour day.

*Pálinka is a Hungarian fruit brandy that plays almost as iconic a role in Sátántagó as boiled potatoes do in Tarr’s last film, The Turin Horse.

**although the film’s conclusion, which may explain the sound of those bells, is an abrupt and cynical reassertion of the exhaustiveness of reality – the film is purportedly structured like a tango, in twelve chapters; six steps forward and six steps back, and in the end, Tarr steps back decisively from any illusions the characters or the audience may have succumbed to while stepping forward.

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