Link to a formal review at the end.
If you’re going to watch a Bela Tarr film you’d better be a) patient, b) okay without an obvious narrative, c) enamored with how easy it is to get lost in camera movement and d) interested in the detail of small things. When I sat down to watch Tarr’s latest, and supposedly last film at the Philadelphia Film Festival, I heard an audience member in front of me refer to him as Bela Tarr-kovsky. Funny, sure, but I don’t think that the comparison to Andrei Tarkovsky is totally appropriate. That’s like saying that anyone that works in an ambiguous narrative with slow long takes should fall into the same category. Tarr is decidedly un-spiritual. If there’s anything spiritual in his films it’s within the camera movement and the mundane (see the beginning shot of The Turin Horse or The Werkmeister Harmonies for examples). Further, while both clearly have what might be called a “painterly style”, Tarkovsky is more interested in iconography and a referential painting-cinematic symbiosis. Tarr not so much – his is more the “freeze any frame and find a painting” type.
There’s more on that, but I’d rather talk about Tarr’s film itself. The Turin Horse is pretty despondent. It’s made up of 29 or 30 shots, with an average shot length (ASL) of about 4 1/2 minutes. Next time you watch a movie, check out how many shots take place within 1 minute. The ASL of a “standard Hollywood film” probably falls into the 6 second range or faster. Tarr’s scenarios usually do involve normal interaction between people, so it’s not like he’s using his ridiculously long takes to move through a battle field ala Atonement. His usage is kind of to lull you into a rhythm, and also to set up later, alternate types of takes. See a repeated scenario in The Turin Horse where father and daughter sit across from each other and eat potatoes. If this were a film with an ASL of 6 seconds or fewer we’d probably get a lot of standard coverage: wide-shot leading into medium shots and close-ups. Tarr of course shows all of the action in one shot. But because he repeats this scenario with slightly different narrative results, he is able to get a different affect each time by utilizing the long takes with a slightly different camera position. In the first round we frame only the man as he eats his potato with reckless abandon (a phrase I love). Round 2 focuses on his daughter and her delicate mannerisms. The third time frames them in a wider two shot, so we can see the direct comparison, and the fourth and final time shows them from the opposite profile, as they are unable to eat. The long takes here allow us to fully realize each individual one at a time, so by the time we get to the 2-shot (read: direct comparison) we have full frames of reference.
This isn’t, of course, the only reason for using the long takes. There are plenty of instances in his films where no scenarios are repeated. The Turin Horse is a bit different than say, The Man From London, which is much less microcosmic and allegorical. In that latter film, Tarr’s camera raises and dances more. In The Turin Horse his lens pushes and pulls more frequently. It creates a kind of tension by squeezing around in a small space. Odd that a constantly running and moving camera isn’t as freeing as one might expect. It’s not that Tarr is showing us ‘here are the walls,’ but rather that he’s indicating, by not cutting, the complete range of mobility he’s allowing his characters. In this way the film becomes even more allegorical to the extent that, while there’s off-screen space (ie things beyond the frame) that off-screen space is almost always uncovered in a single shot. This pushes the allegory by making every motion by father and daughter in essentially three areas: main house, barn and front yard. Fewer spaces =, in my mind, a higher likelihood of those spaces becoming representative of something greater. How then, would an edited, faster ASL style be in opposition?
Well, for one, the editing might well indicate more space. There’s more room to cheat. More room to indicate what’s not there. Because Tarr’s camera movements are motivated (that is, the camera moves because of something or someone and not randomly), said cheating is all but eliminated. Also, a Hollywood-ized style with more cuts would likely represent the space in a way that isn’t faithful to it’s actual size. I’m talking about this strictly in terms of dimensions: cheating the camera back or forward. Cheating actors and up and down. Tarr’s movements disallow this as well, thus keeping everything grounded in its contained (key word) reality.
But of course this is not a film for everyone. Of all the films I saw at the festival this had the highest percentage of walk-outs. Probably close to 10 people left during the film. One guy got up and started to leave, realized the film hadn’t ended, and hovered near his seat deciding whether to sit again or not. I’m reminded of what Abbas Kiarostami said, which is something along the lines of the fact that he doesn’t care if people fall asleep in his films. I wonder if Tarr feels the same way. Something about his cinema – and this is close to unique for him – allows me to both be completely immersed in the screen and overly aware of my surroundings at the same time. It’s as though my focus would shift between being in the actual world of the film and sitting in a theater seat watching a projected rectangle. These are strange feelings to have in a film, where the narrative seems less central than the feeling – and I’m not talking cinematic emotion – it provokes.
One other thing – probably obvious – that these extreme long takes do – is allow the viewer to analyze everything. In the breathtaking opening shot, for example, as the camera whirls alongside the man riding his horse and cart, I found myself looking at the trees in the foreground, the road, the horse’s eyes, and the sky as much as the central protagonist. What does this matter? Maybe it doesn’t, but for me it paints a much more complete picture of closeness and reality, where the horse’s breath is as important to that moment as where the man is going and where a divot in the road could be as noticeable as the wind clearly influencing the ability to ride smoothly.