Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Turin Horse, dir. Béla Tarr, 2010

When I saw Béla Tarr speak at the Centre Pompidou a few weeks ago he was off next morning to the première of The Turin Horse (2010) in Italy. On my way home from seeing this film tonight, I couldn’t help wondering what happened in the Q & A after an Italian screening of The Turin Horse. My experience of Italians at such events, any event, is they love to talk. Béla Tarr’s latest film has no more than a dozen lines of dialogue in two and a half hours, and does not exactly open up the way for general chit chat. The Turin Horse lies somewhere between bleak and apocalyptic.

The plot, if only just a plot, is sparse: a man comes home with a horse, his daughter takes off his boots and clothes, she makes “dinner” — boiled potatoes— they eat them with their hands, stare out the window, sleep and have very little to say to one another. Next day, she dresses her father, they check on the horse, she gets water from the well, they drink a glass of water. And on it goes. Day after day for six days, there is nothing that resembles hope or a better tomorrow in Béla Tarr’s avowedly final film. The one consistent element of this dirge-like film is the sound of the storm that rages outside the father and daughter’s mud home. On day four (of six days) the angry father decides it’s time to pack up the cart and move away from the entrapment of their home. So we watch the young woman struggle to lift the trunks and their other belongings (including the potatoes of course) onto the cart. She then has to push the cart while the father with his dead arm and the horse that won’t eat are pulled along by her. We watch as the threesome disappear over the hill outside the house. Then just as the horse’s ears have disappeared forever, the three figures turn around and come home again. Needless to say, we never know why they left in the first place, nor why they change their minds. On day six even the storm passes and the sound is returned to silence. Simultaneously the oil lamps go out and the couple are in darkness. They try to relight the lamps, in vain. Thus the film ends, with the two not even eating their boiled potatoes, sitting at the table in darkness and silence.

But what happens is never the point of Tarr’s films. Rather, the camera watches sometimes from afar, sometimes in closeup, as the two go through their daily routines, getting dressed, drinking water, feeding the horse and cleaning out its stable. Life inside the home is a Walker Evans image come to life. There is nothing in this home: they have no books, no color, no plants, nothing that lives, nothing that could be held onto for emotional fortitude. Nothing. And yet, like an Evans photograph, the place is spotless, well-cared for, no doubt because there is little else to do out there in what seems to be the middle of nowhere. 

The film’s aesthetic is, unsurprisingly, gorgeous. And the moving camera we saw Tarr develop in his earliest films from the 1970s, and take to baroque extremes in Werkmeister Harmonies (2000), has become controlled, and measured in The Turin Horse. In the early films the wandering camera is restless, always in motion in a Pennebaker-like cinema vérité, but here in The Turin Horse the camera is constrained by the dolly on which it moves.

While I am not convinced an aesthetically gorgeous film can always successfully contain a scene and life as desperate as that of the country people in The Turin Horse, it seems to work. Or rather, it’s the gorgeousness of the film that keeps us there, immersed in the tedious, never-ending routines and rituals of a daily life. While the poverty striken life of water and potatoes with rags for clothes couldn’t be more removed from that of our own lives (the man next to me was drinking a can of coke), we are mesmerized and keep watching because of the beauty of Tarr’s images. Thus the film unrelenting keeps us, once again, in the middle of the descent into hell, a milder version of which we are familiar with from his earlier films. And perhaps this is exactly the point: The Turin Horse reflects the routine and entrapment of daily life as we know it, only with the color and accoutrements stripped away.
If this is not the point, it’s difficult to say what it might be. The father and daughter are given no history or context, and the relationship between them is not dwelt on in any way. All we know is that we would not want to be either of them. Against a black screen, the film opens with a voiceover telling the story of Friedrich Nietzsche who saw a horse being whipped in Turin and the event precipitated his breakdown. But when the image of The Turin Horse appears showing the man with the horse, there’s no suggestion they might be Nietzsche and his horse, or even, for that matter, that Tarr’s film characters might be related to the myth in any way. I don’t think it is possible to say that the film is about a particular historical moment, in Hungary for example. Because other than the language of the dozen lines of dialogue, the father and daughter could be anywhere. What I can say is, even if the motivation is not to show the hopelessness of the human condition, The Turin Horse's stretching of the cinema to narrational and narrative limits is justification enough to make it a must see for cinephiles like me.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

William Forsythe Company, Sider au Chaillot

Sider was like nothing I have ever experienced or seen before. Of course, it is recognizeably dance, but beyond that, there is little for the audience to hold onto. Forsythe takes dance beyond anything we know, anything recognizeable, placing out of reach any hope of identification with the narrative and narrational logic for which the human body is usually a vehicle, or the logic that usually enables identification of and with the body. Every movement, every gesture towards rhythm, tone, coherence, all is ruptured, thrown into a vertiginous disarray that frustrates, enervates but never disappoints its audience. If Forsythe's earlier work invoked the protocols and vocabulary of classical ballet only to subvert them, Sider does away with any reference altogether.

The Chaillot website announces William Forsythe’s latest choreography thus: The “intricate patterns of [Elizabethan theatrical] speech are communicated to the performers via the soundtrack of a filmed version of a late 16th century tragedy. The adherence of the performer's actions to this vocal score instigates disquieting configurations of incongruous musicality that underscore the drama's themes of analogy and obscuration.” I include the quote because I would never have known that the discontinuous, fragmented and always unfinished movements were in fact inspired by the spoken text of a of a filmed version of an Elizabethan tragedy, which was in fact Hamlet. We were sitting too far back to notice the in-ear microphones that fed this text to the dancers. But even now I know it, I can’t say that it gives me any more insight into what I saw, heard and experienced at Chaillot last night.

I don’t know much about the Elizabethan theatre or the Courts that I assume were deconstructed in Sider, but I do know the music from the period. And I know that it is music in which the form cannot shift or change, ever. The harmony can explode if neccessary, but the form remains constant, a fortress, whose walls and dictates must be observed without choice. I also think of the perfection of the elaborate 16th century garden with its emphasis on symmetricality, formal, one could say, scientific complexity. While pleasure might take place in the garden, its architecture is as rigid as the social forms of those who designed it. All this is shattered in Sider: any resemblance to form has been set asunder. There is no base line, nothing for us to hold on to, at least nothing that might resemble the narratives that help us make sense of the world, and our place within that world. The stage of Sider was overrun by chaos and disarray. Nothing cohered, nothing made sense, and just when I thought I was beginning to grasp what was happening, the rug was pulled out from under me. Anne and I laughed as we climbed the magisterial staircase of the Théâtre National de Chaillot, and I announced that I thought it was going to end when a male and a female dancer found each other under a cardboard sheet, and in one of the few moments of human interaction, they slink off the stage together. But no, of course, this is the Hollywood ending to a piece of choreography that couldn’t be further removed from the manufacture of dreams. True to the non-logic of Sider, the end was not really an end, but rather, the place it happened to stop.

Other than the fact that the dancers kept their same costumes throughout the performance, the only constant was the use of the huge cardboard sheets as props. Of course, the dancers made the handling of the sheets look effortless, but I was in awe of the dexterity and diversity of their use, knowing how awkward cardboard of that size actually is, thus recognizing the intense demand of the dancers' movement. At various points the cardboard sheets were made into fortresses, at others they became shields against each other as enemy, weapons, drums to be beaten. And then the dancers used them to create the semblance, or the beginnings of rhythms: they kicked the cardboard to make loud repetitive noises, dragged a sheet across the stage for the sound of the wind, or dropped it to create that of an axe slicing through wood. The cardboard sheets were also the sole connection between the dancers, though usually as that which separated one from another. In perhaps the only tender moment in the performance, they hastily built a house in which to hide, though from what it was not clear. And at times the one male dancer who was not in the guise of a creature from another era, another planet, or reminiscent of another life form slid like an eel behind a sheet, only to have his protection ripped away. 
A friend from Frankfurt had told me about Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt in the 1990s when I was writing my dissertation on light in German cinema. My friend had said then that Forsythe’s company sculpted its mise-en-scène in light. In the 1990s, the use of light was no doubt different from its use in Sider but it’s true, the low-hung bands of fluorescent light, dictated by the same digital sounds as the bodily movement, contributed to Forsythe’s challenge to what constitutes dance. At one point, the lights were turned off altogether and we were left listening to dancers and cardboard making mysterious gestures across the stage. In its integration, or amalgamation of sound, light, text, movement, Forsythe’s work is about as close to a contemporary gesamtkunstwerk as anything I have seen in my lifetime. And so, it’s not simply a reframing of everything we understand dance to be, Sider is experimental art at its most cutting edge.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Edvard Munch, L’Oeil moderne, au Centre Pompidou

I was so upset with the Centre Pompidou yesterday because their poor programming of the Béla Tarr retrospective meant I couldn’t get a ticket and had to go upstairs to the Munch exhibition. So when I went to Edvard Munch, L’Oeil moderne I was determined not to like it. But to my surprise, there were some lovely discoveries.
Edvard Munch, Starry Night, 1922-24
The museum’s whole premise for Edvard Munch, L’Oeil moderne is to demonstrate that Munch is not the pre-expressionist or symbolist painter we have always been led to believe. In fact, the exhibition claims, he has been misunderstood and should be included in the modernist echelons with the likes of Mondrian and Kandinsky. While I think the Centre Pompidou overstate the significance of Munch’s work by comparing him to Mondrian and other of the great modernist painters, the exhibition did convince me that Munch had an interest in the issues and philosophical problems of modernism and modernist art. Moreover, I enjoyed the organization of the paintings into rooms that each embraced a thematic concern of modernism: autobiography, optical space, compulsion, blurred vision, and so on. Indeed, when looking at the paintings in the optical space room, I was appropriately convinced of Munch’s manipulation of painted space in an effort to explore the changing nature of space and spatial construction in the industrial world of the early twentieth century. Similarly, the images in the final room where Munch painted what he saw through his blind eye were approaching, and I stress approaching, the metaphysical claims of a figure such as Stan Brakhage.
Edvard Munch, Travailleurs rentrant chez eux, 1913-14
This said, however, it must be made clear, Munch may have had all these ideas and been exploring these phenomena but one would be hard pressed to call his pursuit successful. I could not honestly support the idea that he was a painter who somehow contributed to the re-articulations and transformations of modernist art. All of the paintings are more like sketches than a sustained interrogation of the role of painting in the modern world, a quality I would have assumed to be the pre-eminent concern of modernism. Munch’s paintings may have engaged with theoretical intentions on the canvas, but I am not convinced that medium provided him with solutions to the problems of painting.
Edvard Munch, Self Portrait with a Hat in Ekely, 1930
Ironically, for me, Munch’s less sustained explorations into film and photography were far more interesting than the paintings. Who knew that Edvard Munch had made a film? The fragments of various films in existence were edited together into 5 minutes and 17 seconds of footage, footage that, even though shown on DVD, was rich with the materiality of the medium. The fragments oscillate between an observatory eye and an experimental, avant-garde exploration of the medium. The latter may have come accidentally, but even if this is the case, these fragments tell of this critical moment of cinematic development, a reflection of the modern moment, at the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth centuries. Munch’s camera watches two boys peering through a fence, and then it moves, as if uncontrollably, to catch the next scene of urban life. It’s in these movements, often giving the appearance that Munch carries the camera with the lens cap off, the film still exposed accidentally, that we see the play of light and shadow in the air, on the surfaces of the city, across buildings and bridges. And when the focus is on nothing in particular, the wear and tear on the film stock, the materiality of motion, and the difficulties of framing, come to the fore.
Edvard Munch, Le Noctambule, 1923

The photographs are filled with two things: self-fascination and the pursuit of transparency through exposure over a long time. The texts accompanying the photographs in this exhibition claim that Munch uses the photographic camera as a mirror in which to see himself. I would disagree: for me, the performative, almost camp, stylized poses suggest that he uses the camera as an audience who might appreciate and affirm his own self-obsession. Again, the flaws and the inconsistencies in the photographs that reveal spirit-like figures, hauntingly superimposed on the concretion of the setting are what make the images sumptuous, and give them the depth so obviously missing from the paintings. This is something no other medium can do, and Munch has captured the complexity of the photographic image in its moving and still variations.
Edvard Munch, Autoportrait à la Marat, clinique du Dr Jacobson, Copenhague, 1908-1909
Of course, the fact that Munch took photographs and shot film footage does not make him a modern man. And it may well be that the moments of the extraordinary in the photographs and films are not really his intention. But nevertheless, even if they are accidental, in them we get insight into the magical possibilities of these exciting new media. Ultimately, I came away wondering if Munch had actually followed the wrong artistic path. While the exhibition didn’t fully convince me of his genius as a painter, I was left wondering if he would have been more successful if he had followed his pastime not his vocation, and become a filmmaker and photographer? 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Béla Tarr, L'Alchemiste au Centre Pompidou

Béla Tarr, Satantango, 1990-94

It’s hard to know where and how to begin to write about the films of Béla Tarr because they carry within them a profundity that defies their rearticulation in any medium but their own. These are among the most cinematic films of our time. Béla Tarr makes films that watch people. That’s it. He’s not interested in all of the theoretical assumptions, the complicated “-isms” of discursive interpretations. He’s interested in watching people and the relations between them develop across time, a time that is alone in its creation of coherence across the narrative of Tarr’s films.
Béla Tarr, Panelkapcsolat/The Prefab People, 1982

The other night I saw Tarr’s third film made at age 24, Panelkapcsolat, translated on the film print as The Prefab People but given the French translation Rapports Préfabriqués , we can assume that the translation is up for grabs. Whatever the title of the film, the intent is very clear: to watch the lives of a working class couple in Cold War Hungary as their marriage deteriorates. Although the narrative is elliptical in structure, the relationship is headed in a linear direction: separation. The man, Férj, is unable to communicate his emotions, or perhaps it is that he is unable to deal with the growing responsibility of the relationship, and so he spends more time with his friends, and drinks too much when at home, and just wants to be left alone. The woman, Feleség, at home with two small children is frustrated and, as so often happens, becomes demanding and, thanks to her own inability to communicate, hysterical. The more she wants him to stay, the more he wants to walk out the door. He thinks that buying a new car will make them happy, she thinks him being at home will do the trick. When he finally walks out the door at the end of the film, resisting the pull of the woman’s protestations, leaving her with the kids and the responsibility of daily life, we heave a sigh of relief. Thank goodness the tension and impasse of this dysfunctional marriage has ended.
Béla Tarr, Panelkapcsolat/The Prefab People, 1982
Throughout the film, the camera is as intimate without being invasive as the insight we get into the couple’s relationship. Handheld long takes, even though not necessarily in closeup, the camera frames, reframes and shifts in order to get a better view, a more painful view of the given altercation, usually at home as the husband opens another beer, the kids start screaming, and the women starts to cry. It’s the intimacy of the camera that both takes us inside the relationship as well as makes it unbearable to be there. And of course, while this might be a very astute observation of the frustrations of Hungarian socialism, the collective misery of the post-Soviet life, it’s also as accurate a picture of the modern condition more general as we have seen in the last 100 years. The daily life of the couple on film in 1982 perfectly describes that of couples the world over today. That’s what makes The Prefab People even more disturbing.

In the Q & A after the film, listening to Béla Tarr was like watching another of his films. His answers were generous, poetic and always sympathetic to the not so interesting questions of the enthusiastic and adoring audience. The inevitable question about the politics of The Prefab People was raised early on. And he very purposefully claimed that the goal of this film is "to find a universe in the couple and the relationship between them." That he does. He also reiterated in so many different ways, his lifelong commitment to realism. He said that his films explore "the space of the everyday and the place where it is no longer possible to fall into the illusion." Alternatively, he reflected on the need to discover "the authenticity of the emotions found by looking in the eye of the actor." Or, thanks to "the loss of illusions that happens across the lifetime ... you lose false hope." 
Béla Tarr, Damnation, 1988
But perhaps what remains most unique about Tarr's films is their refusal to judge what his camera finds in the eye of the actor. There is never any criticism, either of the characters, their world, the social forces that make them. Even in his bleakest of films, everything is as it is, with characters such as the couple in The Prefab People neither pitied nor criticized. The only judgment was mine, a judgment that took the form of incredible relief when the man shut the door on the woman. In a statement that underlines this baring of the truth irrespective of my wont to reject it, asked the difference between his films and Tarkovsky's, Béla Tarr responded: "Tarkovsky believes in God, and in his films when it rains it cleans the people. In my films, the rain creates mud."

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Forgotten Space, dir. Allan Sekula & Noel Burch, 2010

Allan Sekula & Noel Burch, The Forgotten Space, 2010

I was looking forward to The Forgotten Space for a number of reasons: my longstanding interest in shipping, in travel and in adventures on the sea, of course, but also because I have followed Noel Burch’s and Allan Sekula’s work since I was a graduate student. Having done my time as a student of Annette Michelson at NYU, I was among those brainwashed into believing that, after Noel Burch’s To The Distant Observer there was nothing left to say about Japanese Cinema. And coming to work on early cinema in the 1990s, Life to those Shadows was still at the top of the the silent cinema bibliography. Likewise, Allan Sekula’s work, particularly his writing, has left its stamp on my thinking. Photography Against the Grain and “The Body and the Archive” gave me the foundation for all that I said about the Nazis’ relationship to the photographs in their archives, to documentation, and to the role of the photographic image in their obsessive and excessive exertions of power.

Allan Sekula & Noel Burch, The Forgotten Space, 2010
As often happens when expectations run high, I was disappointed by The Forgotten Space. There is no doubt that the film is interesting, and its discourse on the “forgotten space” of the industrial world — here exemplified in the transportation of cargo by container ships — that nevertheless is still the lynchpin of post-industrial, global capitalism is an urgent critique. Similarly, the film was sophisticated for its use of the route of a cargo liner — from Rotterdam, to Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Bilbao, among other ports of call — as a structure for a film that charts the demise of the industrial in a post industrial world that displaces, alienates and exiles in the interests of proliferating a material economy. Ultimately, the Marxist intention of the film, to document the deterritorialization of the human, and the eradication of manual labor via an image of containers locked onto a cargo deck as it sails the oceans, is ingenious.

Allan Sekula & Noel Burch, The Forgotten Space, 2010
But as my friend Dore in discussion of the film over French comfort food, the film doesn’t always know what it wants to be. The Forgotten Space is torn between being a film about the maritime world, about the demise of the shipping industry, about the human fallout of global capitalism, and about the myth of post-industrialist beliefs. The film’s connection to the maritime and the sea seems to be a purely narrative ruse or prism through which to deliver the critique of global capitalism’s fantasies of standardization. When the film goes to ports such as Guandong, it does so under the auspices of a visit to factories in which the Chinese workers are busy making the objects that will fill the containers, objects whose production has grown exponentially to feed a global economy. We know these images in the Guandong factores we know well from the photographs of Andreas Gursky and Edward Burtynsky, even Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. But the connection to the sea is remote in such ports. Even in ports where all big cargo liners dock, such as Los Angeles, it’s difficult to know the relationship between what the film does there — namely interview people who have lost homes, families, livelihoods, that is, those who are the human fallout of global capitalism — and the maritime world. 
Allan Sekula & Noel Burch, The Forgotten Space, 2010
The film’s documentary aesthetic is potentially interesting, especially given its refusal of the drama and dynamism that has fuelled the very systems it critiques. However, even at this level there are inconsistencies that couldn’t be attributed to the contradictions of a Marxist dialectic. The talking heads, serial long takes, somber voiceover, are periodically interrupted by digital elisions, eclectic and self-conscious music and heavy-handed time lapses. My guess is that these interruptions to the aesthetic were intended as just that: interruptions to accentuate the critique of modernist rationalization as it might be communicated in the objectivity of a documentary camera. But again, as Dore and I discussed, I wonder if we have reached a moment in the history of documentary cinema when the modernist critique of the big brother who grew up as a result of the industrial revolution is, in itself, now a standardized, white, heterosexual, male middle-class discourse? Afterall, this line of argument is now so familiar that it has of course been co-opted by the political and cultural machine to oil its own engines.
Allan Sekula & Noel Burch, The Forgotten Space, 2010

In discussion after the film, Noel Burch kept referring to the fact that an unspecified “they” had censored the film for “obvious reasons.” However, it was not at all obvious to me why this film might not yet have a distributor in France, why it has had limited release elsewhere, or that it was indeed censored in the way that Burch seemed to want to claim. Similarly, in light of the generous support given the film production in Europe, together with its prize at Venice, it was not entirely clear who the “they” doing the “censoring” might be. I got the sense that Burch thought the film was too radical in form, too searing in its critique to be accepted, let alone promoted by the paradigmatic forces that are its subject. However, the question I came away with was whether the film’s limited success and limited release, might actually be due to its unevenness as a film, rather than the result of any damage it might do to the economic and political empire.