04 January 2013

2012: the year in cinema, part deux.

In 1964, Andy Warhol unleashed his intentionally unwatchable film Empire on an unsuspecting public. The joke—assuming there was one—was directed at anybody foolish (or pretentious) enough to approach the eight-hour continuous shot of the Empire State Building as if it were an assimilable cinematic product. Of course Empire wasn't something you were intended to sit and watch, like an ordinary entertainment—and I'm quite certain Warhol himself never made it through even a fraction of the whole; it was intended to just be there, on the sidelines or periphery as a commentary—either provocative or trite, as you happen to see it—on film and art itself. If you were actually dumb enough to sit through all eight hours of Empire and to scrupulously watch it as an active audience member, well... you probably deserved whatever psychic pain you experienced...

Now fast forward to approximately fifty years later. Hungarian director and art-house darling Béla Tarr embraces a similar art—that is, he creates (usually long) films with minimal action, minimal dialogue, and minimal character affect—in other words, films characterized by absence. But the cruel difference between Tarr and Warhol is that Tarr fully expects the audience to watch his extended snapshots and to absorb them as some kind of experience. Now what kind of experience he's aiming at is something I haven't quite figured out, but the critics seem to love him; Susan Sontag once wrote that she intended to watch Tarr's seven-and-a-half-hour visual-dirge Sátántangó once ever year. (In view of her present circumstances, we can no longer hold her to this resolution.) Whenever I insult Tarr's work on the internet—which is one of my hobbies—it seems that his fanboys regress to the fifth grade and start calling me a dummy or neanderthal—which seems an odd response from 'cultured' fans of high-art cinema, but I won't dwell on the irony here. I'm willing to admit that I may be a dummy or a neanderthal, but I'm not willing to admit that it's because I don't like Béla Tarr, who seems (to me) to have an outright contempt for his audience. Make no mistake... Tarr brings out the masochists. They fill his negative spaces with their baggage and pretensions. 

In 2012, Tarr released what he claimed will be his final film. (And the crowd goes wild!) That's right... He's supposedly retiring from filmmaking. But since he's only in his late fifties, I remain skeptical. It's easy to see, however, why a film like The Turin Horse would seem like a good stopping point. It's almost the nth-degree in cinematic minimalism without reverting to Warhol's mostly static shots. In my reading, The Turin Horse is also a loud, valedictory 'fuck you' to his audience, which is compelled—by its duty to art—to endure a two-and-half-hour, starkly-photographed home movie, recording the banality and the complete nothingness which comprises the lives of a peasant, his daughter, and their horse. The man and his daughter rarely speak to each and go through the same domestic rituals again and again—getting Papa dressed, hitching up the horse, going out to the well, boiling two potatoes. (Time to make the donuts!) Needless to say, this isn't Michael Bay. Since both of the main characters are stone-faced and not emotionally forthcoming, the film illustrates nothing but the steely resolve of the underprivileged in reckoning with their hardscrabble lives. I suspect Tarr is trying to make his audience experience these lives, not tell us anything insightful about them—but if so, he undermines the project by keeping his audience at a chilly distance. Instead, we're left only with another stale experiment in cinematic minimalism—the self-parodic swan song of a director who clearly despises every one of us.


  1. Eight hours of the Empire State Building? Did you ever see parts of that 24-hour film that was released last year called The Clock? I heard it was interesting.

  2. I guess I can cross this one off my list of things to see. Not that it was on there in the first place.

    1. Strong start to the year, David. I didn't see any movies in the theater in 2012, but I saw a bunch on DVD. Typing that, I realize it makes me sound like some kind of freak, but I can assure you, it seemed normal at the time.

    2. I'm mostly a DVD film-watcher, too, BB.

    3. Why would watching movies on DVD make you sound like a freak, BB? If that's the criterion, I'm the freakiest freak around. (I have to see most films on DVD because most of the foreign, independent, and obscure ones I want to see never make it here.)

      What were your favorites in 2012, Trish, BB, and Morais? (They don't have to be movies from this year—just movies you've seen for the first time this year...)

    4. The freak part was that I hadn't gone to the movies once in the past year. Actually, I've since remembered that the statement isn't true. I saw The Hunger Games movie in 2012, at the theater, so forget everything I said above.

      Best movies of 2012? We watched a lot of old-but-new-to-us Shakespeare-based movies for some reason. I liked David Tennat's performance of Hamlet, and Patrick Stewart's Macbeth. I also saw "Contempt" with Bridgitte Bardot (1963)... okay, but with Bridgitte Bardot, so that bumps it up. I'm trying to think what else I saw in 2012. Quite a few documentaries. "Strategic Relocation" sticks in my mind, although I don't recommend it, unless you're into that kind of thing.