by Janice Lee & Jared Woodland
This talk was originally given in Los Angeles on April 24, 2014 at Errata Salon: Slowness, curated by Amina Cain.
Our talk today is an extension of a book we’re currently working on—an investigation of the long take in Bela Tarr’s seven-hour film Satantango. Time, apocalyptic mood, disintegration and ruin, and duration are some concepts and themes we meditate on, in addition to the focus of this talk: the function of slowness in Satantango’s narrative and cinematography. Famous for their black-and-white melancholic drag, Bela Tarr’s other works include Damnation (55 shots in 116 minutes), WH (in 145 minutes only 39 takes), and The Turin Horse (30 shots in 146 minutes).
Cinephiles often compare Tarr to Andrei Tarkovsky. In response to this correlation, Tarr says:
“The main difference is Tarkovsky’s religious and [I am] not… [h]e always had hope; he believed in God. He’s much more innocent than… me… Rain in his films purifies people. In mine, it just makes mud.”
Probably the supreme expression of Tarr’s aesthetic is Satantango, based on László Krasznahorkai’s novel of the same name. Tarr collaborated with Krasznahorkai in adapting the 288-page novel into a film in 1994.
Frequently in Tarr films, speaking is not an aspect of character but an outcome of pace. How slowness speaks (and allows the mise-en-scene to speak), as well as what slowness demands, intimates, and confers—this glut of possibilities comes from Tarr’s principal conceit, the long take. How is this most basic tactic so excessive? Its potential offerings are too much synthesized presentness, too much time in a thing’s presence, a level of suspense altogether incommensurate with the events in such obscene suspension. It also constantly entertains paradoxes: Real feelings of hopefulness, humaneness, empathy, and generosity are fastened to intense alienation. It requests that the viewer endure as the film’s characters endure, to fail as they fail, and to confess: We too have failed to get out; we too have not yet found our way home. And yet we anticipate, because certainly there is something inevitable, immanent, vocal in the mud.
In his essay “Observations on the Long Take,” Pier Paolo Pasolini argues that if the long take apprehends reality, it is the temporal real, the uncut and non-symbolic present, whose language is action. “The long take, the schematic and primordial element of cinema, is…in the present tense,” he says. It therefore leaves things incomplete, unsystematized. A more analytical gaze, on the other hand, dismantles and makes complete. According to Pasolini, we can think of life as a long take, “a chaos of possibilities, a search for relations among discontinuous meanings.” It is death that makes a montage of our lives; this is our system, our semiotics. This is when we have expression; until death we have presentation. Death, says Pasolini, “chooses our truly significant moments…and places them in sequence, converting our present…into a…linguistically describable past.” Is the Tarr long take melancholic because it leaves its characters to abjectness, meaninglessness? Or because it routes us to a semiotic calamity, our inability to make meaning from our own stare? Or does the long take’s patience imply humanity and empathy?
The long take operates in contrast to the traditional Hollywood cut, or on the more exaggerated end of the spectrum, film scholar Matthias Stork coins the term “chaos cinema,” to describe the rapid editing, close framings, bipolar lens lengths and promiscuous camera movements that have become normalized in commercial filmmaking. David Bordwell previously described this phenomenon as “intensified continuity,” but Stork goes further, arguing that this is not just an intensification of classical technique but a perversion and exaggeration of film style that is itself marked by excess, and serves to enact an impressionistic sense of action. This kind of editing gives a sense of action at play, enacts a certain sense of chaos and violence and confusion, marked in stark contrast to Tarr’s long take, in which the slow pace offers a different kind of gesture and performs a different kind of enactment of time.
The anticipation of a cut, an end, an end to the world as we know it, this is the only kind of anticipation we can suffer, the only kind of waiting that makes sense. All of the spaces embedded behind the narrative actions are opened up by eternity, whose shredded copy is time (according to Borges) and by the promise of inevitability and doom. But that doom will never come, though it is indeed this impulsive failure that drives us forward, excruciatingly, heavily, slowly, from a present moment into the next. Sergio Chejfec writes: “It is as though certain moments sought not to advance or achieve resolution, but rather to simply last, to repeat themselves, to unfold not in a temporal but in a spatial continuum. Hence the slow movement of the camera when it alternates between the viewpoints of the main character, the spectator, or the narrator. A flexible, and above all, unconventional notion of time—(time as vantage point, time as delay, time as eternity, time as anticipation)—is required so that Tarr’s patient and obstinate form of observation can act as both the cause and the effect of the duration projected on screen.” We live time through life itself, through living and moving forward in movements, and recover those lost moments only under the guise of eternity.
Tarr’s long take, the agonizing slowness, the anticipation, is also about failure, the failed arrival of anything, of action, of inaction, of an end, so that we come to understand failure not as a set of circumstances that sits in opposition to success, but as a required mode of being, of excess, of waiting, and of the life we have come to know.
Corresponding with failure is incompleteness. Or failure in Tarr is commonly a failure to be complete. The slowness of the camera, the slowness of the activity in the mise-en-scene, and the great duration between both events and cuts perform this specific failure expertly, prohibiting familiarity, estranging us from sense. And no matter how much time we spend in a scene, concreteness itself precludes a reward for our patience: any numinous gleam (a la Tarkovsky) is already impossible. There is mud instead.
Like Krasznahorkai’s long sentence, Tarr’s long take calls for a slow encounter with the material of narrative. In this way—and not in any other formal alignment—the two tactics are similar. The long sentence, though, is uniquely able to stop narrative time, extract us from scene, disrupt linearity. Written digression makes reading time become longer than what is adequate to apprehend the story; description stops time.
He gazed sadly at the threatening sky, at the burned-out remnants of a locust-plagued summer, and suddenly saw on the twig of an acacia, as in a vision, the progress of spring, summer, fall and winter, as if the whole of time were a frivolous interlude in the much greater spaces of eternity, a brilliant conjuring trick to produce something apparently orderly our of chaos, to establish a vantage point from which chance might begin to look like necessity … and he saw himself nailed to the cross of his own cradle and coffin, painfully trying to tear his body away, only, eventually, to deliver himself—utterly naked, without identifying mark, stripped down to essentials—into the care of the people whose duty it was to wash the corpses, people obeying an order snapped out in the dry air against a background loud with torturers and flayers of skin, where he was obliged to regard the human condition without a trace of pity, without a single possibility of any way back to life, because by then he would know for certain that all his life he had been playing with cheaters who had marked the cards and who would, in the end, strip him even of his last means of defense, of that hope of someday finding his way back home.
— from Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, Translated by George Szirtes (New Directions, 2012)
The long take, on the other hand, does not describe. It maintains a constant correspondence between the events of the story and the way in which those events are revealed: We are in action, watching it as it happens in scene. In fact, we stay with events much longer what is necessary to recognize their significance to the narrative. This elevation of detail makes slowness from event to event become for some viewers longness, tedium, boredom. Fidelity to chronology, time alone, becomes too much—partly because it gives us time to be alone, allowing reflection, reverie, and confession between cuts. The restless or cowardly viewer feels that the camera has failed him by refusing to make meaning or quiet the chatteringly silent Things (Rilke) in the frame. Moreover, the setting, says Ranciere, “is usually there before the characters enter, and remains when they have gone” (28). Scenery either becomes monstrous in its indifference or quite talkative in its presentness. The Tarr long take tells as time itself would tell—as a time indifferent to the human experience of time.
Investigating slowness must bring us back to the doctor, whose movements are so excruciatingly slow, slower than real life, even, slower than slow in the expected cinematic time of things. Here though, the slowness is familiar. We follow the doctor in each intentional movement, can predict and anticipate what he is going to do. But the excessive nature of this slowness, of this anticipation, is also dreadful, anxiety-inducing, uncanny. What was once familiar becomes incredibly foreign and horrifying. What was once certain and intentional becomes uncertain and indifferent. The slowness is not about pleasure or endurance, but about the way it affects how we see, not just what, this effect being carried over into the way we continue to see and perceive in the world outside the film. As though there is a world outside the film. Is there still?
The heaviness of confession is both a relief and a burden. Boredom is an irrelevant term here. Depression becomes the norm becomes the apocalypse becomes the present moment becomes the hope of life. Slowness becomes indifference becomes generosity becomes utterly human. Ranciere writes: “We cannot identify ourselves with their feelings. But we enter into something more essential, into the very duration at the heart of which things penetrate and affect them, the suffering of repetition, the sense of another life, the dignity assumed in order to pursue the dream of this other life, and to bear the deception of this dream.” And further, “The time after is neither that of reason recovered, nor that of the expected disaster. It is the time after all stories, the time when one takes direct interest in the sensible stuff in which these stories cleaved their shortcuts between projected and accomplished ends. It is not the time in which we craft beautiful phrases or shots to make up for the emptiness of all waiting. It is the time in which we take an interest in the wait itself.” Waiting becomes anticipation becomes consideration becomes confession. The filmic space becomes a physical space for waiting becomes a space for pacing becomes a space for being. The repetition becomes tedium becomes facility becomes birth becomes death.
András Bálint Kovács writes: “It is not the objective and quantifiable length of the Tarr films that makes the viewers feel that they are long; it is rather their other, non-quantifiable feature, their extreme slowness,” and “slowness gives birth to something I would call the time of hope, hope that after all there is a way out of the circle when there is not.” Kovacs continues, “the story is going somewhere, even if slowly, while in fact it is only making a circle and arrives at a situation as hopeless as the one it started out from” (100). In this illusion of evolution embedded in a very apparent feeling of hopelessness, conflict at or in the beginning finds no resolution. But think of the oblong form of Satantango’s circle, at least as it relates to the doctor, whose obsessive watching and recording warp the circularity and offer an obdurately affirmative response to Nietzsche’s eternal return. In the Gay Science, Nietzsche asks:
What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sight and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?
The doctor seems an unlikely but undeniable Nietzschean hero: He says yes to the “unutterably small”—worships it with his notes, drawings, and observations—a tacit understanding that he’s a “speck of dust” like the others: “They’ll kick off anyway,” he says. “You too, Futaki, you’ll kick off.”
We can intensify our closeness with Tarr’s slow cinema by connecting it with the conceits of slow music, particularly that under the “doom” sign. Musical slowness shares with cinematic slowness the potential to incite a meditative/contemplative state of loitering and a sensation of arrested progress. Like a minutes-long shot of two characters walking, a chord held for a long time confers a moment for concentration: We are not listening toward a predictable climax any more than we are watching toward a notable incident; we are going nowhere. And just as Tarr’s cuts punctuate shots and make them meaningful narrative components, beats in slow music become events. Overtly slow songs, such as those by the German doom-lounge band Bohren and the Club of Gore, offer very little escalation, presenting and praising stasis and mood (melancholy, specifically) over movement and trajectory. The band’s protracted chords glaciate us rather than move us through a process.
But these comparisons mean nothing if we can’t make of them a final (but not finalizing) collection of questions about the nature of Tarr’s slowness. Why does a slow pace or tempo suggest doom? Is eventlessness apocalypse? And when watching Satantango or listening to slow music, is our own directed patience meant to make us aware of an apocalypse that is already upon us?
Jared Woodland lives in Los Angeles, where he is at work on a novel whose preoccupations are animality, narrative, and the Midwest.
Janice Lee is the author of KEROTAKIS, Daughter, and Damnation. She is Co-Editor of [out of nothing], Reviews Editor at HTMLGIANT, Editor of the new #RECURRENT Novel Series for Jaded Ibis Press, Executive Editor at Entropy, and Founder/CEO of POTG Design.