Au Contraire: Sátántangó

satantango

(Dir. Béla Tarr, Hungary, 1994)

Cinematic Badge of Honor

In film culture, there’s a temptation to crown a cinematic work a masterpiece based solely upon its novelty. Of course, there are films aplenty with alluring setups that only serve to enrich the already profound content – the intentionally restrictive setting of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the meta-narrative structure of Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees, the circumstances surrounding the illegal filming of Panahi’s This Is Not a Film, or, more recently, the twelve-year shoot of Linklater’s Boyhood. And yet, for every legitimate defense of Linklater’s winsome coming-of-age drama and its headline-ready tagline “twelve years in the making,” there are a slew of arguably unmerited hyperbolic reactions to other attention-grabbing films – Memento’s “the story’s told in reverse!” or Russian Ark’s “it’s all one shot!” or The Artist’s “it’s the first silent film in years!” Sadly, many films will never rise above their promising appeal. Add to that list Sátántangó’s “it’s over seven hours long!” – an opinion that’s likely to get me nowhere fast in most discussions on “serious cinema.”

Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr has directed precious few films over the four-plus decades of his career. He’s adored in some circles for his philosophical bent, his signature marathon takes that can last upwards of ten minutes, and for carrying the torch of “slow cinema” following the death of Andrei Tarkovsky, a filmmaker who Tarr is forever destined for comparison. Though largely unavailable until recently, Sátántangó – his only feature released in the 1990s – is most often heralded as the director’s magnum opus and one of the greatest films of all time. For the 2012 edition of Sight & Sound’s prestigious, decennial critics’ poll, Sátántangó ranked 36th – a place shared with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles and just ahead of classics The 400 Blows and Pather Panchali. It’s safe to say that enough published film critics deem Tarr’s work more than deserving of inclusion in the never-ending conversation on the supposed greatest films of all time.

One might wonder, “but who has the time to sit through a seven hour movie?” Critics compiling a list of the best films of the Nineties? Only “true” cinephiles? Gluttons for punishment? Well, I dared to answer that question myself by sitting down to watch Sátántangó over the course of one weekend. Having only seen Werckmeister Harmonies prior, I went into Sátántangó with very little experience with Tarr. Seven hours later, however, I must confess I’m not exactly itching to see more. In short, Sátántangó is needlessly long, occasionally boring (*gasp* the ultimate offense to a true cinephile!), a tad self-indulgent, and, in this viewer’s opinion, pales in comparison to its immediate successor – a masterwork of 21st century cinema, Werckmeister Harmonies.

To be clear, by no means do I consider Sátántangó a bad film, for I don’t pride myself on contrarianism for its own sake. Its brazen rebuke of the ideologies and politics of a power that had only recently loosened its grip on the nation of Hungary is both welcome and deeply felt throughout the film’s runtime, in its desolate landscapes and constant collision of its debauched characters. The utter depravity of humanity is nearly palpable in every one of the film’s roughly 150 shots. The stark compositions Tarr creates are impressive, and he does capture ugliness beautifully. Too, I found the at-times simultaneous chronology of the film’s twelve overlapping sections engaging and cleverly in keeping with the movement of the titular dance. And yet, after seven languorous hours, I found myself wanting more. And yes, my biggest complaint with Tarr’s admittedly accomplished work is its length, for I don’t believe it serves its narratological or allegorical purpose. Some films do require their daunting runtimes. Akerman needed those three and a half hours of Jeanne Dielman for her titular character’s daily routine to become our routine to then maximize the startling climax when that familiarity is shattered. Tarkovsky needed his three and a half hours of Andrei Rublev (his longest film) for the impact of his central character’s late-film redemption to be as deeply felt in spite of the agony suffered until that moment. And, Edward Yang utilized his near four hours of A Brighter Summer Day to give voice to a host of characters whose stories together painted a portrait of an entire struggling nation.

Simply put, Tarr didn’t need seven hours to stoke his nihilism. And a crushing, dispiriting nihilism is exactly what Sátántangó captures. Of course, optimism is no requisite for crafting meaningful cinema. Tarr’s later triumph Werckmeister Harmonies bears testament to that notion. It’s a tragic film, one that offers an equally pessimistic view of humanity, but there’s also a hopefulness imbedded deep within it, even if that’s mostly due to its beautiful artistic flourishes – something Sátántangó lacked in this viewer’s opinion. Akerman, Yang, and especially Tarkovsky wielded their long-take aesthetics to underscore the themes, visual metaphors, and engrossing narratives of their greatest works. Tarr attempts to do the same here, but after the umpteenth shot of battered people trudging over muddy roads, I can’t help but feeling like maybe we’re just watching people walk through the mud and not much more.

So, why the near-unanimous praise? The detractors’ voices are disturbingly quiet with regards to Tarr’s cinematic monolith. Perhaps some of this can be attributed to the current attitude toward slow cinema and languidly paced narratives in general. In much of today’s discussion on film, long takes equal contemplation, impenetrable obscurity equals philosophical import, and endurance of such lengthy craft is tantamount to the truest form of artistic appreciation. If that sounds cynical, then I’d challenge any staunch admirer of this film to quantify its merits if Tarr had told the same story using the same visual delivery in under two hours. Sometimes, it seems, film experiences like making it through the entirety of Sátántangó are worn as cinematic badges of honor to separate ourselves from the undedicated masses. But, truth be told, there isn’t a soul I’d recommend Sátántangó to. Frankly, seven hours is far too long to dwell in such negativity when there are so many filmic works of art enthralled by the mysteries and beauties of life itself.

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