Mar 5, 2007

Satantango: The Seven Hour Movie

As penance for having watched the Oscars last week, our resident philosopher in the movie club suggested we all go atone by watching Satantango, a 7-hour black and white movie by Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr, at the Anthology Film Archives (them of the uncomfortable seats). As you can imagine, dear readers, I had absolutely no faith in this endeavor, because it sounded like the kind of films I try to avoid: pretentious, inexplicable, artsy-fartsy, humorless, self-important dreck. So my friend Marta and I had concocted an escape plan in case we hated it. We'd come to the first two hours and a half at 2 pm, and if it was too much torture, we'd leave at the first intermission and never look back.
Well, I am happy to report that we stayed for the entire megillah and emerged at 10:30 pm, disoriented, dizzy, hungry, overstimulated and exhausted but deeply and strangely rewarded.
I will not even try to explain to you what this film is about because I'm still trying to figure it out myself. But it is, in my mind, a huge, long, metaphor of Eastern Europe, one of the most misanthropic movies I have ever seen, brutal and poetic and darkly funny in spurts and absolutely mesmerizing. Also, it has extremely long, slow takes that defy you to stay awake. Most of us fell asleep after the first intervmission during a looooong sequence of a fat, drunk doctor who sits by his window, drinks and spies on people, shot in real time, and excruciatingly slow, but not without fascination. My friend Begonia, who is a painter, was the only one who didn't snooze, and I can see why, because the frames had the quality of painting.
Satantango is technically brilliant, with gorgeous, endless traveling shots and a photography in black and white that seems to have been made with far more darkness than light. This isn't black and white, this is all gray, dreary, relentlessly dark and oppressive, but beautiful in its unstinting depiction of ugliness, and fascinating to watch. Still, my fantasy is to get my hands on the negative and start snipping away and make a more palatable version, of say 3 hours, for the general public. This would make the story way snappier, but it would also take away part of the most arresting (no pun intended) visual art committed to film.
I have been watching art video lately. Except for a few exceptions like the ethereal videos of Michal Rovner, some of Bill Viola's, Warhol's screen tests, and a recent work by Francis Alys, I find art video unbearable. A case in point is The Rape of the Sabine Women by Eve Sussman. I had already seen her 89 seconds at Alcazar, her recreation of Las Meninas by Velazquez at MoMa and my main question was: why? Why take probably the most astounding painting in Western art and make it into a video? It doesn't give you the feeling of entering a different dimension in space and time that the original does. It feels like a gimmick, as well done as it is. But at least it's only 89 seconds.
Now her new film is sort of a retelling of this classical myth that has been depicted in Western art by different painters. It is 80 minutes and I fell asleep for big chunks of it. It is beautifully shot and composed but it leaves me cold. It looks like a fashion show. It, as far as I can surmise, doesn't mean much. Except perhaps that savagery is not far from the polished surface of civilization, but I think this point can be made with less self-regard, ponderousness and preciousness. And I also wonder if the main reason for my exasperation is that there is no narrative. I don't expect narrative from works that don't pretend to narrate, like the Warhol Film Stills or the Rovner videos, but when something is based on a story, your brain is wired for it and expects it.
What surprised me about Satantango was that it has a huge story, and you have to grasp its thread from the vast, dense pool of time in which it tells it. But the story is the reason why you glue yourself to your seat and you wait to see what happens. And you can discuss the meanings until the cows come home to roost. And the images, their narrative implications, their poetic power disturb your mind long after you've left the theater.

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