Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr is often compared to Andrei Tarkovsky, with whom he undeniably shares a certain Eastern bloc minimalism, an extreme formalist austerity expressed in a languidly moving camera that creeps through one long take after another. Tarr's images, as gracefully slow and dark as a molasses river, owe a great debt to Tarkovsky, and his film Damnation is in some ways an extension of the moody black and white opening scenes of Stalker drawn out to feature-length. In other ways, however, the more salient reference point for Tarr is perhaps Michelangelo Antonioni, who like Tarr was arguably concerned with the aestheticization of boredom, lending a certain sleek, awful beauty to the utterly dull and drab. Tarr, despite his film's references to scripture and an apocalyptic atmosphere of doom hanging over his characters, lacks Tarkovsky's overt spirituality. He's more concerned with reality, with simply staring at a scene for long enough that the viewer has time to be enthralled, bored, mystified and provoked in succession by the image. Tarr's seemingly endless takes, his extreme patience for letting a scene's natural rhythms play out — a static view held for an uncomfortably long time, a camera that creeps in a slow sideways pan to reveal the blank expanse lurking around the corner, the way that characters step out of a shot only to be picked up again, long minutes later, when the camera's slow glide finally catches up to them somewhere else — encourage a depth of focus and concentration on the material reality onscreen. This is not always true of Tarkovsky, who despite the superficial similarity in aesthetics was often reaching for something beyond the surface image, but it often is the case with Antonioni, who saw truth and beauty and depth, paradoxically, in surfaces and appearances.
Damnation is all about surfaces, too, all about the material substance of life for a rather ordinary man in a drab, lifeless, perpetually rainy Hungarian village. Karrer (Miklós Székely), growing old and alone, is disconnected from life, aimlessly wandering through his town's muddy, puddle-filled streets. He hits five bars in a single day, drinking his way through his declining years, monosyllabically grunting his way through conversations with a loquacious bartender (Gyula Pauer). He finds some peace and comfort in his desire for a singer in one of these bars, the very Lynchian Titanik with its neon sign above a simple blank storefront. The unnamed singer (Vali Kerekes) unfortunately has a husband (György Cserhalmi), and Karrer wants only to get this man out of the way, to be able to spend time with his lover, who despite her fickle transitions from solicitous to dismissive and cruel, represents his only real reason for living. This simple description of the film's story is not, however, a summary; it is, more or less, the complete content of the narrative. Tarr spreads this narrative material out so sparsely that it nearly threatens to vanish, to evaporate along with the rain that's falling almost constantly in this town. The story has no forward momentum, no detail, because its characters are so iconic, so minimal: even Karrer is little more than the sum of his damp trench coat, his thin, uncontrolled wisps of hair, the hard stubble along his cheeks, the shadows that make his eyes so difficult to read.
Tarr is not concerned with deep characterization here, and Karrer remains as much of an enigma as any of the other characters, most of whom go either unnamed or introduced so casually and obtusely that they might as well not have names. Karrer opens up only once, during a long and heartfelt monologue in which he tells the singer that she is the only one who inspires him to speak, the only person who convinces him that communication can be worthwhile — and yet what she inspires him to relate, as it turns out, is mostly a lengthy description of an old affair, a time when he tormented and ridiculed one of his lovers until she committed suicide. Why he tells this story — either to the singer or to the film's audience — is unclear, except as evidence of his profound lack of ordinary morality, his total disinterest in the vast majority of his fellow human beings. Tarr presents this shocking monologue with his characteristic straightforwardness, with a direct, unmoving single take of Karrer and the singer sitting at the breakfast table, while above the ubiquitous mining cars, hauling coal from a nearby mine, creak by on overhead cable lines. Tarr seems as interested in the rhythmic, mechanical sound of the cable cars, or in the bemused expression of the singer as she munches her breakfast, as he is in the actual content of Karrer's speech. This scene should be startling, horrifying, emotional, something; Tarr places it at such a cold, static distance, however, that it's simply numbing, just another unpleasant tangent in the story of an unpleasant life.
For much of the film, in fact, Tarr seems totally unconcerned with pleasure of any kind, perhaps because there's so little to be found in Karrer's life. Even lovemaking is boring, just something to do to fill the time, and in that respect no better or worse than Karrer's far more common habit of hanging around behind walls on rainy afternoons, voyeuristically peering out into empty space. When Karrer and the singer are having narcoleptic sex at one point, Tarr's camera grows bored and wanders off in a 360-degree spin around the room instead, crawling over the surface of the objects in the woman's room; when a mirror catches sight of the couple for an interval in the camera's radius, they seem to have just barely picked up the pace a little, so that from a distance it might even be thought that they were actually enjoying themselves. Tarr's camera simply meanders on, past the mirror to linger on the rest of the room. The film has a similar attention to sounds, to the scrape of Karrer's razor on his wiry stubble, the mechanical loops of the mining cars, the various sounds of the rain falling in puddles, on roofs, on already-damp ground, or dripping in sheets from off windowsills. The town's music also plays a crucial role in the intricate, carefully designed soundtrack, with the phlegmatic wheeze of the accordion and the sleepy pseudo-jazz of the bar bands adding to the general atmosphere of intense ennui.
The film is intimately involved with its location, with the objects and atmosphere of its place, in ways that it is not with any of its actual human characters, who serve more symbolic functions. Tarr betrays little interest in their individual psychologies. It is a cliché to say that the town itself is a character; perhaps not as much of a cliché to point out that in this film, the town is the only real character. Tarr is tracing out, through Karrer, the story of all the town's inhabitants, charting the town's moods, which based on the amount of rain that falls and the mud and muck it produces, are mostly black, foul moods. The references to Biblical plagues and destruction sent down from God do not mark out Karrer as Lot or a similar figure of Biblical misfortune; it is more likely the town itself is Gomorrah, smote for the sins of its inhabitants, plagued with gray ugly weather and congenital ennui and smileless faces. At one point, Tarr pans across a blank exterior wall that is every so often interrupted by a door. Inside, crowds of people, their hard faces as expressionless as the wall, stare disinterestedly out at the pouring rain.
And yet, strangely enough, Tarr's vision is not entirely bleak, not as long as he has room for such images of surrealistic joy as the long shot of a man dancing manically in the rain, playfully splashing in puddles and creating rhythms with the slap of his shoes on the watery ground. The film culminates with a group version of this solitary celebration, a typically languid and pedestrian dance that nevertheless offers the film's sole vision of community solidarity, of fun and pleasure. It is a moment of respite, an escape from the utter nothingness that is life for these people, a chance to seize something good. Tarr does nothing to make this moment extravagant, shooting it from the same anesthetized distance with which he captures the more prosaic events of the rest of the film. The image is static, the perspective as disinterested as ever, and yet the light and motion within the frame, the sense of measured excitement and understated happiness that's as close as these people get to celebration, communicates that this is a special moment for the village.
This vision of communal togetherness is tempered by the film's overall doom-laden atmosphere, and by the especially bleak tone of its denouement. Betrayed by his lover, Karrer betrays his friends in turn, and in an image of startlingly direct symbolism, literally descends to the level of a dog, getting down on all fours and barking and snapping at one of the mangy, ferocious-looking black mutts that roamed the town's rainy streets throughout the film. Forsaking his fellow humans and the shabby but nonetheless sincere solidarity they offer him, Karrer chooses to isolate himself for good, becoming in the process less than human, an animal fighting only for itself. This ending suggests Tarr's overriding philosophy of humanity, his belief that what truly separates us as a species is not any of the ordinary signifiers of human uniqueness, as important as they can be — not our capacity for speech or complex thought, nor our ability to build and design (industry serves as a grim backdrop in this film, not a sign of progress), nor the institutions of government and order we create, which Karrer ultimately turns to only as a hypocritical tool of revenge — but our ability to socialize, to form true connections, to exist as true communities rather than mere packs of wild dogs. When this communitarian impulse breaks down, when the bonds of human connections are severed, then humanity, like its symbolic representative Karrer, descends to growling in the streets, running mangily through the harsh elements with no protection and no hope.