Béla Tarr: from index to both immersion and distance
An essay by Giuseppe Di Salvatore
When one has the opportunity to hear Béla Tarr speaking of his vision on cinema, one cannot but reflect upon the philosophical core of his oeuvre, also because of the universal aesthetics that emanate from his almost timeless settings. Something like a determinist movement seems to block his characters in blind alleys; through deceit and manipulation, any collective enterprise, from family to society, appears destined to be defeated, but this social defeatism is a solid architecture that is always, somewhere, cracked. A movement of resistance emerges, usually through the faces, the daily gestures, or the animals. Life, which for Tarr always deserves a deferential astonishment, and the dignity of the person, constitute the fissures of hope in his oppressing scaffolding.
Now, on the one hand, the personalist thread – cinematographically recalling the worlds of Bergman or Bresson (but without the religious infiltrations) – expresses a XIX century nostalgic flavour that definitely had a precise political meaning in the Soviet and post-Soviet Hungary. On the other hand, the modernity of Tarr’s classical-born films is all in what results from his deconstruction of meanings and values, which is life in its nakedness, in its reduced purity. What a dramaturgy that is very attentive to psychological continuity can deliver is quite simply the pleasure of the index as such: a ruined wall, a methodical gesture, or just the natural elements of the fire, the wind, the water. For this, repetition, slowness, and the constant reduction of narrative elements in his films amount to the disclosure of life in its mute resistance. This “aesthetics of the index” is quite coherent with the deconstructive tradition of post-classical cinéma d’essai – according to Gilles Deleuze’s infamous periodization – and probably determined the success of Béla Tarr’s films, at least in the arthouse world.
However, if we would reduce our consideration to these general speculations, we cannot appreciate the originality of Béla Tarr’s films, and even become irritated with his advocacy for truth and reality, or his focus on the people. Tarr stopped to create films eight years ago and he consecrated his time to the transmission, which is not to educate or teach, but to liberate the new generations of filmmakers. Meeting Béla Tarr today is the opportunity to discover his art of producing cinema, which means both the experience and the technique of making films. Through a reflection on this art, we will be able to understand how the specific balance between immersion and distance of the viewer or, better, the specific cohabitation of both immersion and distance, constitutes the force and the originality of his films.
On the one side, Tarr insists on the direct experience of the filmmaker with the reality and the importance of the casting in order to create the perfect conditions for the actors to be spontaneous – to embody, or even become, the character. The main task of the director is to be able to catch the energy of the situation, which is largely dependent on the location – the stories become just an occasional detail. Accurate casting and location are functional to a vision of filmmaking that is largely orientated towards reality itself: the filmmaker has “only” to create the good framework for reality to perform itself. Only in this way will the film not be dead from the birth, according to Tarr, and will keep that life which is the focus of Tarr’s aesthetics and should remain the main source of astonishment, for (both him and) the viewer.
On the other side, this apparently less constructive way of making films is accompanied by several formal choices that make Béla Tarr’s unique signature. First, the camera becomes a person – I would say – for it appears to have the same constraints of an actual person being on the set. The limitations that arise from this restriction of the usually impressive power of the camera’s point of view – a restriction systematically preventing the use of reverse shots – finally means the personalization of the camera, and the humanization of the point of view of the spectators, which becomes so participative and fragile, thereby allowing them a stronger sense of meeting the characters on the screen. Our experience so becomes more immersive but also less privileged: in terms of control, the viewer experiences a sort of physical distance from the situation displayed on the screen. A second aspect of immersion and distance embedded in concert is represented by the music and the location, for even if they are always very suggestive, their use is so repetitive, and in such overt dialogue with the other elements of the dramaturgy, that they further become characters. In this being a character, we cannot help holding the music and the location at a certain distance, despite their emotive efficacy. It is actually the entire dramaturgy of Tarr’s films that works through a systematic play between repetition and variation, which becomes more and more apparent with the progressive reduction of elements in his filmography.
This highly constructive aspect of his filmmaking is surprisingly present in what we could imagine as the less constructive and most realist dimension of his art – the long takes. For in these long takes there is always a precise choreography of movements and a composition of elements alternatively in focus – persons, objects, landscapes, sounds, etc. – whose sequence builds a precise game of connections that follow an organic rhythm, the rhythm of breathing. Even if Tarr’s post-shooting editing might be very easy, there is a huge work of pre-editing that makes his famous long takes very constructed. Finally, the typical slow movement of the camera and, even more important, the steady pace of movement (be it slow or not), allows the viewer to be fully immersed into the reality, but at the same time is sufficiently artificial to make her/him keep this reality at a distance.
With these sketchy reflections on the art of cinema in Béla Tarr, I not only want to underline the constructive aspects in his films, thus balancing the apparent realism that is so often discussed, but also point out the precise intertwining of immersion and distance, from the point of view of the spectator, that constitutes the typical experience of his films. What seems to me very particular in experiencing his films is not that we experience a sort of half-immersion half-distance regarding the moving images on the screen, but that he is able to intensify the feelings of both immersion and distance at the same time. Just like for the pleasure of the index, the familiar and the unfamiliar are both strongly present, the usual becomes exceptional; the astonishment spreads through the banal. Our emotions are saturated, but there is still room to think.
This essay has been originally published in April 2019.