Part two of December’s Monthly List features my favorite movie of the year, which wasn’t even released in 2012, plus a few thoughts about a couple of books I read, one or two of the live shows I saw, and a brief reflection on visiting the Museum of Modern Art for the first time.
Sátántangó at the Harvard Film Archive
During the early winter of 2007—my first new year in Boston—I visited the Harvard Film Archive with a friend to see Per Aspera Ad Astra, a bizarre B-grade Russian film about cloned humans, environmental destruction, and capitalism, among other things. I’d just finished my first semester at Boston College and was excited to spend some more time outside of the classroom, preferably at the movie theaters around the city, all of which showed more than I could have ever hoped to see in St. Louis. To that end I checked the Archive’s schedule and saw a notice about a series of films by Béla Tarr and László Krasznahorkai.
Among them was Sátántangó, a seven-plus hour epic described as “one of the most important and remarkable films of the past few decades.” Reading about it was a temptation. I’d never heard of Tarr and I knew nothing of Krasznahorkai—author of the book upon which the movie is based—but I resolved to see it anyway. Two days later I realized I’d be traveling back to St. Louis the same day it started. Disappointed, I came to terms with the fact that I’d have to wait a long time before it came to the theaters again. The relatively low quality Facets DVD wasn’t available at that time, and even if it were, I didn’t have seven hours to spare during the school year.
Thankfully, the HFA hosted a second Tarr series during March of last year, this time showing nine of his films. Among them was Sátántangó. I told everyone I knew about it, and almost all of them thought I was crazy for being so excited about a slow, seven hour black and white film—who would want to spend their Saturday that way?—but I felt like a kid on Christmas morning when I realized it was being shown on the weekend, which meant I could go.
Between missing it the first time and seeing notice about it the second, I’d managed to see Werckmeister Harmonies twice. It quickly became one of my favorite movies—up there with the likes of The Passion of Joan of Arc and Days of Heaven. I still think it’s opening scene is one of the best I’ve ever seen:
So I had some idea what seven hours of Tarr might be like. I did a little research and found most reviewers concentrating on its length. One referred to it as the “Mt. Everest of film.” I expected a struggle.
Instead, when the movie ended, my first thought was “I need to see this again.”
A movie this long might sound self-indulgent, like the product of a director with his head stuck permanently in the clouds, but I can’t think of a minute that I would cut. Much like some of my favorite music, Sátántangó uses long cuts and a slow pace to do and show things shorter films or shorter cuts can’t do or show.
The opening scene is a great example. It follows a herd of cows as they trek through the dilapidated town that is the movie’s primary setting. Tarr doesn’t make a single cut throughout its duration. There are no edits, no speeches, no narrative, and it lasts for 10 minutes. It sounds preposterous, but the fact is that Tarr makes the sequence work.
By the time the narrator speaks his first words, the audience already has a sense of where these people live and the condition they’re probably living in. The muddy streets and run-down shacks say much so that the narrator doesn’t have to say a thing about where the movie takes place—and because of this, the atmosphere in the village, as well as village itself, is conjured up as a character of its own. It weighs on everyone’s shoulders and amplifies their loneliness; it compounds their hopelessness so much that it transforms from a mere place into a powerful force.
Through Tarr’s unblinking direction, the audience also gets long, hard looks at the way the villagers interact. We watch them get drunk, lie to each other, and generally wallow in their listlessness, but without the relief of cuts or edits. The more Tarr focuses on a single subject or shot, the less distance there is between the audience and the actors on screen. Nothing abates their baseness and stupidity and there’s no opportunity to look away.
All of which makes the movie sound very hard to watch, but it’s entertaining in some conventional ways too. For one, it’s beautifully shot. There are several striking one-camera sequences that I still remember vividly, including one that ends with the haunting image of an owl perched on a balcony. The music and sound design are also excellent, and there are some genuinely humorous moments scattered among the heavier and more darkly comedic ones. And hidden among one of the darker and more difficult-to-watch scenes is a spark of sympathy, which is as sad as it is welcome. Add to that a brilliantly structured narrative and an extremely talented cast and you can begin to understand why someone might want to see this movie.
By the time it was over, I was afraid that other movies had been ruined for me. Of course that turned out not to be true, but Sátántangó does stand out among the flashier movies that usually win popular acclaim, in part because it isn’t beholden to their rules. It’s not as if Tarr had a studio or an audience he needed to think about while filming. And, unlike your average blockbuster or Academy award winner, there’s no convenient way to watch it. A whole day is required for viewing, which is enough to keep some film critics from venturing into the theater. It’s also impossible to market. There are long periods without any kind of action and it requires a good deal of attention, a decent memory, and a willingness to engage with the material from start to finish. Writing about it now, I’m worried that I’m making it sound more like work than like a movie.
But if you can make it through the first couple of scenes, you can make it through the whole thing. If you do, you’ll have seen one of the best and most extraordinary movies I’ve ever seen. And like me, you’ll probably be anxious to watch it again.
Two Shows: Keith Rowe 21 Sept 2012 / Alvin Curran 02 March 2012
Keith Rowe came to Boston on the 21st of September and performed two improvised sets. One with a small group, the other a series of brief sketches with a larger group, all of them based on Cornelius Cardew’s Nature Study Notes. The notes are actually a collection of instructions written by different members of the Scratch Orchestra and by other of Cardew’s friends and associates; looking through them now, I don’t see any mention of time signatures, keys, or chord progressions. Instead they say things like, “Take a stupid book. A reader reads aloud from it while the rest improvise. The role of reader may wander, a) through the reader presenting the stupid book to someone else, and b) by someone wresting the stupid book from the reader. A reader may attempt to terminate proceedings by ceasing to read aloud from the stupid book.” Another, apparently written by David Jackman, suggests, “Converse with ducks (real or imaginary) Establish a rapport.”
After the show, I had the chance to talk with Keith and some of the other performers about those notes. I asked him about working with Cardew and we jumped around to other topics too, including John Cage and chance operations in music. Before he left, Keith agreed to do an interview with me, but I was never able to put a decent one together. Hopefully I can correct that this year, if he’s still willing.
Both sets were a lot of fun and lighthearted, and there was a generally playful mood to the proceedings. The music was also more spontaneous than what I heard at the Rowe/Voltage Spooks show in 2011. My guess it that nobody at the September show had played with Keith before, so it all came off much looser than it would have otherwise.
Of the two sets, I enjoyed the second the most. Before either set started, everyone in the audience had been given a copy of Cardew’s Notes. Once the second group was set up and ready to play, they secretly agreed on a few of the instructions to perform. They then played each one for a short period of time without telling the audience which of the instructions they’d picked until after they had stopped. It was revealing to see how different members of the group interpreted the instructions: some were straightforward, others clever—at least one performer abandoned his instrument in favor of pushing his chair around the floor. But mo matter what happened, the energy in the room stayed lively, almost festive, and it was obvious that some of the performers were as surprised by the outcome as the audience was. That sense of chance and surprise made it the most memorable show of the year.
Prior to the show, my only exposure to his work had been through the Solo Works 3CD compilation released by New World Records. I think I was expecting something along the lines of “Canti Illuminati” when I saw him, but what I got was instead was a bizarre amalgamation of performance art, solo piano, and a noisy keyboard that played fog horn samples, animal noises, explosions, and fragments of music by Frank Sinatra, among other unexpected sounds.
After the show I found out his performance was based on The Alvin Curran Fake Book, a collection of melodies, samples, and sound fragments from throughout his career. The music definitely sounded improvised, but to what degree I’m not sure. It was a bombastic performance dotted by passages of near silence and weird, soundless gestures. Curran would tap his fingers on the body of the grand piano and pretended to play at its keys or move his arms about as if he couldn’t decide what to do next. Anyone sitting on the opposite side of the room might have wondered what he was doing since the piano blocked their view of his body. I saw it clearly and I’m still uncertain about what he was up to.
I had a similar experience watching the Rawlings/Tonne/Meginsky/Kelley Quartet (that’s Vic, Liz, Jake, and Greg) open for Curran. They played an extremely quiet, nearly motionless set that I might have enjoyed more were it not for where I was sitting. Both the speakers and the performers were turned slightly away from me, so I couldn’t make out what any of them were doing with their instruments. Maybe that was the point.
Compared to their airy utterances and barely-there vocalizations of their music, Curran’s set was over-the-top and almost funny. An odd pairing from Non-Event for sure, but one that stuck with me throughout the year.
Friedrich Nietzsche and Franz Kafka
I posted some thoughts about Nietzsche and Kafka to this blog late in 2012; you can read those posts here and here. I want to mention them again because their writing was particularly important to me this year. Kafka had me jotting down short story ideas for the first time since I was a kid, and with Nietzsche I found an unexpected friend. I’d read him as an undergrad, but became obsessed with Georges Bataille before I’d gone too deep into his writing. After watching some of Rick Roderick’s lectures about Nietzsche earlier in the year, I picked up Beyond Good and Evil again and was instantly absorbed. Had I been smarter, I would have read Nietzsche before Bataille—the distance between “the will to power” and La Part Maudite is surprisingly small. Beside that, his skepticism, mocking tone, and pugnacious stance were refreshing this time around, and I found more humor in his work than I had expected. Which isn’t to say I agreed with everything, but that’s how it should be.
Their books also had me reading at an obsessive pace. Television, movies, games, and other distractions all fell off my radar when I had their work at hand. So I recommend reading Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil and any collection of Kafka’s short stories to everyone. Information about the Kafka collection I read can be found here.
The Museum of Modern Art, NYC
For my 30th birthday I made a trip to New York City just to visit the Museum of Modern Art. It was the first time I’d had the chance to see work by a majority of the artists on display there. I wish I could write more elegantly about the visual arts, because my experience there was inspiring and overwhelming.
It’s one thing to see photographs of Van Gogh’s Starry Night in a book, it’s another thing entirely to stand in the same room with it. Images of it are so ubiquitous that I usually ignore them; Starry Night so familiar that I don’t think much about it. But to see it in person and stand just a few feet away changes that. The same goes for Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and just about every other painting I saw there. Some of the work I saw and knew seemed less impressive to me in person—like Dali’s Persistence of Memory—and things I thought I disliked were almost impossible to walk away from—like the Cubist work I saw from Georges Braque, Umberto Boccioni, and Picasso.
Pollock also caught me off guard. His One: Number 31, 1950 almost knocked me over. Looking at it online now, I realize just how much is lost on a computer screen or on the printed page. A larger reproduction wouldn’t help either. This thing takes up an entire wall; it’s close to nine feet tall and over 17 feet wide. It makes me want to throw what art books I have out the window.
I was maybe happiest to see Marcel Duchamp and Constantin Brâncuși’s work at the museum. I had no idea I’d get the chance to see either, though I don’t know why. I turned a corner and suddenly I was staring at one of Duchamp’s readymades and his Network of Stoppages, which blew me away. From one room to the next, I was constantly wishing I could spend more time there. Cindy Sherman’s photography was on exhibition when I was there and though I’d never seen any of her work before, I spent a long time checking it out; more than I thought I would from looking at the advertisements. Just the chance to encounter art like that at random is very exciting. That MoMA alone is enough to make me wish I lived in New York.
Thanks to Dana and Chris for making that visit possible. You guys rock.
And that wraps up this two-part Monthly List. I only want to add that at the very end of the year I got engaged to my beautiful and stupefyingly talented girlfriend of two and a half years, which officially makes me the luckiest guy in the world. Nothing that happened in the last year even comes close to topping that.
Thanks for reading my new blog these last few months and happy 2013.