I Love You But I’ve Chosen Sátántangó

By: Scott Alic

I’m waiting for one of those bleak February Sundays, the colour of a pile of snow pushed to the curb days ago. The kind Morrissey sang about.  A day like that seems perfect for my mission.

No, I’m not going to kill myself. I’m actually a pretty contented guy. I have a cosy apartment where I never feel stir crazy, and whose radiators shoot out jungle steam, making it shorts weather through even the coldest winters. I have a job that generally gives me some sense of purpose, and while I have a small number of good friends that I see now and then, and a satisfying relationship with a girl across town, I keep to myself a lot, and that suits me fine. (Yes, I have a cat.) I have a terrible relationship with money, true, but am not so broke that I can’t enjoy this city now and then. Still, in some ways, I feel like I lead a rich life – I get lots of sleep (which is better than gold, as many of my friends with young children would say), and spend a substantial portion of my time indulging my passions for the finer things. I can’t complain.

But I am resolved: I am going to watch a seven-hour-long film.

No, not the Godfather trilogy. It’s black and white (but mostly grey), and set in a broke-ass Hungarian village. From what I’ve heard, there’s not a lot of action. It has shots that regularly extend five, seven, ten minutes long, longer. It’s called Sátántangó. And I gotta say, I’m kinda psyched.

Happy hour, Sátántangó-style.

Happy hour, Sátántangó-style.

Gchat from aforementioned Girl Across Town: “why ARE you excited at the prospect? ….. in short.” So:

Film is, to my mind, the perfect artform in many ways – it can provide a window onto lives and / or parts of the planet that I may never get to know otherwise, can make powerful statements about what it means to be human, can capture fleeting moments of great beauty, can be a tool for developing empathy, which I think is the very best human quality. Sure, for most of us, film is a source of entertainment, a means to escape the weariness and stresses of our lives at the end of a day, and live vicariously through Melissa McCarthy’s sass, or Leo DiCaprio raking in obscene amounts of money. But film has the potential to be so much more than a phoned-in sequel: in 90 minutes, it’s possible to take in a rich and complete work of life-changing art.

So what about 432 minutes? I fully understand that the very idea of such a film is ludicrous, if not perverse and intolerable, to most people — an assault on today’s ravaged attention spans, to be sure, and having that kind of uninterrupted time to devote to such an experience, or anything, just won’t make sense to many. Does Sátántangó, or any film for that matter, need to be that long?[1] [2] Does the film’s power lie in its length?

I knew a girl who went to art school, and in an exercise on phenomenology, she was told to pick a painting at the art gallery, and spend the entire day with it, the thought being that the experience would generate a third element between artwork and observer. She chose a work by Mark Rothko (abstract expressionism — awesome choice). I don’t mind meditative pacing in films that are made intelligently. While long shots can be hypnotic, they can also drive you deeper into the film, and make you almost hyper-aware of the slightest nuances, when they do occur; minor details can take on significance that they might not in a more tightly edited film.

In the way that many avid readers (themselves a dying breed) seem to want to tackle Tolstoy’s War and Peace in their lifetimes, an act which many see as a punishment, I feel like watching Bela Tarr‘s Sátántangó will take one major item off of my cinephilic bucket list, and if I’m lucky, just might lead me to a greater understanding about — the capabilities of film? Human nature? Myself?

Heaven knows there will be plenty of time to sort things out.

A girl and her (dead) cat.

A girl and her (dead) cat.

As you can probably guess, yes: my tastes do generally skew towards the arty, the foreign and obscure (although I watched and enjoyed Chef recently, okay? My black turtleneck was in the wash). I’ve ploughed through a considerable portion of the Criterion Collection, and signing up for Hulu recently put hundreds more of those titles at my fingertips. I’m even eyeing Fandor, which digs even deeper into the fringes — crypto-feminist 60s Czech films, experimental documentaries, the like. Understand: none of this makes me better than you. My tastes just lead me to new and different things, and sometimes to extremes.

They’re not all brilliant films. Some are utterly pretentious[3], or provocative but juvenile. I have an unfortunate taste for directors who seem to put their audiences (and often, their casts) through the wringer: Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier, Gaspar Noe. Béla Tarr is not as much of a miserablist as those guys, but his filmmaking style is far from vibrant, at least from what I’ve heard. I’ve not seen any of Tarr’s films to date, but the snippets and screen caps I’ve seen point to stark compositions rendered in a palette of greys. His other films have been more manageable lengths, but it’s Sátántangó which has earned the most reverent praise from high-minded critics, and which appears to have been the main influence on a string of Gus Van Sant’s later films — Gerry, Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park. I was particularly enamoured with 2003’s Gerry, which saw Matt Damon and Casey Affleck getting hella lost on a hike, and wandering through landscapes in Argentina, Death Valley and Utah. During extremely long shots of the desperate pair weakly straggling across salt flats as dusk fell, I found my mind working away at all kinds of ruminations on man’s relationship with nature. (It’s a mere 103 minutes long.) Although I’ve done a little yoga and focused on my concentration and ability to stay present, my mind is still apt to wander, and while I could have just as easily been thinking about what I was going to make for dinner, the film did it’s job well enough to keep me focused.

Something bad happens here.

Something bad happens here.

I’m trying not to do too much research on the film in advance, but (I think) I know a few things: it’s about a dying Hungarian village choked with corruption. The film is structured like a tango, doubling back on itself. Lots of shots of people walking through bleak streets and landscapes. A girl brings a cat everywhere with her, but frustrated over her powerlessness, she beats it (not looking forward to that scene). And that’s about it.

In order to truly immerse myself in the world of the film, I do want to watch it with minimal interruption or distraction. Devices off. With no screening scheduled in this part of the world for the foreseeable future, it looks like it’s going to be on my flatscreen (so long as my cat doesn’t chew on the HDMI cable). Bathroom breaks if necessary, snacks fine, but once my Sunday brunch has been ingested, it’s on.

And now it’s here: a Sunday matching the colour palette of the film. Granted, seven hours from now, the sky will be a deep blue. Perhaps I’ll see it a little differently then.

—————

[1] Gchat from GAT, a teacher: “That sounds like a sick-day movie”

[2] The only other film I can think of that is longer is Claude Lanzmann’s Holocaust documentary Shoah, which runs over ten hours in its longest cut. Universally revered as an important work, but surely difficult in the extreme to ingest in a sitting. Oh right, and then there’s Warhol’s experimental Empire (485 minutes), which is a single take of the Empire State Building from sunset onwards.

[3] I’ve tried in so many ways to get into Jean-Luc Godard, and can only echo the criticism of Ingmar Bergman: “I’ve never been able to appreciate any of his films, nor even understand them… I find his films affected, intellectual, self-obsessed and, as cinema, without interest and frankly dull… I’ve always thought that he made films for critics.”

STwetst

I would be happy to leave this article at that – my goal was to make you understand why I would spend a Sunday in this way. I certainly don’t expect flocks of you to seek out Sátántangó, but if you made it this far, you’re probably wondering: was it worth it?

In short, by and large: yes. It’s a beautiful film, and while I’m not certain that there are only 150 shots in the entire film, as has been claimed, some of the longer shots do feature some elegant camera movement, assuming multiple striking compositions across their length. (My initial fears that the long shots were mostly static proved thankfully unfounded. Note, however, that “long” here means, like, five minutes-plus. There are plenty of spare, two-minute tableaux here, to be sure.)

I was surprised to find out that the opening tracking shot, which follows a herd of cows as they make their way across the collective farming village, was eight minutes long, and I’m sure that most other shots were far longer than I realized. That shot establishes the film’s setting quite effectively, and was packed with different textures, giving a rich sense of the decay of a village, its inhabitants given over to their vices: lazy lust, sloth, greed, neglect. (The long takes do add effectively to the sense of resignation.) Even when mysterious bells toll, children go missing, and word of the impending return of a devil-like figure from the town’s past spreads, the villagers dance drunkenly until the last of them is passed out, and tragedy strikes. We see the happenings of a couple of days through the eyes of several villagers, and we return to key plot intersections at various points. Sporadically, a narrator provides some illumination with a wryness that is one of the few moments of warmth. Otherwise, the oppressive atmosphere of the film put me very much in mind of a less-weird Eraserhead. As with that film, sounds play a key role: the rains that batter the town ceaselessly and turn the grounds to mud; the clock in the village bar, monotonously punctuating the wasted seconds.

The episodic nature of the film (with two intermissions) makes it a little more digestible, and I felt as though I was binge-watching some brooding European TV show from the 90s; Twin Peaks came to mind, though again, Sátántangó is not so much strange as it is resignedly, almost apocalyptically gloomy. I also felt much as though I’d burned through a heavy European novel[4] across a long Sunday; a heavy dose, to be sure, but you’re going to feel the weight of anything that you do for SEVEN HOURS.[5]

And I was on board, even riveted, at least for, say, the first four of those hours, up to the central “Satan’s Tango” scene, the first sequence that felt its length (as the late hours of a late-night drinkup tend to do). After the tragedy befalls the village, the villagers leave their village behind, putting their year’s earnings in the hands of the mysterious figure Irimiás, who may be leading them astray with promises of a prosperous life on a new farm he is setting up.[6] This sequence is where some weariness admittedly set it, and I started to ask whether shots or whole sequences needed to be their length, or even present at all.

(So, the cat scene: it’s cruel, but not horrifically so; like the rest of the film, it is directed smartly enough to make its point. Concerned after the fact, though, I did the research, and apparently the cat was in the care of an on-set veterinarian at all times.)

In the final analysis, I’m glad that I saw Sátántangó, and took the time to inhabit its world. It’s a grim, squalid place, but the story unfolds in such a way, and at such a pace, that I felt as though I lived inside it by the end. It turns out that I dig Béla Tarr’s style, and I look forward to seeing a few more of his films, especially Werckmeister Harmonies and The Turin Horse. I’m happy to report that both of those films clock in at a lean 145 minutes.

—————

[4] Like several other Béla Tarr films, Sátántangó is in fact based on a novel by László Krasznahorkai, who also co-wrote the script here.

[5] Béla Tarr has expressed that the film is meant to be watched in one go. I can think of a very small number of friends I might recommend the film to, but one is Hungarian, and keen to see cinema from her homeland; I might still tell her to break it up into the three feature-sized chunks separated by breaks. I think that the film could work nearly as well that way.

[6] Despite the intimations that Irimiás is looking to procure large amounts of gunpowder, there is no explosive Zabriskie Point-esque finale in store. In fact, we spend the final 45 minutes away from Irimiás, and all but one of the villagers.

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One response to “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Sátántangó

  1. Out 1 is 12 hours. And there’s this this experimental movie called the clock which runs at 24 hours but only screens in a museum in the US. Satantango is a movie i hope to watch this winter.

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