Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 26, 2011 1:59 pm 
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Imagination dead imagine

The Hungarian director Béla Tarr is not for everyone. His style is distinctive. HIs venue is the film festival. He works in black and white, and at length. Great length. The subject is often people in remote places oppressed by dire weather. One of his masterpieces is Satantango (1994), about a village whose inhabitants are squabbling over cash: it's seven and a half hours. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) concerns a town oppressed by frost, and villagers gathering outside a great exhibit of a whale carcass. Two and a half hours. The Turin Horse, which he declares will be his last film, also two and a half hours, concerns a bearded man, his dreary granddaughter, and a flea-bitten workhorse. They are out in the middle of nowhere, their primitive house and stable surrounded by howling winds. A dust storm rages, with a background of grinding strings swirling over a repeated cluster of notes.

The pretext for The Turin Horse is an apocryphal story of Nietzsche in 1889, when he saw a cabman abusing his horse and intervened, throwing his arms around the pathetic steed. We know what happened to Nietzsche, but not what happened to the horse, says the film's intro. Tarr endeavors to correct that with six days in the lives of the cabman Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi), his granddaughter (Erika Bok), and the poor beast. Tarr tells a tale of daily rituals, suffering, darkness, and attrition. Gypsies raid the well, and later it has gone dry. Deprived of water, Ohsdorfer and granddaughter pack up essentials and leave, pulling a cart. The horse, which has lately refused to move or eat, accompanies them. But a day later they return and unpack everything. Eventually the winds stop, but the lamps won't light, and the embers die out: no more fire or light. And still no water. Only liquor.

Ohsdorfer and the woman are like Hamm and Clov in Samuel Beckett's Endgame without the wit and glorious language and cosmic setting. This pair hardly talk, and when they do, they speak in grunts and expletives. The granddaughter helps Ohsdorfer dress and undress, gets water (when there is any), tends to the horse (perhaps), boils potatoes. One big potato each is their sole meal, eaten off a crude dish without utensils. When they have come back from their attempt to escape, Ohsdorfer sits and looks out the window. His granddaughter eventually stops eating. The horse looks bad, but is still alive.

The Turin Horse is an exercise in style and mood. It tells us nothing, but its slow movement and dark look stays with us after the film is over. None of this would work without the grinding cellos and other string instruments underlining everything with a sense of grim, noble determination.

Gus Van Sant has cited Béla Tarr as a "huge influence" on his later, more arthouse work, beginning with the slow-moving and stark Gerry, which concerns two lost young men in a desert wandering about hopelessly. Tarr takes us back to the primitive roots of film. But is he a good influence or a bad one? The Turin Horse is one of Tarr's grimmest, most minimal films. It seems to illustrate Samuel Johnson's motto uttered in Rasselas: "Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed." Here, we don't get the benefit of Beckett's cosmic jokes, not in so many poetic words, anyway. Of course The Turin Horse, which also has a visitor whose monologue provides an indictment of the villagers and perhaps all humankind, but one that Ohsdorfer dismisses as sheer bunk, is full of symbols one can while away many delightful hours in interpreting.

Tarr is a metaphysical visionary whose viewpoint is very distinctive. The technical aspects of his films are impeccable. This film was shot in handsome black and white by cinematographer Fred Keleman (who also did The Man From London, NYFF 2007), distinctively scored by Mihály Víg and co-written by longtime Tarr collaborator László Krasznahorkai. Each "day" consists of a very few long takes, which are enlivened by Tarr's technique of following his characters around the convincingly weathered hovel (designed by Sandor Kallay) with a Steadicam.

The Man from Turin has been shown at major festivals, including Berlin, Hong Kong,Moscow, and Toronto, and the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where it was screened for this review. The Cinema Guild acquired U.S. distribution rights and plans to release the film theatrically this winter.

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