The power to hypnotize an audience is among the filmmaker’s most rare and valuable gifts. Béla Tarr has it: His images seem to lodge themselves in the same part of the brain where the faintest memories of old dreams are stored. Watching the Hungarian master’s latest film, The Man from London, I found I had lost all track of time, along with the most rudimentary comprehension of plot, character, and theme–those things that are far too clear in conventional cinema, and stubbornly elusive in one’s subconscious. Writing from Cannes, J. Hoberman joked that Tarr’s noir about a railroad worker’s discovery of stolen cash was a “ shoo-in for the Palme d’Ormez-vous”: Indeed, the Cannes critic sitting beside me at the first press screening was one of many who nodded off within an hour.
Here’s the funny thing: Roused by the shuffle of feet at film’s end, the sleepy reviewer asked me what she had missed–and though I’d been awake (or “ awake”) throughout, I couldn’t begin to say. I was embarrassed, but only for as long as it took me to realize that there’s no shame in falling under an artist’s spell. Does the patient feel ashamed of surrendering to the sway of a hypnotist’s pocket watch?
Neither Tarr nor his interviewer Howard Feinstein spoke of altered states during their Regis Dialogue at the Walker last Friday night, held as a prologue to the nine-film retrospective that spans from the director’s Cassavetes-esque Family Nest (screening September 21) to The Man from London (October 20-21). For one thing, there was plenty else for the pair to discuss–including the director’s fierce opposition to the error-laden IMDB (“ a piece of shit,” per Tarr) as well as standard filmmaking (“ full of lies, bad actors, stupid stories, and terrible actors”). For another, the 52-year-old Tarr, whose contrary demeanor on stage hardly detracted from his charm, prefers to see his work as realist rather than dreamy. More than once during the dialogue he proclaimed his fidelity to “ psychological continuity” and “ authentic human emotions”–loneliness and the struggle for dignity being key among them. Focusing often in his films on economic hardship, the director views his aesthetic approach as a moral one, informed as it is in the real world by the state subsidy of his Hungarian productions. Albeit rarified, Tarr’s cinema is for the People; acclaimed or not, he certainly doesn’t make his movies for critics. “ The biggest danger for me is someone telling me I’m an artist,” he told Feinstein, who was in no position to protect him.
Tarr shoots mostly in black and white, and at showtime on Friday he appears dressed accordingly–in a black leather jacket, black jeans, and black boots, his hair in a silver ponytail as if for cinematographic contrast. He scarcely resembles the grim-faced unfortunates lined up for bread in the five-minute “ Prologue” (2004), the one-take Tarr short with which Feinstein aptly began the evening. Which isn’t to say the director comes across as even-tempered. “ Watch the movie again,” he instructs the interviewer, who had dared to call the patriarch of Family Nest “ domineering.” “ I never judge him,” Tarr insists.
Bleak as they are, Tarr’s films hardly lack for a sense of humor–not even the monumental Stntang (October 13), which allegorizes the end of Communism in a mere 450 minutes, including a pub scene to rival the black-comic miserabilism of Aki Kaurismki. Tarr, too, is funny. Tracing the evolution of his worldview (one easily observed in the nearly chronological retro), the director reports having moved from a social to an ontological perspective on human suffering before eventually deciding “ the shit is cosmic–really huge.”
Just how huge the shit, though, became a matter of debate in the evening’s most playful–and revealing–exchange. After screening the astounding sequence in Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (October 6 and 12) wherein an angry mob trashes a hospital, encounters an old man standing naked against a wall, and then silently retreats, Feinstein confesses that the scene has repeatedly moved him to tears for its poetic rendering of the potential for compassionate change. The director, committing what the late Susan Sontag might’ve deemed another of Tarr’s “ heroic violations,” hilariously begs to differ. “ They hit a wall,” he says of the mob’s sudden about-face. Feinstein doesn’t miss a beat. “ So that mournful music [on the soundtrack] is there because of a wall?”
In a mirror image of his mob, Tarr–recognizing the human condition, perhaps–swiftly changes course. “ You want to destroy everything,” he says from the mob’s perspective. “ But if you meet someone who is already destroyed [like the old man in the scene], you have to stop. I still believe in humanity. I know it’s an illusion, but I want to believe.”
Like all of Tarr’s films since the mid-80s, Werckmeister Harmonies remains generously open to interpretation. Still, can we at least agree that Tarr and Feinstein deserve to share credit not only for a Regis Dialogue, but for…uh…a poetic rendering of the potential for compassionate change?