Friday, March 27, 2015

Satantango (1994)

(Requested by reader Phil.)

Satan's Tango, Hungary / Germany / Switzerland, 420 minutes
Director: Bela Tarr
Writers: Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Mihaly Vig, Peter Dobai, Barna Mihok, Bela Tarr
Photography: Gabor Medvigy
Music: Mihaly Vig
Editor: Agnes Hranitzky
Cast: Peter Berling, Janos Derzsi, Miklos Szekely B., Erzsebet Gaal, Mihaly Vig, Putyi Horvath, Laszlo feLugossy, Eva Almassy Albert, Erika Bok

Fair warning and common sense alert: It takes some mental preparation and internal letting go to get inside and all the way through this picture—Satantango is not a movie to see on a whim. For one thing, it just doesn't behave much like many other films, except perhaps parts of the rest of Hungarian director and co-writer Bela Tarr's catalog, which is infrequent yet can be equally prolific, lean, and densely massive. The pamphlet that comes with the Facets DVD box bears the important message, "A Cinema of Patience." Take note. Coming in 1994 out of a former Soviet satellite state, that sentiment bears the weight of multiple connotations about this film, and a dreadful burden.

At seven hours, the running time likely remains the most salient feature of Satantango, certainly the primary factor one must negotiate. The movie comes with its own sense of time. It's not just slow, with its long meditative takes, but it also forces accommodation of time in new and strange ways. The narrative—not easy to make out (partly exactly because it is so long and slow), and which is perhaps best taken as extended post-Soviet phantasmagoria—tends to stop, retreat, and loop back on itself, creating knots. Meanwhile, long lines and vectors of themes and plot points cross each other at angles acute and obtuse. An eerie synthesizer keyboard soundtrack sounds like the organ in Sunset Blvd. The tone is deadening somber, but it is also an absurdist black comedy, and often very funny. Satantango is playful as only a bludgeoning seven-hour tour de force of long slow takes can be. It is equally often harrowing and desolate, and always deliciously paranoid. It contains depictions of human cruelty you may never forget. It is fantastical and naturalistic at once.

It's not even certain that the events depicted occur on the planet Earth as we know it—it could be some post-apocalyptic scenario, or hell itself, or anyway some busy antechamber purgatory piece of business. Where else has ever been so black and white and gray? There's a charismatic character here named Irimias, a kind of Jim Jones figure. He could be a demon spawn, or Jesus returned to save the hapless people. More likely, by what we see, he is merely a grifter coopted by the government to be an informer. When Irimias and his sidekicks go to the city to meet with their government contacts it is always in a driving windstorm, with cans and bottles and trash swirling about them as they walk the long roads and streets, with their backs to the camera. In this picture, it's usually raining and people often have their backs to the camera. People are often walking places.

The characters, upwards of a dozen of them, are distinctive and unique though patience (that word again) is required to tease out their specific qualities and relations, or even to properly distinguish them, attach names to faces to behavior to history. There's a blasted landscape—a dying town on a desolate steppe over-trampled by loose cows and pigs and horses and rain, and the ruts and mud caused by the unending torrential autumn deluge. The dwindling residents, evidently unemployed, spy on and plot against one another, or indulge debauched revelry and trysts, or both. There is a pub where these strange people go to gather and share information, to drink themselves into stupors, and to cavort in the night as if there were no afterworld or anything at all but an eternal present.

The dance motif of the structure—the tango—is as deliberate as the title suggests. Is there any other dance so exalted as literary signifier? True confession, I don't even know how the tango works, but I understand the structure of this movie is modeled on it: 12 separate parts, "six out and six back." Further aside, the source novel by co-screenwriter Laszlo Krasznahorkai appears to be where that comes from, and much of the other extravagance here as well. (The novel, which I haven't read, is under 300 pages by the way, one more piece of evidence that feature-length movies are closer to short stories than novels.)

The satanic evil forces so ostentatiously at play tend to devolve down to decaying surveillance bureaucracies far more than anything supernatural, as fits its time and place, and which ultimately grounds it well. But Satantango is also so big, literally, that describing it can become the proverbial exercise of the six blind men and the elephant. It is strange, alienating, cold, clinical. It's about tyranny, anarchy, eternity, terror, bleak existentialism. It's hypnotic. It's a slapstick comedy. It's a story of human depravity. It's a stunningly beautiful object. It's a soporific.

It is inconvenient by design—what seven-hour films isn't? Opportunities to see it in theaters are relatively rare. I've tried to look at it three different ways now: three parts each separated by days and weeks (via Netflix), the three parts on consecutive days, and finally, as I believe it's intended, all of it in one day as directly straight through as I could manage. I even considered a full fast-forward pass, which would cut the time in half (to three and a half hours!) even as it offers intriguing new perspective. But I knew I would miss the soundtrack—the soundtrack and the key experiential feature too, which is the doped, lulling state into which I think it is meant to put us.

Seeing all of it in a day was oppressive for me, not in a good way, more or less wearing me into insensibility for the second half—I'd like to find out some day if seeing it in a theater changes that. The way I liked it best was the three consecutive days, where I was better able to absorb and retain the intricate connections that crisscross its surface. The stories, the characters, really are interesting, moving in strange ways and surprising with humor. Nothing about Satantango is predictable, though it's easy to think a seven-hour art film from central Europe in shimmering black and white could well be.

Yes, paying attention is an issue, even as once into the rhythms there can be something positively relaxing and energizing both as new sections come along, open up, and play out—a person walking down a very long road is one such common device. Freeze frames approximated by the theatrical technique of holding in place can slow the running time even further. Though the movie feels like it plays at inhuman length, its individual scenes paradoxically come to feel more human, more like the ways we experience, than what is found in a great majority of other films. And its production visions, the greatest achievement of Satantango, are so icy chilling and precise that its moods permeate, like ink staining in patterns.

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