Sunday, May 22, 2005

Werckmeister Harmonies d. Bela Tarr, 2000

Since I have now scoured the web in a fruitless search for a sufficient explanation of Tarr's film, I think I'll try to make one up on my own. To me it is clear that Tarr is dealing with two ideas: 1) Chaos v. Order and 2) Lamentation On Account of God's Absence. Idea 1 is the thesis of the film (but, really, the far less interesting idea - at least to this often doubt-ridden, yet faithful, born-again.) The idea is illustrated in a monologue roughly 1/4 of the way into the film, wherein a composer/musician of sorts (one of many uncles to our protagonist, Janos) discusses the natural tonal scale vs. the Werckmeister tonal scale. The second (the Order, also the Octave scale you and I are most familiar with) is inferior, he says, making each individual note of value only in relation to other notes, and leaving out many notes in between. The former (by elimination, Chaos) is complete, singular, individualized, i.e. the way it should be. Throughout the rest of the film, Tarr gives us mob violence, a committee for the organization and cleaning of our unnamed Euro village (did I mention this took place in an unnamed Euro village? No? Oops.), and the like to illustrate his Chaos v. Order idea.

Now: the God thing. Janos represents a fulcrum of sorts, a balance between Order and Chaos, and the one lamenting the loss of God. But not only the loss of God, the loss of soul, the loss of spirituality, the loss of something to cling to beyond ourselves. Whether you find yourself agnostic, atheist, or theist (from there, mono- or poly-), the idea that there is more to life than ourselves is a compelling one. Tarr loads his long, pensive takes (of which, apparently, there are only 39) with the omniscient gaze of God. The opening in particular, where Janos constructs a model of our immediate solar system in the midst of an eclipse with the aid of some inebriated bar patrons, invokes this feeling. (And not only invokes this feeling, but is one of the most awe-inspiring openings, ever.) As the "eclipse" occurs, and darkness and silence overwhelm the bar, the camera tracks back, pulling out to one of the most phenomenal compositions I have seen. Each man - somber - alone. Janos looks up and, before he speaks, realizes that everything will be alright. The "alright" here is God's presence. Later when encountering the centerpiece of the film - a circus boasting the world's largest whale - Janos admires the beast, dwelling on God's humor in creating the whale. But Janos is the only one who mentions God, and the only one who seems in the least bit complete. It's an interesting idea, to lament the passing of the idea of God rather than the passing of any particular God, but I'm not quite sure as to whether Tarr completely nailed it. His ideas - as compelling as they are - stand as muddled.

Some hail the film as a masterpiece, and it indeed it feels like a masterpiece, but I challenge anyone to state clearly why that is. Some call it a dull waste of time. This is much easier to prove - Tarr's shots are obviously loaded with symbolism, and perhaps the whole thing is a metaphor, but not very many (if any) signposts are given as to what is being symbolized. I find myself somewhere in the middle. I would love to declare this Tops, A+, Mid 90's, 10!, Masterpiece, but I simply cannot. Bela Tarr is certainly close to making a masterpiece, but a bit more willingness to be understood is required.

edited to add that Theo posits an interesting idea re: Chaos v. Order, distinguishing further between artificial and a natural order. Which makes sense when you examine the creation of Aunt Tunde's "order committee," and how it more closely resembles Chaos. Natural Order = Divine Order perhaps? I think I'm onto something, but I also think that - barring greater clarity upon future viewings - Theo's 53 is a bit closer to reality than the volumes of praise. Nonetheless, that opening...


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