Time and Its Other
The Temporal Landscapes of Béla Tarr
There is something almost tormenting and inhuman about the cinema of Hungarian director Béla Tarr. The characters and faces feel foreign or even alien, as well as the situations they find themselves in. It is as if an apathetic fisherman has hooked something more alive even than fish that refuses to resist. But isn’t resistance a condition of life, or is it just the way we have come to think of it? The famous escape – what Fitzgerald calls “the journey into a trap” – is an opportunity or a crack, an image of the resistance-against-and-beyond the already monolithic rolling of the hours, but not salvation, never salvation. Tarr makes me want to help the catch, to unhook it and throw it back into the depths from which it came. But I know – its wounds are incurable. The reality in which the thing resides remains somehow undefined, untouchable and yet in a peculiar way real, quite like the actual reality in which it resides. But what is it about this cinematic reality that is so peculiar, that invariably questions and distances it along with the permanence of its proximity? What does the ticking of the clocks, their isolated and solitary existence in the silent and long black-and-white shots, tell us? Or that of the murmuring raindrops, crashing on the roof, elsewhere on the street, others in the already accumulated puddles; or the burning fire, crackling in the room emptied of furniture, of comfort, of presence… What about the incessant incursions of the wind? All those groans, carriers of the elements that possess the audio speakers to express what no voice would have undertaken, what do they tell us?
In his book on Tarr’s work, the French philosopher Jacques Rancière argues that “the problem is not that of sending a message about the end of illusions and, eventually, the end of the world. No more than that of making “beautiful images”. The beauty of images is never an end. It is only the reward for a fidelity to the reality that one wants to express and to the means that one employs in doing so.” According to him, Tarr is a man burdened with the difficult task of finding the most accurate expression of reality, of our reality.
But, as we all know, reality is problematic by definition. It is the integrity of that which is beyond us and in which we find ourselves in. Reality is affected by frequent distortions on our part precisely because we are constantly relating to it, absorbing it into ourselves, only to subjugate it once again. It seems to me that Tarr’s films are often an adventure for the unprepared viewer precisely because of this. Here reality’s distortions and adjustments by the participants are reduced to a bare minimum. We witness it as it should be; one must add – if we weren’t up to our ears in it. We lose ourselves in the seeming strangeness of the characters, in their day-to-day treatment of their world, in which the same is often repeated ad infinitum, and we ask ourselves – is this how we, human beings, live? Could our everyday story and even history be something more or less, we wonder? Firmly no, Tarr seems to reply, in those settings, in these systemic circumstances, it is such and such, and whether you accept it is of no consequence.
Reaching beyond the horizon of the wilderness, or the endless monochrome fields, with each successive scene Tarr’s characters transform only to remain the same. They move closer and further away from us at the same time. We find present neither the confrontation nor the metaphysical rebellion we know well from Andrei Tarkovsky’s protagonists, for example. They are simply immersed in reality, experiencing without questioning it. Hopefulness – again an occasional presence – comes transformed in the robes of false messiahs. Even the character’s blind faith, however, does not leave them unworthy. The ‘bad infinity’ in their everyday lives comes ever changed by the way we glimpse them, in them. The closeness we eventually manage to obtain is the seeming closeness between the infinitely distant. Despite the inordinate amount of time spent on the protagonists, their metamorphosis is accomplished with each successive step of the camera. From an absolute stranger impossible to face, the personified Other – masterfully deployed by the integrity of the narrative – becomes You.
Dignity, psychological continuity, loneliness – these are the themes Tarr himself recognizes as present throughout his œuvre. All of them can be seen as experiences that either molecularize or atomize us; that is to say – either unite or divide us. Dignity remains tied to stubbornness, to defy the world and its circumstances, which at some point might bring with it, as a consequence, loneliness. To have psychological continuity, on the other hand, to think of man as persisting in time, to find something timeless within him, we need to apply the concept of history. Here ‘history’ carries the double bond in which we use it daily in Bulgarian and in French. It is both situational, in terms of chronology and its totality, and narrational, in terms of the relation between the teller and the hearer, as the English noun story suggests. In both senses, history has a particular relation to time as its condition, but also to man as its ground. Thus the profound charisma of Tarr’s cinema is manifest in its immediate and direct reference to the very happening of time and our relation to it and to the Other. His embodied time, its plenitude seems to reveal itself differently, not as the tradition of cinema imposes – here time does not flow because it is constantly being perceived by its other; by what we might call a quasi-eternity.
Naive braves or godless saints, bizarre drunkards or philosophizing criminals, his characters remain the fallen children of a sinful land. No, the land he pictures is not one of abundance. Only time can be comprehended as monstrously plenteous. In Tarr’s case, earth’s prevailing guises are the vast wastelands that recall an attempt for escape from parenthood. The land, the eternal condition of human drama, plays a significant role in limiting the context in which the participants are thrown into (referring to both the audience and the characters, the inevitable dyad of cinema and art in general). The earth is in constant resistance, in refusal to co-participate in our common drama. It is more like a rebellious stage, which in turn reverses the direction of potentiality by bringing to the surface loneliness, both pure and formative, thus refusing to model the relationship between the two poles or the dyad of participation. It is precisely because of their abandonment and sinfulness that the characters somehow always manage to reach out to what is usually referred to as ‘the human in general’. Maybe it is because we tend to feel compassion for sinners specifically, since we are all alike in that respect. But here I am not referring to the religious notion of sin. The sinfulness that the Christian experiences before God are different from the sinfulness before the Other as such. The Other here designates precisely this generalized humanness, the idea of some common essence to all. By looking at us, the audience, with the mediation of the camera, Tarr’s characters help us to gaze back within ‘the human in general’. We can only be truly sinful before this absolute Other, who – to be so – must somehow reside in the quasi-eternity implied by ‘general’. This is the reason we face their sinfulness so easily, so honestly – we, the viewers, seem to reside for a while in this generality, and that means – in the infinity of time. Here we find the culmination of long take cinema, which Tarr has mastered to perfection – the production of eternity. As well as its final deployment in us, the viewers.
To be realized or even thought of as an eternity, of course, the notion of absence of time necessitates its other. However, this embodied eternity is more of a virtual temper and, as a result of this, is not in a causal relation with time, but constantly fuses with it. On one side are the characters, hyper-self-aware in the remoteness of their proximity, accepting the new without any sign of interior shift, as if the consciousness of death does not affect them, though they often mention it. On the other side are we, the observers, remaining permanently connected to the time that passes, but not without the mediation of eternity. The moment, the small sliver of time that somehow manages to get realised, to become an event, a self-proclaimed eternity, despite its repetitive nature – this is what characterises Tarr’s specific treatment of time. Our guarantee not to get lost in it is the very role which the director has foretold for us – to be witnesses to the spectacle before our eyes: the passing of time, the passage of time along with all that passes with it. His characters are much more like the people of those seemingly archaic mythological times: permanently linked to eternity, without being deprived of the immediate comprehension of what is passing. In contrast to the people of antiquity, however, they have no guarantee of eternity, but merely experience it, nothing more. Tarr’s characters have neither God nor gods. What remains for them to be such. The transcendental illusions rot under the piles of filth that facts have brought in their wake.
The Turin Horse
In The Turin Horse (2011), the absence of transcendence unfolds with particular force. Even in their solitude and the silence that often prevails, the characters seek dialogue in the occasional eye contact with us, the spectators. We are the transcendence, the promised afterlife, everything. Thus we learn to communicate via their faces, which speak to us the most when they are silent. That traditional approach of gazing and dialoguing with the camera – so well-known from the works of other titans of auteur cinema such as Tarkovsky and Bergman, for example – illuminates the inherently guaranteed interrelationship between spectator and character, whose interruption is quite literally undesirable. In communicating with us, they communicate with eternity. We are both their judge and executioner, mediated by the pretension for unconditional and cold neutrality of the director’s camera. To preserve it, to remain as impassive as possible without being an obstacle, Tarr’s lenses stands as a boundary between us, and one that does not belong entirely to either party but inhere both simultaneously.
The word idő (‘time’ in the Hungarian language) has the same double meaning as ‘време’ in Bulgarian and Russian. It refers both to the passing of time and to the purely objective manifestations of its inherent elementality, transmitted in English with ‘weather’. In Satantango (1993), for example, this ambiguity forms some of the most vivid and memorable lines:
-It rains. Terrible weather/time [idő]
-Ruining everything. Look at the state of this raincoat. It was soft as butter, and now it’s hard and rough. If I want to sit down I have to crack it. Look! Here, on my groin, with the edge of my hand… that’s how I do it. Its elasticity, you see, has been completely lost. And the wind… doesn’t keep it out either. It’s all cracked. The skin is falling apart. One goes to and fro, but one cannot stay indoors forever… One gets wet outside. But that’s not the worst thing, he’s getting wet inside too. You haven’t heard about the inside floods, of course.
-You’ve been saying that for years.
-They wash your organs day and night. They come from the heart and wash your liver, stomach, spleen and kidneys. I’m wet to the bone… If it wasn’t for that raincoat I don’t know what I’d do. I dare not even unbutton it. A glass of wine would help. My liver, stomach, spleen, kidneys need it forever. They have to work always. Without interruption. Otherwise, this constant deluge would turn into an unexpected drought that could be fatal. Listen, give me a glass.
This semi-monologue shows us how time cannot be thought without its appearances – there is no such thing as passive time. Time, to be time, must act: on things, on us. That’s why in various emotional states – danger and fear, surprise or excitement, but most of all in the experience of daydreaming, contemplation and reflection, its deeds are redefined so that to shape things a little differently. But it imposes change on us no matter how we relate to it, and change is the very passing of something. Change is the thing that no longer is. In defiance of the eternity with which we wink conspiratorially, time reveals itself as our full-blooded master. Just as mountains wouldn’t make sense without someone to climb them, and eternity without us – the finite creatures trying to ascend – isn’t worth a penny. Herein lies the great power of Tarr’s cinema. It somehow manages to make us experience the instantaneous illusion of cultivated eternity, which is to say – to experience the passing of things in time without ourselves passing. But also without forgetting that we are de facto part of this passage. That we too, like the raincoat, will become hard and rough. We are soaked… If we dry up, if something prevents the flood, that’s all.
But time, as an elemental phenomenon of the present, manifested in rain and wind as idő suggests, is in tension with the necessary elementality of the body, with the motility of the blood. It must not stagnate and is therefore constantly manifested. The interruption of its inward flow would mean drought, and drought is death. This is reminiscent of the peculiar dryness we feel in the heavy, lifeless body, despite its puffy skin suggesting otherwise. His blood is still there. What’s missing is its reason to move. Like any timeless metaphor, the one linking water and blood to life and time is not accidental. The elemental storm of life rages incessantly within us, insofar as we are bodies, and it is the one storm against whose eruption we rarely do anything, except of course in suicide or other extreme bravery. To others we approach differently – we learn to arrest, in the very genesis of its appearance, the exhibition of our innermost self, affecting this most organic specifics of ours only so far as to injure ourselves.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with that. It is thanks to the injured elementality of the self that our coexistence is made possible. Tarr places particular emphasis on togetherness, in this strange world of rejected illusions and monochrome dreams that he presents to us. In it, togetherness defies every day, defies the mirror-like nature of the characters’ existence. In his films, moreover, coexistence predetermines and constitutes time. The collective and the individual are often presupposed as the ineffability of sameness, as the collective-within-the individual or the individual-within-the collective, in which distinctiveness in the appearance of the individual is often undetectable. With few exceptions, those entities dissolve into their otherness, both of which are thought of in a non-substantial way – as emptied, drained of meaning not only in the scenes presented, but often beyond them, in our imaginative projections. The formalist character of the collective as an individual and vice versa brings us back to the aforementioned relation to eternity (in which, we must not forget, – the spectators – are situated), filling in the places already emptied of meaning. Suffering, daydreaming and naivety, passion and the apparent drive for change, here adjacent with the courage of the spiritually wronged, the foolish. Madness succeeds to bring the particular, the peculiar, back to the surface. Refusing its role as a mirror to the manifestations of the collective, it remains only the ‘authentic’ manifestation of the cherished individuality.
The formulation of the singular and the plural that determines the meaningfulness of social space is, of course, open to question, but only insofar as we are left with the clear awareness that their self-value (if it is possible at all) is originally delimited by the elements that carry within themselves both the past and the present, as well as the future of this duality. Just as two and two make four only because two carries within itself four in potentiae, so individuality, be it guaranteed in the autonomy of madness, carries within itself the germ of a new multiplicity, based on its vision of a new possibility for what the human, in general, might be. Who needs this new humanity? – one might ask. And who needs the present? – Tarr seems to reply.
There is more dignity in madness, as the most notable pro- and antagonists of Tarr imply, precisely because of the assertion of one reality beyond the Real. Madness tempers by opposing. In its altered reality, being as it is, being in itself, becomes questionable. It trivializes itself to awaken, both in itself and its surroundings, the chances of a new becoming that are not only against-and-beyond what’s present but against-and-beyond itself. In madness, there exists, as a primary condition, the doubting of both the grounds of things (and those of their otherness), as well as the grounds of the doubter. Madness is weak, fragile. It asks and invites the Other to share its doubts. Its appeal to him as to a judge. Someone to conceive the possibility of one super-reality beyond here and now. The Other is thus placed in the priority role, the role of spectator, who experiences both temporality and eternity. This is why we, the spectators, feel privileged by the relationship we enter into with Tarr’s characters.
Inconceivable are the shores of time, the abundance of juxtapositions between us, our own world and reality in general that Tarr insists upon. His cinema remains one of the most challenging events, awakening both the poetic and philosophical urge I have tried to encourage here.
But everyone has their own Tarr, just as everyone has their own Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, their own Bergman and Sokurov. Whom is your Tarr?