Damnation (1987) has that dark noir vibe with incredibly breath taking cinematography. The story is about a married woman ending an affair with a very gloomy-eyed barfly. And this entire narrative revolves around him confessing his I-can’t-live-without-you saga which somehow convinces her to stay in the lopsided affair. But at one point the woman breaks it off because she wants to focus on her singing career in this very dilapidated town where everyone likes to dance and drink. Then of course the gloomy-eyed barfly convinces the manager of the bar to employee the married woman’s husband to smuggle illegal drugs in to make some money. So that way he’ll take the fall be thrown in jail and the two lovers can live happily ever after. Well, that’s the gist of it anyway. The narrative is messy and doesn’t provide for any resolution because I guess you can say life doesn’t always have a resolution it just is what it is.

What really makes this film work is not in the story line but in the style it’s captured in. The opening of this film is all about the long take where the editing becomes minimal and characters continue to do mundane things that have nothing to do in moving the story forward. Realism is captured throughout the narrative but there is a steep, stigmatizing void to it.

This is Bela Tarr at his best and where his notable style takes root. I think its all about a void most people carry within themselves but continue to live their lives as if aware of it and yet are unaffected by it.

The camera rests on the motion of an empty lift squeaking its way from one place to another, like a sad conveyor belt aimlessly running it’s course. From there, the camera slowly pulls out, focusing on the inside of a window. Keeping steady with the subjective point of view, the camera pans revealing the back of a man’s head. Here it is, the main character in the act of simply gazing out the window within the first five minutes of the film without a single cut. Sure, this has been done a million times before in a million other movies, but Bela Tarr has a gifted finesse to it, making it unbelievably seamless and natural. His eye in detail, timing, contrast, and lighting makes this art film live and breathe by layers and depth.

On the surface, most if not all Bela Tarr films feel depressing, meaningless, and are considered boring because the stories are unappealing and the characters don’t always have exciting action. But on a deeper level, his cinematography points the camera on life itself. Imagine it this way; the universe is massive and as its inhabitants walking the earth, we have no control over what the universe is going to throw at us. Bela Tarr gives us that in Damnation, where his characters are walking about a deep, dark, dreary world, and there’s no substantial significance to it, other than their day to day lives of being who they are as people. I mean if you think about the word “damnation” from a biblical standpoint you are condemned by your own conscience. So, maybe in a way it’s an internal hell but it’s showcased on the outside. The entire story takes place on the outskirts of some town that feels desolate and is in the middle of nowhere, abandoned even. It’s a hell with internal and external components.

Color Me Hell: Almanac of Fall

Bela Tarr’s style emerges quite fiercely in this bleak, confusing story of five misfit characters living under the same roof. Again, emotions are running high and again, you’re going to feel claustrophobic but it has an alluring affect, I promise. It’s practically, hypnotic. I can’t explain it, it just works. Probably due to the quote that’s presented to us in the opening of the film which states, “Even if you kill me I see no trace. This land is unknown. The devil is probably leading. Going round and round in circles.” This is a quote by Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin which meticulously reveals itself throughout the narrative of Bela Tarr’s fourth film, Almanac of Fall (1984). It’s sinister and basically expresses, Tarr’s defeatism attitude towards humanity.

Instead, of Tarr’s focus on realism, he awesomely transitions into the existential dimension. For instance, the opening sequence reminds me of a Tarkovsky film as the camera’s focus is on a piano bathed in pale blue light, as it maneuvers from one object to another. Tarkovsky does that a handful of times in his films, such as Stalker and Sacrifice. It sets the tone for meditative introspection of one’s own dwellings, while exposing lethal emotions of resentment, envy, greed, anger, along with something that’s going to conflict with the character’s deepest obsessions and fears towards each other.

What’s spectacular about this film is Bela Tarr’s style in lighting. He goes bonkers with a color palette that infiltrates a vileness but also emits this creepy factor, almost like watching a noir film except it’s in color. (If that’s even possible).

Despite, the colorful atmosphere, it presents a terrifying aura and unsettling ambiance and ambivalence these characters have for one another. Think about the color scheme translating into emotions such as red transcends into anger, green into envy, blue a calmness, and so forth.

Most if not all the characters seem to want money, which Heidi, the old woman of the house has and each character in one way or another conspires to take it. The cast of characters are, the wealthy elderly woman, Hedi, her moody son, her sex addict nurse, the nurse’s somewhat quiet lover, and a weary traveler are all venomous to one another where most of their conversations begin in a shouting match to ending in a full on fist fight. It’s humanity at it’s best.

There’s a particular shot, where Tarr has the camera positioned beneath the floorboards which is all glass so you can see the action, from the actor’s feet as a looming fight begins to take place. This is one of the most innovative shots that made me drool from the mouth and question how the hell did he do that? It’s brilliant.

Another notable aesthetically pleasing shot is the scene between the mother and son having a lengthy conversation, the camera does a slow pan circling the two very defiantly breaking the 180 rule, but also doing a complete 360. This shot makes me reflect back to the earlier quote: the vicious cycle equates to the characters being each their own devil and the apartment is hell itself. These obscure characters conspire to steal, attempt to kill, manipulate, all influenced by greed or obsession is the vicious cycle and of course doesn’t get them very far. They end up being disappointed, betrayed, and hurt. Every single scene in this film is shot inside. There are no external shots. There is no escape of hell in this film, and that is sickly terrifying which Bela Tarr powerfully gives us this in his dark tale of humanity.

A Wild Epiphany: The Prefab People

Relationships can be a messy thing if not cared for properly and perhaps love is a mysterious thing too. With that in mind, Bela Tarr’s third cinéma-vérité film, The Prefab People (1982) reflects on the spiraling relationship of a working class family where a surge of emotions run high while the demise of the marriage is inevitable. It’s dark, and depressing, nonetheless it’s a chunk of reality that occurs everyday to everyday people in the real world. What’s compelling, is Tarr’s interest in the same subject matter about how harsh life can genuinely be and how everyday people handle it. The struggle, and the despair, all echo the catastrophic event of pain and heartache. Tarr plays with time in a different way too.

The beginning is the end and the end is the beginning. The narrative begins with the ending of Ferj and Feleseg’s relationship, where Ferj (the husband) decides he’s had enough and walks out on his family. It’s dramatic; screaming baby, the wife is crying, nearly pleading in a babbling childlike disarray about why he’s leaving. If you watch the film in it’s entirety you can examine their relationship as a pathologist performs an autopsy to determine the cause of death. Same thing. Looking at the timeline of the relationship and the attitudes drawn from it, you can start to hypothesize why the husband left in the first place. Despite loving each other, the two are absolutely miserable together. Their resentment towards one another is the mightiest hurdle in their dysfunctional relationship, as Feleseg (the wife) rages on about Ferj wanting to take a job that would relocate him for years at a time where he’d only be home for holidays. It’s even more troubling and pathetic when they celebrate an anniversary together. Ferj wants to be intimate and have a special evening by buying a bottle of fine beer, but it fails to ignite any spark between them when Feleseg begins complaining. She complains about him, their living situation, time, money, basically everything.

Despite the mess of the relationship, the bigger picture is even more gritty, and relentlessly captivating because it’s one enormous metaphor for Hungarian society in the early 80s. Their economy wasn’t very strong, standard of living declined, housing was very limited and highly sought after just as its revealed in his first film Family Nest. The economy infected stability which percolates into the mentality of the unhappy couple, igniting frustration and resentment. But, the oddball remedy for this oddball couple is in the final scene where they purchase a new washing machine, and together in a lengthy long take are riding in the back of a pickup truck with their new product. They’re quiet, not fighting, just at peace. I guess in some sense, buying an item that eases the chore of doing laundry manually is a gift itself. Because nobody likes to have their dirty laundry sprawled out everywhere. It’s offensive and it smells. Clean laundry equals happy people. That’s a metaphor right?

It’s a strenuous film to get through because at some point, it just feels like you’re the third party awkwardly watching a couple’s problems transcend into some dramatic tragedy performed for the stage. This is the third black and white film, that gave me a headache from the dizzying, monotonous dialogue. It’s the type of filmmaking that’s raw, unforgiving, and poignant, which is kind of unique in today’s modernized, fast paced, digitized, mega blockbuster.

On another note, we’re creating a society of prefab people just as we’ve created prefabricated homes for them. Somehow, someway, along the way somebody decided it was a good idea to prefabricate homes on a massive scale. Supply and demand along with a healthy economy with very little unemployment allowed for people and still allows people to purchase homes. Which is great, but what comes along with that purchase? An attitude? A consumer role? Somehow, someway the mindset of people and perhaps massive waves of consumerism provides a perfect atmosphere for prefab people to grow in massive quantities and qualities.

Okay bare with me here for a moment, as I process this massive thought. What if Bela Tarr was simply in a very metaphoric, but right-in-front-of your-face kind of way proposed that the Prefab People was a result of the massive amounts of consumerism that changed the attitudes of genuine people. Think about it. When you buy something, what do you feel? Does your mood change? Do you get a sense of euphoria from it? Some people place a so much value on the things they buy and sooner or later become hooked and dependent on such things which makes me wonder if it shifts the mentality of good, sensible people into trend watching, spend-o-matic drones. We’re so bombarded with advertisements and social media on a daily basis that it makes sense our thoughts shift towards wanting and spending, etc. etc. Of course I might be reaching for the stars here in trying to dissect Bela Tarr’s, Prefab People. My mind had to go down the deep thought provoking path, it’s what I love so much about films like this. My mind goes left instead of right. It goes deep into a realm of possibilities and ideas beyond the surface because its much more gratifying picking at the meat of the flesh than grazing it marginally.

My Rant: The Outsider

In Bela Tarr’s, The Outsider (1981) there’s a very realistic tone similar to the nature of documentary filmmaking. However, unlike his first feature, Tarr chooses to shoot in color instead of black and white. The premise focuses on Andras, a violinist roaming about from working a job in a mental institution to finding work in a cable factory to eventually becoming a disc jockey. He marries Kata but can’t seem to find any genuine happiness, through mundane everyday problems such as paying the rent and worrying about what to do with one’s life. It’s like watching a nomad making a living from place to place but never settling into his real passion of playing the violin. For some reason, Eddie Vedder’s song “Guaranteed” comes to mind, specifically the lyrics, “I knew all the rules but the rules do not know me.” This notion permeates through the course of the narrative in that a person can go about his life on the basis of the beat of his own drum, or in this case the rhythm of his violin playing neglecting everyone’s else way of life as if bored by other people. It’s perplexing to really like this film because the protagonist has an apathetic nature to which is practically impossible to root for him. He doesn’t care! Why should I? Oh, right! He’s an outsider. I think, I’m beginning to understand now.

The Outsider lingers in increments of time and focuses primarily on the moments of disappointment and harsh reality. For instance, in the opening of the film, Andras is playing his violin for the patients in the mental hospital and then attempts to give a patient his injection which he refuses. Tarr adheres to a familiar theme, of resisting conformity and insanity by refusing to take medicine, by refusing to do what society simply tells us to do. Imagine all of society being indoctrinated under the care and confines of a mental institution where one believes they have freedom to explore artistic pursuits but in actuality such freedom has certain restrictions. Those restrictions of course involve getting a job, raising a family, providing food, having shelter, and sacrificing one’s own needs for another which are all the basic necessities of surviving and being a decent human being. I forget where I was going with this tangent. Life’s tough, deal with it?

Bela Tarr has been quoted in saying, “Filmmaking is not like shooting a movie, but a part of life.” Tarr’s ideology sets him apart from the others because, the realism of his stories made me want to obsess about my own life and problems instead of blissfully getting lost in a film that abandons all reality into something more cinematic and adventurous. But Tarr also mentions most of his protagonists are “loners” and, “outsiders” in a world that could careless about giving them a second look. There’s something intriguing about loner heroes. They’re basically like a rolling stone, rollin their way alone. (I’ve got to stop quoting song lyrics)

Much of his camera movement is handheld and you can begin to see his usage of the long take that will further develop into his signature style throughout his other upcoming films.One of his more compelling shots was during the wedding scene, where the camera movement impressively maneuvers around the actors dancing along and eating while a side dialogue between Kata and a former lover takes place. It had an oddly natural tension and a potential conflict up until one of their wedding guests dropped dead from what I presume was a drug overdose. The next cut was the shot of a headstone which was mildly humorous and from an editing standpoint, the timing was spot on. But, isn’t that how life works? One minute you’re up in the clouds and the next minute, BAM you’re down on your ass, sad.

Of course, there’s the moment, where a coworker of Andras is singing “House of the Raising Sun” which had an eclectic cultural edge and was a gratifyingly entertaining scene. However, I can’t recommend thoroughly enjoying this film, it’s like being sea sick on a boat riding the waves at full speed. It’s jarring and drones on almost like that annoying hum of fluorescent lights except with dialogue that personally gave me a headache. Despite, my restlessness for this particular film, Bela Tarr is definitely a master in the cinema of patience which is oddly hypnotic in it’s own right.

Discombobulated: FAMILY NEST

Béla Tarr’s 1979 black-and-white drama, Family Nest is an impressively poignant film about a scarcely, close-knit, verbally, venomous family of six living in a tiny apartment in the Communist land of Hungary. Being that this was one of Tarr’s first films, it reeks of bleak insight of the everyday life of a family struggling to live together. It’s similar to 1987’s Moonstruck except it’s not in a big New York Apartment with an Italian family yelling over Loreta’s love life during an early morning breakfast. Tarr gives us an uncomfortable, let’s-get-cozy, spiteful Hungarian family quarreling in a tiny apartment at a tiny dinner table. It’s as if one is dying of asphyxiation without even realizing it. For long moments at a time, it’s as if you were trapped in an elevator surrounded by a ceaseless shouting match of animosity while plunging down into hell. The story involves a married couple, Iren and Laci along with their daughter living in Laci (the husband’s) parents house, along with his brother Gabor. Iren is insistent on finding a flat to live in, but with the housing crisis there are waitlists and limited options which ultimately lead to the demise of her marriage. It also doesn’t help that Laci’s father is a patriarchal nightmare to be reckoned with because he has zero respect for Iren’s capability of being a mother and a wife.

There’s a lack of sympathy for women in this film, enforced by the redundant monologues about getting out of a problematic living situation. It doesn’t get any better, when Iren brings a friend, Roma over for family dinner after a day of work at a factory. The parent’s disgust for Roma is nauseating because they have no problem voicing their horrendous emotions blatantly as she gracefully thanks them for their phony hospitality as she leaves for the evening. Of course, there’s the vile soul-crushing scene of the two brothers Gabor and Laci raping Roma in a dark alley as if it was a casual walk in the park, which ends with the three of them having a beer at the local pub. Tarr’s focus on humanity’s darkest hour is teeth grindingly grueling which invokes the need to curse at the ceiling while releasing a deep frustrating sigh into the atmosphere.

However, despite the brutality, there lays a subtle yet highly effective metaphor in a scene with Iren and her father-in-law as both work together to clue a glassed photograph. They clue the crack that’s split the middle of the portrait. The crack obviously points out the serious ideological divide the two must come to terms with in order to restore their damaged, antagonizing relationship. Nonetheless, Tarr draws out a beautiful moment between the two hostile souls by emphasizing his frame on the work at hand instead of cutting to a relished reaction shot. It’s bare bones, folks! And, not just by the jarring close ups and static push in shots, but there’s not resolution to this maddening monstrosity of humanity trapped in it’s most dire moment of enduring the hard times.

One of my favorite shots that encapsulates the essence of this film is Iren and her daughter riding a swing at an amusement park, while Laci sits drinking at a nearby table. The camera follows and nearly foreshadows the spiraling demise of an unstable relationship brought on by a wobbly world of patriarchal power (Laci’s father) dominating the household. You can’t help but feel the jarring sensation of claustrophobia running rampant while they enjoy a simple pleasure of excitement as it parallels they’re world spinning out of control.

It’s a difficult story to watch because there’s no moment of inspiration, no hope, nor miracle lurking around a spectacular cloud of magic, it’s just the cold, harsh, reality of life being unfair and cruel. Tarr neglects the superficial and embraces a pessimistic regard for humanity, making you want to weep gently into a soggy pillow of tears.