Thursday, April 07, 2011

Watching For... THE TURIN HORSE (Bela Tarr)

Doug Cummings is a fellow-traveler, movie-wise. His filmjourney blog is quality. Robert Koehler is a frequent contributor. Here are excerpts edited from Koehler's report on the latest Bela Tarr film, which premiered in this year's Berlinale: be sure and read the entire article, here.

The Turin Horse begins with a micro-fiction by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, reminiscent of Donald Barthelme’s short fictions placing historical figures in fictitious situations. The story simply tells of a horse in 1888 being mercilessly beaten by its frustrated owner for not budging, and how Nietzsche, passing by on the street in Turin, leapt in to shield the horse from further abuse. The incident left Nietzsche fundamentally altered, ultimately mute and possibly mad, until he died about a decade later. “Of the horse,” the story as well as the third-person on the soundtrack concludes, “we know nothing.”

The Turin Horse, the film, subsequently provides an answer to this open question, and just as suitably, concludes with another open ending: Of the fate of the aging Hungarian farmer (Ohlsdorfer) and his unnamed daughter, we know nothing. . . .

Ohlsdorfer has a bum arm and hand, so he’s badly dependent on his daughter to help him with chores, and chores are all that fill their days, with rest periods in between of staring out their home’s main window—almost certainly what farm folks in the pre-electric age would do for entertainment, with the window as a screen. . . .

The film’s most overwhelming effect is a raging wind, so ferocious that it makes a kind of strange musical sound and creates a new environment. The wind is already there in the opening shot, but soon, it’s a malevolent force that some will be tempted to interpret as either God or the Devil. (Which it would be if this were a Bergman film; fortunately, The Turin Horse is as far from Bergman as an Adam Sandler movie.) . . .

Then, he arrives. We never know who he is, a neighbor most likely, somebody Ohlsdorfer feels comfortable inviting past his threshold. In the film’s only monologue, he delivers a warning to them, that any chance for a life of “excellence” and “good” is over, chased out by nameless barbarians who’ve ruined everything. He’s a pivot point, a man facing defeat, certainly a foreshadowing of the European disasters to come, but also a universal warning of the collapse of culture. But it’s also undermined in an instant by Ohlsdorfer, who’s been patiently listening to his verbose friend, stops him, calls it all “rubbish” and orders him out the front door. The man could be a parody of every movie drunk opining about the world (or Beckett character who whips enough energy to muster a speech), seeing nothing but darker and darker prospects with every progressive swig, or he could be the kind of visionary who circulate through the worlds of Tarr’s films, phony or not, with some perception of the way the world actually is. Beyond his conclusions that any chance is dashed for the forces of good and excellence to triumph over the forces of rottenness, he’s here to deliver the word: God is dead.

This may be why, even subconsciously, some rejected The Turin Horse in Berlin, and will do so as it trots through one festival after another toward a deservedly legendary position as a key film of our time. The notion that a film would present a case for the non-existence of God is unpleasant to many people, even people at film festivals, where you’re more likely than in many other walks of life to run into atheists. There are the obvious reasons why some (many?) even hate the film. But the fundamental Nietzschean concept of life without a God is as frequently despised now (perhaps now more than ever before) as it was in the author’s time.

Sight and Sound critic/editor Nick James helpfully mentioned to me a specific reference point to Nietzsche in The Turin Horse: The man at the beginning of Nietzsche’s “The Gay Science” who observes a candle going out as proof that God is dead. The critical turning points in the film include an occasion when the gas-lit lamps in the house fail to work anymore, and a large tome read out loud by the daughter, with the passage she reads describing how the churches are being closed by the priests because too much sin has been committed. Tarr refers to the book, a pure invention of Krasznahorkai’s, as an “anti-Bible.” The fascination with this scene, both in the kind of reverential way that Kelemen lights it and frames the daughter and the book, is that the slightly inattentive viewer might actually think that she’s reading from the Bible, but just perhaps an obscure chapter that only Biblical scholars know well. It is, in fact, the third fiction which Krasznahorkai has implanted in the film - this unexpected kind of meta-fiction masquerading as scripture that’s actually a repudiation of religion.

By the arrival of day six, the storm has ended, the apocalypse hasn’t happened. But this meticulously observed choreography of human beings at work and in everyday life, absolutely materialist and fixed by the clock and the course of the sun rising and setting and rising again the next day, gives way to a disturbing metaphysic without God, a darkness that forces the father and daughter into a Beckett space of motionlessness and the elimination of language.

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