The Captive Audience

A review of Bela Tarr’s Satantango

After nearly a century of dominance, the cinematic feature is losing its status as master-genre. Rising up to replace it, in both critical and popular esteem, is the television series. The twentieth century produced a number of excellent TV series—Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz come to mind—but in the last decade the genre has come into its own, especially in America, with shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Wire and Breaking Bad.The trend also appears in countries like France, with Oliver Assayas’ mini-seriesCarlos, which, because of its genre, was shown out of competition at Cannes and, despite standing head-and-shoulders above the year’s nominees for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards, was ineligible for the award.

I do not mean to imply that these were the best films (if you want to call them that) of the decade. Jean-Luc Godard, Michael Haneke, the Dardenne brothers, and Bela Tarr all have claims on that title. But some kind of tipping point has been reached. We can expect to see more and more sophisticated television series in the upcoming decade, which will perhaps eclipse the traditional cinematic feature, as the movie eclipsed the novel, in its bid for our attention.

This development is only partially a result of the specific properties of the series vis-à-vis those of the feature; that is, not entirely because the relative length of the series allows for a greater development of plot or character or theme. It would be more accurate to say that the ascendancy of the series tracks the changes in the ways we are now able consume media.

Flat-rate DVD rental services like Netflix, DVR technologies like TIVO and the proliferation of on-demand streaming internet video have turned the DVD player and the computer into our screens of choice. This holds for both television series and cinematic features. More people will watch David Simon’s Treme on their computers than via HBO. We also watch a greater number of films per annum at home than we do at the theater.

As a result, we are no longer beholden to the vagaries of show times and programming; we can watch what we want, when we want, how we want. The convenience of privacy was always an argument for television, but now one no longer has to wait for commercial breaks to get a beer or use the restroom; anyway, these annoying intrusions have, for the most part, disappeared. As for the cinephiles, they have been appeased by the selection that Netflix and the internet provide them. Watching Andrei Rublev on the small screen isn’t ideal—but it’s better than waiting for the local art house to show a Tarkovsky retrospective, which, if you live outside New York or Los Angeles, may never happen at all.

The experience of watching a film at home has more in common with watching a television series than it does with watching the same film at a movie theater. The key distinction, however, is only superficially private-versus-public. What matters most is that home viewing allows one to make the experience iterative rather than continuous. The TV series, divided into episodes and seasons, is intended to be viewed episodically, week by week, but the possibility of dividing the viewing experience into discrete units comes into being as soon as one has access to a remote or keyboard. In this respect—as critic Walter Benn Michaels observed in a discussion of The Wire—the genre that the contemporary TV series resembles most is actually the novel. Few are the novels we read straight through in a single sitting; fewer still are the ones that are intended to be read that way. Chapters, line breaks, and paragraph breaks allow us to put them down and pick them up at our leisure, to reflect on them as we please, to stretch our reading over days, weeks, months.

So, it might be argued that the only purely cinematic experience is the one you watch straight through. This can happen at home, to be sure, but it is only inescapable, which is to say forced on you, by virtue of the fact that you are sharing space with strangers, when you go to the theater. Most theatrical releases, whether they are studio, independent, or art house are sensitive to the limits of our attention spans, our capacity to sit in the same place, our tolerance for the sounds and smells of other people, the fact that we have jobs and mealtimes and social lives. On average, they clock in between 90 and 150 minutes. Even epics like Dr. Zhivago or Ran are manageable movie-watching experiences.

But there are a handful of films that have no respect whatsoever for these human, all-too-human limitations. Recently, I caught one of them—Bela Tarr’s 1994 masterpiece Satantango—at Anthology Film Archives in the East Village.Satantango is one of the longest features ever made. At 450 minutes, not including the two legally mandated intermissions, it is the equivalent of nearly four Citizen Kanes, more than two Lawrence of Arabias, and three-quarters of a season of Mad Men. Netflix sends it in installments of three disks.

Incredibly long as Satantango is, it feels even longer. Set in a small Hungarian village during the last days of Communism, the movie is based on a novel by Tarr’s frequent collaborator Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Unlike Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace, which strives to match its epic source material hour for hour, Krasznahorkai’s novel is fewer than two-hundred pages. (Currently in translation, it’s slated to be published by New Directions early next year.) Given the industry-standard equation between one page of script and one minute of screen-time, Tarr’s adaptation is three times the size of its source.

Tarr achieves this distention by the use of his signature long takes. His camera will track a herd of cows as they travel through a dilapidated housing block for eight minutes before he cuts. It will linger on some seemingly insignificant detail—the rain pummeling a patch of muddy landscape, the swaying of a towel hanging from the back of a door that has just been shut, the jacket buttons of a man who has just passed out from drunkenness—long after almost any other director would have moved on.

Compositionally, Tarr consistently relegates the major narrative action of a scene to the periphery of the shot. In scenes like the drunken tango in the village pub or the sermon in which a priest screams “The Turks are Coming!” to the bombed-out windows of his empty church, he allows his actors to repeat themselves beyond the point of excruciation—to watch and listen, let alone speak and act. Emerging into the light of day during the first of the intermissions—by the time you get to the second the sun had long fled—is particularly jarring because Tarr’s lighting is dim at its brightest. From the shot in which, in real time, the dawn barely manages to reveal a shabby room to the shot where all one can see is the light of the moon on the rain, Satantango is an experience that approaches sensory deprivation.

The camerawork, directing, and lighting combine to create a mood of perpetual dread that mercilessly refuses to resolve itself into cathartic spasm, but the film’s most oppressive element is undoubtedly its cast of characters. The villagers are stupid, petty, servile, and cruel. Each of them tries to swindle his neighbors out of the year’s wages they’ve been paid to close down the collective farm, only to be swindled by Irmias (played by Mihaly Vig, who has acted in Tarr’s last four films), the village’s prodigal son. A huckster who fancies himself a messiah, Irmias proves to be nothing more than a police informant with a florid prose style. He convinces the villagers to follow him on some ill-defined quest, and they do, leaving behind the town’s doctor, an alcoholic recluse, whom we’ve seen abusing his maid and spying on his neighbors. It is implied that when the village is deserted the doctor will starve to death, but neither the other villagers nor the viewer concludes that this would really be a terrible thing.

Aside from the animals in the film, which attain by comparison surpassing levels of dignity, the only character with whom the viewer sympathizes is the mentally-ill girl, Estike (Erika Bok), with whom we spend an hour or so as she tortures and poisons a cat. Though I was aware that I was implicating myself in the film’s depiction of cruelty-perpetuating cruelty, I spent the second half of Satantangopraying for the sudden appearance of an Old Testament-style God to repent of his creation and blot out the village in a fit of righteous pique. I am grateful that Tarr, who at one point has the priggish Mrs. Kraner (Iren Szjaicki) open a Bible to Revelations, did not yield to this temptation. The tragedy of life, the film never allows us to forget, is that its dispensations of justice are neither conclusive nor symmetrical.

All of Bela Tarr’s films are captivating, but no film I’ve ever seen actually takes you captive like Satantango does. As always, Susan Sontag had the right adjective; she called it “devastating,” Like any great work of art, Satantango sets out to do nothing less than transform its audience. Not merely its sense of what is possible for the medium, but more importantly, its capacity to experience awe, that terrifying beauty that, as Rilke put it, serenely disdains to annihilate us. For this to work, certain things are required not just from the film but from the audience as well.

Watching Satantango is akin to going on a hike, dropping acid, or attending a Yom Kippur service. Like any act of physical and mental endurance, you have to prepare in advance. First, you have to block out an entire day—for the experience itself, and for the psychic aftermath. You have to tell your friends why you’ll not be available by phone, except in cases of emergency. You have to make sure to bring a jacket, wear comfortable clothes and lightweight shoes, so your legs don’t go numb. You have to make sure to eat a meal beforehand or scout out places for provisions within running distance of the theater, so that the time you don’t spend waiting to use the restroom during intermission can be spent ingesting more protein and caffeine. Finally, you have to get to the theater early in order to pick your seat, so that you’re not forced to confront the immensity of the film from the psychically unsafe distance of the second row.

But most importantly of all, from the moment the opening credits begin to roll to the end of the film, you must completely relinquish your ability to direct and control your experience. Your only recourse to self-preservation will be to actually walk out.

This is why, whatever criteria of goodness an on-demand television series may fulfill, it will never be able to deliver experiences of this caliber. A film can be an event, whereas a series watched at the viewer’s caveat cannot: and only events have the capacity to enable ruptures in our being. Our very freedom to schedule our viewings, pause to answer a phone call, select scenes according to our whims, turn on a light, eat dinner while watching, or get ourselves another pillow for our backs is what distances us from this possibility of rupture. The very moment when the television series is ascendant in quality, television-as-event (superficially constructed every winter by the Super bowl or the Academy Awards) is diminishing as a space of experience.

The screen becomes absolute border only when we determine alone how and when to cross it—as we do when we contemplate something whose value is to be plotted on the axes of information and pleasure. To experience it as event, we must put ourselves in its power, which sometimes entails inconvenience, unpleasantness, or even discomfort, both with what is being watched and with the situation in which one is watching. Then and only then can the film break the border of the screen and cross back into us, capture us, and show us the sublime.