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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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When I told a friend that I was about to review Satantango for Movie Habit, his response was a surprised ” Did you watch all of it again?”... and this was coming from someone who likes Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s work. His wonder came from the fact that Satantango is 415 minutes long and that we had both seen it about a year ago. Hadn’t I already earned my Long Duration Film Merit Badge? Wasn’t once enough?

Figures recede, but there's more to it than that
Figures recede, but there’s more to it than that

As it turned out, no it wasn’t. If anything the second viewing was better than the first and I’m ready to watch it again. OK, I admit that the recent viewing was not all in one sitting but only for a couple hours a day over a week’s time. Now that I have seen it a second time, I think that it is the best film I’ve reviewed for Movie Habit. It might not be the best film I’ve ever seen but it’s muscling its way to the top of my list.

So what’s the big deal with Satantango? I think it might come down to two things, time and texture. Tarr is a master of both. The first thing you notice in the film are the long (and I mean really long) shots. Scenes that would under normal cinematic pacing be done in seconds, Tarr does in 10 minute-long takes. For instance a man is walking away from the camera and down a country road. He is surrounded by a vast landscape. He walks and walks and walks and gradually recedes into the distance. The camera doesn’t budge. “OK”, you say to yourself, “I get the picture... he’s walking away, the country is big.... come on, cut to the next scene.” But from Tarr’s perspective you’ve only got half the story. Yes, the man is walking, but it’s a long lonely walk and it takes time for him to make his journey. Real things take time to happen.

While you are stuck behind the camera and the subject is a diminishing dot on the horizon, you start to notice things you might not have seen in a quick jump-cut. The road is wet and rutted, the field has been plowed, there is light and shadow playing in the muddy puddles, the wind is blowing, it’s starting to rain... and so on. By holding his camera for such a long time, Tarr forces us to see the textures of the scene as well. Tarr could have said the same thing with a series of tight shots on all of the above but then we lose the sense of time and space in the figure’s walking journey.

Tarr’s also has a habit of not cutting away when a character leaves a room. The door shuts, the room is empty but the scene rolls on... and on. Again I found myself looking at stuff I would have not noticed otherwise: a peculiar door knob, a water stain on the wall, chipped paint on the door. Meanwhile the sense of how empty the room is begins to bear down on you.

There is an old saw about humor being all about... timing. Tarr has his timing down pat. He seems to know just how long it takes to make you hurt without making the length pointless. I’m reminded of some of Andy Warhol’s experimental films like Sleep (a man sleeping for six hours ) or Empire (The Empire State building seen for eight hours). These are absurdly long films about nothing in particular apart from the concept. This was Warhol’s intention. The closed door in Tar’s empty room stares back at us until it no longer emphasizes the point of having been closed but becomes the subject of the empty room and then Tarr cuts away. Brilliant!

But Satantango is not just about the camera watching paint dry. Tarr has done something in this film (and his later Werckmeister Harmonies) that I’ve never before seen done so well, and that is to depict a convincing air of impending trouble. If you’ve ever been at a riot before it starts, you will recognize the feeling at once. Things are not good and they are going to get worse. In Satantango this ill wind is more in the nature of plotting and betrayal but in Werckmeister the mob actually gets down to throwing bricks. Tarr is a canny student of the human condition. Maybe I should call that the texture of humanity. The fact that he can maintain it for so long leaves me shaking my head in wonder.

And then there is the issue of Bela Tarr’s cat. Yes, Satantango has a cat in distress but Tarr swears that it was his cat and that it survived the film unharmed. On the other hand, in the drunken dance sequence, the actors really were smashed, so who knows about the cat. But I will point out that what was done to the cat was nothing compared to the horse killing scene in Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. At any rate, the cat-killer ends up clutching the dead cat as she dies, a tender touch which I thought softens the cat-tormenting of a few reels earlier.

A case might be made for Satantango being six regular length films as Tarr has broken it into 6 sections. And each can be viewed as a separate episode of a larger film cycle. Seen in that light, the nearly 8 hour length of the film is less intimidating. When taken in smaller bites, you can appreciate how well made each of those “chapters” are. Yet at the end it is still remarkable that the whole film plays so well. When viewed straight through, as Tarr intended, you realize that you have just seen a masterpiece of filmmaking.

Satantango is not for everyone, but if you have ever wondered what the difference is between art and mere entertainment, hold any of the summer’s blockbuster films up to Satantango and see how it fares.

DVD Extras

It would be hard to imagine any serious collection of modern film not including Satantango, but throwing Tarr’s smaller works into the mix sweetens the deal even more. The DVD package from Facets includes Macbeth (1982, 64 mins.). This is Tarr’s interpretation of Macbeth done in two shots, although from where I sat, it looked like just one. Next up is Journey on the Plain (1995, 34 mins.), which features actor Mihaly Vig at the Satantango locations, for when you want more Hungarian desolation. Prologue (2004, 5 mins.) is the director’s contribution to the omnibus Visions of Europe; it offers more human texture, this time in a bread line. There is also a short demo of the restoration process used in the repairing of the film (5 mins.).

Picture and Sound

This is a digitally repaired version of the film that’s wonderful to watch. It’s letterboxed so the subtitles are very clear.

How to Use this DVD

As noted, I watched Satantango over several days and found that each “chapter” is a comfortable viewing experience. But for the real deal, you’ve got to block out a day and let ‘er rip.