Monday, October 1, 2007

The Man From London

The Man From London is the first film from Béla Tarr that threatens to devolve into a mere formal exercise. Tarr's films were always first and foremost about their formal elements, but in pictures such as Damnation, Satantango and The Werckmeister Harmonies the interest was not confined to Tarr's matchless staging, lighting and camera movements, but was extended to the resultant creation of a narrative, an atmosphere, a self-contained world, all intrinsically enthralling, whose achievements were inseparable from the formal elements that allowed for their conception. In Tarr's latest film (which made its American debut yesterday at the New York Film Festival), the director's masterful manipulation of his materials deftly builds an evocative atmosphere of dark, damp menace but, with its cursory narrative and impenetrable characters treated as a mere formality, the film's interest is confined almost exclusively to the realm of the aesthetic. Still, when Tarr operates at such a high level of formal achievement, the result is a certain breathtaking power unavailable to any other working filmmaker.

Tarr's mastery of the cinematic medium extends to all aspects of production, from lighting (here represented in a pitch black visual conception cut through with occasional swathes of brightness) to arranging the constituent elements in a given mise-en-scène, but nowhere is this mastery more evident than in his choreographing of the elaborate series of camera movements which characterize nearly every sequence in his films. Tarr subtly manipulates his camera to slowly encompass all the spatial components of a given setting, moving invisibly between interiors and exteriors, navigating corridors with ease, leaving one set of characters to follow another, all in unbroken takes lasting up to twenty minutes.

The film's opening scene, which is repeated nearly verbatim towards the end of the picture, establishes Tarr's operational methods. As Maloin (Miroslav Krobot), a harborside railroad switchman, watches from the windows of his switch tower, a boat docked in the harbor discharges its passengers who then board the nearby train to the city. At first, the overhead shot, filmed from the vantage point of the tower, seems to be static, but soon, we realize it is composed of a subtle pan from behind the tower's glass which fixes the scene below in immobility, but allows for the camera's progression (in the screen's foreground) past the panes of glass, with the smudges on the glass and the bars between the panes the only indication of movement. How Tarr achieves this trick (moving foreground, seemingly stationary background) is unclear, but its creation of a queasy simultaneity of motion and stasis is markedly unsettling and introduces a distinct current of unease to the proceedings. After the passengers board the train, the camera swoops down through the glass and follows the train on its initial journey, before stopping and pulling back up into the window. As the shot continues, the camera returns to the window and again pushes outside the watchtower's boundaries, this time coming to rest on the dock by the boat, where Maloin glimpses the film's precipitating action (a squabble over stolen money which leads to murder) and the narrative formally begins. This long segment (and its subsequent repetition near the film's conclusion), apart from illustrating Tarr's technical mastery, notably retards the introduction of the film's plot and indulges in an aesthetically satisfying and (from the point of view of narratological demands) unjustifiable technical showcase before granting reluctant acknowledgment to the chronological necessities of the narrative filmmaker.

As skilled as Tarr is at engaging in carefully manipulated flights of cinematographic fancy, he is equally content to fix his camera and let it linger on a single image, either allowing the audience to take in all the details of a multilayered composition or to absorb the infinite pathos in a single evocative face. He seems particularly fascinated by the face of Ági Szirtes which, while seemingly unremarkable, proves to be capable of great expression through a minimum of exertion. As the wife of a wanted criminal, she is questioned by the police inspector, a long scene that Tarr shoots in a fixed close-up on the silent Szirtes as she listens to the inspector's solicitation of her efforts to locate her husband. The scene begins as a typical traveling shot with the camera roaming through a café before locating the two characters seated at a table, the inspector facing the camera, Szirtes with her back to the viewer. The camera then circles around the actors until it comes to rest firmly on Szirtes' face where it remains for the duration of the scene. As the inspector outlines the parameters of a potential agreement, the actress' deadpan face attempts to maintain its neutrality of expression, but betrays its agitation through the slow accumulation of tears, which eventually stream down her cheeks forcing her to wipe them away. The obvious reference point for this shot may be Falconetti in La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc but, unlike the French actress, Szirtes' air of sadness is more subdued, her face less intrinsically expressive. It is a sadness expressed reluctantly, not freely given into as in Dreyer's film. The sequence is one of the masterful moments in Tarr's picture and, if it fails to carry a real emotional weight (the character was just introduced and her fate would seem to be an matter of indifference to the audience), it is nonetheless a remarkable aesthetic achievement, one of a countless number which constitute the film's great substance.

Perhaps Tarr has finally outgrown the traditional framework required of the narrative filmmaker. In a sense, this may be a regrettable development, since, when his technical mastery is used in the service of a fascinating, self-enclosed world peopled with singular individuals, the director has been able to achieve his greatest work. But, perhaps a new direction in a more experimental vein, where he would be unencumbered by those elements (plot, character) he seems to have outgrown, would better suit Tarr's current filmmaking orientation. The Man From London is in many ways a remarkable film, but its uneasy insistence on combining an essentially non-narrative approach with a underdeveloped narrative framework marks the film as one of the director's least satisfying works. Fortunately, a lesser effort from one of the world's truly great filmmakers still qualifies as a major cinematic event.

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