Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Damnation: The Power of Vision

The films of Béla Tarr provide the clearest evidence of the transformative power of cinematic art. Taking as his subjects the most desolate, impoverished landscapes (barren fields, crumbling buildings, all cut through with a perpetual rain) and a correspondingly ugly cross-section of humanity, Tarr turns these unlikely filmic elements into objects of keen aesthetic contemplation, producing some of the most powerful images this side of Tarkovsky. Unlike that filmmaker, however, Tarr voids his storylines of any redemptive elements (his would-be prophets - Irimiás, the Prince - all prove false), but offers instead a different form of redemption, located squarely within the physical world which he transforms from desolate patches of ground into aesthetically rich landscapes, offering the viewer new ways of looking at his own surroundings.

In his 1988 film Damnation, Tarr foregrounds the subject of aesthetic contemplation by highlighting his characters' direct participation in the self-conscious act of seeing. The film begins with a long shot of an industrial lift, transporting buckets of coal back and forth from the town's factory. Cutting across an empty field, the lift registers as an anomalous presence and Tarr's lingering camera forces the viewer to reflect on the sheer strangeness of the image (aided by a perpetual squeak on the soundtrack). After several minutes of fixity, the camera slowly pulls back, revealing first a window and then a man's head looking out. What we took to be an objective framing is now revealed to have been a subjective shot from the point of view of Karrer, the film's principal figure. Thus, we are instantly identified with the character in the act of seeing which, Tarr reminds us, is the central act of the filmgoer and an act which has the power to transform a seemingly irredeemable world, if only we look at it the right way.

Throughout the film, the viewer is continually identified with Karrer's gaze. From the character's perpetual contemplation of the coal lift (a running motif) to his surreptitious peerings around hidden corners, Tarr privileges Karrer's vision by allowing it to repeatedly define the audience's visual frame of reference. But if Karrer sees nothing but hopelessness and vanity from his "years and years" of looking through windows, Tarr redeems this vision by offering the viewer something quite different. It is significant that while the viewer's range of vision is often associated with Karrer's, we are given few shots directly from his point of view and rely heavily on objective framings which pointedly disassociate our vision from Karrer's. His gaze may be a necessary structural device, but it has the potential to be misleading. If we associate too closely with his subjective vision, we risk restricting rather than expanding our capacity to see.

In one scene, Karrer peers out over a muddy courtyard and sees his lover's husband park his car and exit with his daughter. If this plot point represents the central event from Karrer's perspective, to the viewer it registers as little more than a minor detail in the mise-en-scène. Tarr asks us to direct our attention instead to the overall landscape which dominates the screen. The courtyard may consist of little besides a mud-caked expanse, an asymmetrical grouping of buildings, all in various states of decomposition, and a heavy and continual rain, but framed in Tarr's deep-space composition and captured in Gábor Medvigy's stark black-and-white cinematography, the filmmakers transform this desolate space into one of the more striking creations in contemporary cinema. If Karrer sees only hopelessness in the landscape, the viewer is granted something like the reverse, a great aesthetic liftoff that empowers him with the transformative power of proper vision, a liftoff granted, not only throughout Damnation, but in each of the director's subsequent films. Ultimately, Béla Tarr teaches his audience how to see its own world. After a sustained engagement with the director's work, the viewer cannot regard his environment with the same indifference; he comes to look on the world as pure aesthetic object.

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